The West Suffolk Birders’ quest for 200 species in 2017

“Back in 2016 Bird Watching Magazine promoted the idea of ‘My 200 Bird Year’ (#My200BirdYear) for birders of all ages and abilities. This was attractive to me as a way to invigorate my birding and to also add a numerical ‘challenge’ to my bird watching. As I do not own a car and enjoy travelling on foot and bike, I decided to add my own new twist to ‘My 200 Bird Year’ by focussing solely on my home county and geographical recording area of West Suffolk (Watsonian vice-county 26). I floated this idea with friends on a local group and one, Chris Gregory, was similarly keen and also took up the challenge. 2017 was a great year for West Suffolk birding, but it became apparent part way through the year that even in an exceptional year like this it would be incredibly difficult for one individual to see 200 species. In the end it became a collaborative effort helped a great deal by local birders passing on their records and vital information about sightings. Whilst my total of 170 species fell short of the 200 target a challenge should be just that – challenging. Crucially I thoroughly enjoyed the birding and corresponding with fellow West Suffolk Birders.”

Jonny Rankin. 

“When one thinks about birding in west Suffolk, characteristic Breckland species such as Stone Curlew, Nightjar and Woodlark or perhaps forest specialities such as Goshawk and Crossbill usually come to mind. But there is so much more to birding in this region and with the creation of sites such as Lakenheath Fen, we now have some really valuable wetland habitats in an otherwise comparatively dry region. Today, species such as Bittern, Marsh Harrier and Bearded Tit which were scarce or largely absent from this area in the past, are pretty much guaranteed in this land-locked region. In addition to this, other sites such as Lackford Lakes and Micklemere have a great record of attracting waders and waterbirds, so when Jonny came up with this ambitious target there was cautious optimism among local birders! Here’s how the challenge unfolded month by month.”

Chris Gregory.

Waxwing1 credit Jonny Rankin

Waxwing – copyright Jonny Rankin

The year got off to a flying start when a male Snow Bunting previously seen at the end of 2016 was (re)discovered in a large Linnet flock near Cavenham.  This was quickly followed by another Breckland rarity, a Dartford Warbler on a heathland site. A number of scarce species were also overwintering in the region at this time, including a small flock of White-fronted Geese and a drake Smew near the Essex border and two Great Grey Shrikes in the Suffolk Brecks.  At the end of the first week news came out that a flock of 10 Waxwings had been seen in Bury St Edmunds. The flock initially frequented trees around the bus station before moving off to Western Way where they remained until the end of the month, peaking briefly at 14 birds.  A wayward Brent Goose was spotted on Lakenheath Airfield before the second rarity of the year, a Little Bunting, was found by a local birder in a finch flock at Knettishall Airfield.  Another potential rarity was found at Newmarket a few days later, but what was initially considered to be a possible Orphean Warbler was eventually identified as a Lesser Whitethroat. Still an intriguing January record!  Attentions then turned to an industrial estate at Thetford where an immature Iceland Gull and immature Glaucous Gull had been picked out amongst the large gull flock there.  Elsewhere, three Cranes and three Great Egrets were seen at Lakenheath Fen and in the final week of a memorable month, a lone Whooper Swan was discovered near Culford.

07 Iceland Gull2 credit Jonny Rankin

Iceland Gull – copyright Jonny Rankin

After a frenetic four weeks, February was comparatively quiet by comparison, but scarce species such as Tundra Bean Goose, Ruff and Mediterranean Gull were all good local finds.  As were three increasingly tricky species – Goosander, Lesser-spotted Woodpecker and Crossbill.

March got underway with sightings of several more scarce species, including Hawfinch, Red-crested Pochard, Jack Snipe, Dunlin and Avocet.  A visiting RSPB group were lucky enough to see a Black-bellied Dipper on the river at Santon Downham bridge on March 23rd but unfortunately it was not seen again. The first harbingers of spring started to arrive towards the end of the month in the form of a handsome drake Garganey and an early Little Gull, both at Livermere Lake.

April was generally sunny and dry and the fine weather brought with it more rarities. A White Stork of uncertain origin was seen in the south of the region close to the Essex border and a few days later a (truly wild) Glossy Ibis was found at Lakenheath Fen.  A party of eight Avocets found at Gifford’s Hall Flash near Stoke–by-Nayland were part of an influx of this species into the region at this time.  There was a flurry of excitement mid-month when an American Herring Gull, a national mega, was identified in a gull flock near Great Livermere. Unfortunately the bird, an immature, did not hang around and was only seen by a handful of observers.  A second Dartford Warbler was found a few days later at Cavenham Heath NNR along with a fine male Ring Ouzel.  Additional notable sightings in late April included Whimbrel, Black Tern, Black Redstart and a second Glossy Ibis at Micklemere.

Migration got into full swing in May, helped by the continuing fine weather.   During the first week an Osprey drifted over West Stow Country Park and another White Stork was spotted in a field by the A11 at Elveden.  There was the usual annual gathering of Hobbies at Lakenheath Fen which peaked at an amazing 60 birds on May 14th.  A local birder living on an estate on the edge of Bury St Edmunds had a pleasant surprise when two Hawfinches visited his birdfeeder one morning, but they did not reappear. Lakenheath Fen then took centre stage with a remarkable run of scarce species during the second week.  A singing Savi’s Warbler and two Black-winged Stilts were quickly followed by a singing Marsh Warbler and a Spoonbill.  Other species of note in the region included a full summer-plumaged Black-necked Grebe at Livermere Lake, and a delightful Wood Warbler in full song at Brandon.  By the end of the month the majority of the common migrants had arrived and the number of wader species recorded was well into double figures. 

In the first week of June there was a report that a Little Bittern had been seen briefly in flight and later heard ‘barking’ at Lakenheath Fen, but with no further reports its identity could not be confirmed.  A Quail was heard calling on a private estate at Icklingham, and at Gifford’s Hall Flash two pairs of Avocets fledged young, the first breeding record for this species in west Suffolk.  Last but not least, a Serin landed briefly in a garden on the outskirts of Bury St Edmunds, only the second time this species has been recorded in the region.

Notable reports from July included a Honey Buzzard at Denston and a Black Kite at Long Melford.  A ‘probable’ Pratincole species was seen tantalisingly briefly at Gifford’s Hall Flash, around the time one was seen on the Suffolk coast.  Unfortunately it was chased off by gulls before a positive identification was possible.  More scarce species such as Wood Sandpiper and Turtle Dove were also recorded this month.

August was relatively quiet but did produce another regional rarity in the form of a male Bluethroat, which was caught and ringed at Lakenheath Fen.  A Whinchat was also finally added to the year list and an exceptional wader passage resulted in the yearly total increasing to 25 species.

September produced few new species, but a juvenile Gannet flying over Thetford was an unexpected bonus.  At the beginning of October a lone Barnacle Goose and nine Pink-footed Geese at Micklemere provided some interest but the arrival of a Pectoral Sandpiper at the same site shortly afterwards proved to be far more popular.  On a more sobering note, this month saw the only west Suffolk record of Willow Tit for 2017, at Lakenheath Fen.

Parrot Crossbills credit Jonny Rankin

Parrot Crossbills – copyright Jonny Rankin

After the excitement early in the year the second winter period was always likely to be less productive, and so it turned out.  November was fairly uneventful until a flock of Parrot Crossbills was discovered just over the border at St Helen’s Picnic Site, Santon Downham.  Fortunately, the birds made frequent forays across to the Suffolk side of the river to drink!  The flock remained in the vicinity until the end of the year.   

Summary

It was fortuitous that Jonny came up with the idea of doing the Bird Race Challenge in 2017 as it turned out to be an exceptional year for birds in west Suffolk.  No fewer than 18 regional rarities were recorded as well as a new species for the county.  It was also noteworthy as being the first year that Avocets bred in the region.  Inevitably there were a few species that ‘got away’, including the putative Little Bittern and ‘Pratincole’ species. As the White Storks were both deemed ‘escapes’ by SORC and the Honey Buzzard was not accepted they are not included in the total.

As Jonny alluded to earlier, the target could not have been achieved without collaboration and the cooperation of local birders who helped us collectively achieve a final total of 200. If anyone is interested in seeing the list you can reach it via a link on the SOG web site. 

Jonny Rankin and Chris Gregory

2017 Species List final