Sunday, 12 June 2011

Going for gold

Looking hard for Golden Orioles at their British stronghold of Lakenheath RSPB, Suffolk.
It’s been a few years since I visited Lakenheath RSPB reserve, Britain’s only publicised breeding site for Golden Orioles. So with July’s Birdwatch now at the printers, I made time to return to the site this weekend and see whether I could almost literally strike gold. The last report of the Rare Birds Breeding Panel (British Birds 103: 482-538) gives a 2008 figure of between two and eight pairs of this Schedule 1 species at four sites nationally, of which Lakenheath is the most important. This year there is a pair and another male there, but as always with orioles, it’s much easier to hear them than see them.

Farmland at Lakenheath has been successfully turned back into true wet fen habitat.
I was on site around 9.30 am and birding along the trail by a suitable area of poplars when I first heard a male call. It’s a lovely, fluty call evocative of warm, early mornings in spring. Picking a bird out in the dense poplar canopy seemed like an impossible task, as a rather large gathering of observers was already finding, but by chance I noticed a couple farther along the track looking rather intently at a particular spot. On investigating, I was amazed to see they were watching a male Golden Oriole rather distantly but out in the open, foraging in low branches just a few feet about the ground - perhaps was looking for caterpillars. It flew a short distance to the right, but we picked it up again, still showing well. I called everyone over and tried to line it up in a scope, whereupon the bird promptly disappeared.

In due course, most of the assembled crowd managed to get 'record shot' looks at what I suspect was a different male, perched in the canopy and partly obscured by a tree trunk away from where we had the first sighting. This time I did manage to line it up in a scope, but even then not all of those who looked were able to pick it out. These birds are beautiful and frustrating in equal measure.

Marsh Harriers are everywhere at Lakenheath, with occasional birds like this male showing very well.
Water Voles watch out ...
With the main target bird achieved, I spent a couple more hours on site sampling some other interesting species which seem to do well at Lakenheath, among them Bittern, Marsh Harrier, Hobby, Water Rail, Turtle Dove, Cuckoo, Bearded Tit and seven warbler species, including Cetti’s (and the underrated Garden Warbler). Common Cranes are apparently still on the reserve but rather less visible while breeding, but four Stone-curlews nearby rounded off an excellent trip.

Hobbies are often seen catching dragonflies over the site, and last month up to 65 together were reported.
Also good to see several familiar faces and meet a few new ones, including some blog followers (hello again!) and also Stuart White, finder of last winter’s Northern Harrier in Norfolk (apparently now accepted by the Rarities Committee – an excellent find).

For more on Golden Orioles, I recommend David Callahan’s excellent Birdwatch article from June 2009 (204: 42-45) and the Poyser species monograph. And finally, in the absence of oriole pics from this trip, I offer you the following image, a record shot but an amazing feat in the circumstances - taken by 'digibinning' a fly-over bird at Stoke Newington Reservoir in London on 12 May 2006. All credit to photographer Mark Pearson, to whom I'm also grateful for the tip-off - it's still the only Golden Oriole I've seen in London.

A Golden Oriole shares the skies over Inner London with a passenger jet. This remarkable photo
was taken by 'digibinning', a difficult skill. © Mark Pearson (


  1. Golden Oriole, Red-backed Shrike, Roller, Spoonbill, all birds I can only dream of seeing over here in land-locked land... It's so quiet over here! A Spotted Flycatcher would make my day at the moment - struggling to find one in Surrey this year.

    The blog is as excellent as always, Dominic. Good excuse to give the mag a plug, too!

  2. Thanks Factor - and no apologies for the magazine plugs! Hope you manage to turn up something decent in Surrey soon. How about a Red-foot hawking high over one of the heaths this summer? I wouldn't bet against it ...



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