Start date: 10 May 2016
Return date: 13 May 2016
Approximate distance cycled/walked: 125 miles
It seemed like a good idea: to combine a staycation with a bit of birding, exercise, and getting to know NWT nature reserves better in the southern half of the county. May was selected as propitious. I would travel by bicycle and stay at inns on an itinerary starting and ending at my home in Old Costessey.
A good idea, then, except that rain had set in firmly by 9am, and my departure was delayed by the discovery that my telescope tripod –strapped to my back in a triangular back-pack - started knocking on my cycle helmet as soon as I pulled out of the drive.
I finally arrived at the Wayland Wood car park, wet through. I changed into walking boots, set off pushing my bike around the reserve (bear in mind that I had paniers laden with luggage - an easy target for opportunists, if left unattended). I bumped into two NWT employees endeavouring to get their vehicle out of a muddy rut. They had been removing copious quantities of ash from the burning of coppiced timber: no market, apparently, because the ‘ash’ can be contaminated with refuse – a bittersweet consequence of public access? I saw a few others, mostly dog-walkers, with dogs ‘on’ and ‘off’ leads.
I finally reached Thompson Common, but couldn’t get my ‘push-bike’ through the narrow gate intoo the NWT-controlled areas. So instead I took the Pingo trail to the south of the Common, eventually coming across an NWT sign to Thompson Water. A mysteriously quiet and secluded water body. Warblers chirping everywhere. Mostly, it was the sight of coot dotted about on the water on their nests, which was special. Swans, too, and a couple of Canada Gees flying in, making a lot of noise. This seemed like a natural place, and a cuckoo heralded its presence before I left.
It is clear to me that the secrets of the Breckland Reserves reveal themselves reluctantly. Hockham Fen, for instance: although only a few kilometres only from Chequers Inn where I had stayed, it took half an hour and conversations with several dog walkers finally to discover what I think must have been the ‘Viewing Point’ referred to in the Reserves Handbook. That said, however, the view over the mire against a misty backdrop of trees, was very tranquil – a perfect setting for the ducks, geese, swans and egrets that gradually revealed themselves.
Thence to East Wretham Heath. Access to the reserve areas is via specially large cattle gates, thank goodness! I could get my bike in (to push it) to the Hide. What struck me at East Wretham was the extraordinary number of corvids – black dots all over the heath and noisy crowds in the plantation. The sound of a cuckoo, and warblers near the hide, but not much else in evidence.
I took the Drove Road west as it seemed the most direct route connecting with the road to Lynford. Quite difficult riding – constantly up and down, deep ruts, puddles and soft ground. Cuckoos en route.
Weeting Visitor Centre: arriving ca. 3.30pm – at last the rainfall seems to be over - bedraggled, hot, wet, desperately thirsty, and – I fear –wiffy! Sophie, the Centre Manager, gave me some pointers, allowed me to lock up my bike securely, and off I set. I was struck by touches like the raked paths through the trees to the hides and, especially, to the Forest Walk, which I took.
Saw two Stone Curlew from the West Hide, and was pleased to be able to show them to the ladies already in the hide through the telescope I had carried on my back from Norwich - some justification for the effort. An iPhone was the only camera but an attachment allowed me to use it in conjunction with the telescope. Visibility was poor and the floor of the hide prone to vibration, so the photographic results were correspondingly poor.
My most interesting spotting announced itself first as a loud song in the bush next to the visitor centre. I poked my head slowly into the bush, as the song continued. This was a lower register, more varied song than the Goldcrest. Finally, at 1.5m distance, I could clearly see the greenish back, and the yellow-orange head-stripe... a Firecrest. A UK first for me!
The ride from Thetford to East Harling via the Forest was delightful: Forestry Commission Forest Holiday Camps from time to time. The final leg via Quidenham to New Buckenham was positively alive with yellowhammers, singing their song (sometimes without ‘cheese’) and regularly displaying on the bushes beside the road.
New Buckehham Common: thankfully, possible to push a bike around the Common, and to negotiate the cattlegate at the crossing over the stream. I explored the north side only, including the main pond, buttercups, orchids (including the green-winged orchid) and various water plants. Saxifrange and Cowslips but not many showing birds. Linnet? A pair of Greylag Geese looking very much at home, and an egret flew in just as I was leaving.
My route to Lower Wood, Ashwellthorpe took me NE along lanes between low hedgerows and directly into the wind, which made the going difficult. On one leg, I was again accompanied by yellowhammers.
At the Wood, I was able to get my bike through the gate, and do the ‘nature trail’ circuit –Wild garlic (Ramsons) everywhere, along with bluebells and early purple orchid. Blackcap and chiffchaff singing. A great spotted woodpecker and maybe a flycatcher. Evidence of coppicing, and – of course – the area of new hornbeam planting protected by an electric fence.
From Lower Ashwellthorpe Wood, I cycled northeast to Hethel Church to view the country’s smallest nature reserve; Hethel Old Thorn. The interpretation panel was partly obscured by (what I assume was) cow parsley.
So that concluded my visits to eight NWT sites, and all that remained was the cycle ride home. I would definitely consider doing it again, but next time making enquiries beforehand about ease of access for bicycles (for pushing, not cycling). I would also reconsider my method of carrying the tripod!