Dusk on the Heath (Stone Curlew!)

Whilst on the Norfolk/Suffolk border last week for my work experience at the BTO, I took the chance to visit a renowned, yet hard to find heathland nature reserve on the edge of Suffolk. The aim was to head their after work one day until it got dark, in hope of seeing Nightjar or owls. We got more than we had hoped...

We arrived at the heath at around 8:00. The reserve has a dirt track running through the centre of the heathland designed for cars, which allowed us to drive around halfway down and park the car to use as a hide until it got dark. The heath is known for its populations of nightjar, stonechat and stone curlew, with the first being the target species for the evening. For nightjar, we knew we had to wait out until it was almost too dark to see, so in the meantime we watched the bracken and heather for anything else exciting.


One of the first birds we came across was a stonechat, sitting, as they usually do, in a prominent position atop a bush. The individual stayed for a short while, before darting off away from the car, closely followed by a female who appeared from a bush nearby.

Stonechat

As dusk drew closer and closer, and the light began to fade, we caught the crows as they were heading in to roost. They had gathered together in a large flock, and flew over the trees bordering the heath, turning that portion of the sky almost black. 

Roosting crows

This was all good to see, but what we were really hoping for was some good views of some nocturnal or crepuscular animals. And, as we waited for it to get dark, our chance came. Whilst sitting in the car, my dad decided to randomly scan the heath in front of us with his binoculars. And what he picked up was completely unexpected. A pair of Stone Curlew! We certainly hadn't come here with the expectation of seeing a stone curlew - this was a species we didn't think we would see at all on our trips to the heath. Unfortunately, given the low light and distance they were from us, being in a small clearing in the centre of the heathland, our photographs are not as clear as we had hoped. But it was still a great surprise for a short evening's outing.

Some pretty poor photos of the Stone Curlews!

We continued to watch the stone curlews and hear them call until it got almost too dark to see them through our binoculars. At this point, we headed back to the car and started to drive slowly back along the dirt track, hoping, in vain, for a nightjar to be sat on the track in front of us as we headed back to the exit.

We thought the stone curlews were the last excitement we'd get, as it was quickly getting dark and we were heading out of the reserve. But as we reached the last portion of the road which ran past a deep patch of woodland, we heard a strange sound coming from the trees. So were turned off the engine and all the lights, and sat in the car listening to the sound and trying to figure out what it was.

After about a minute of continuing to only hear the mystery animal, it finally revealed itself. A dark figure of a bird swooped out of the darkness and onto the branch right in front of us in the car. A Tawny Owl. A bird I have never seen before at night, when it is at its most active and out hunting. Unfortunately it didn't stay on the branch very long, as I moved too suddenly, causing it to fly onto a branch deeper into the trees, though still in sight.


A Tawny Owl at night
photo by John B Wilson, license, no changes made

We stayed sat in darkness for a bit longer, but the bird eventually flew off back into the trees, still calling. That was most likely the last we would have seen of the bird, so we decided to call it a night.

It was an amazing way to end an amazing night. The stone curlews were a fantastic surprise on our trip to the heath, and the tawny owl at the end was an unexpected addition to the night. Unfortunately, no nightjar, but we were by no means upset, as it had been a successful evening nonetheless.


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