My first visit to Lakenheath was back in 2005 when I was desperate to see Golden Oriole at this site, this was before the visitor centre and toilets had been built and much of the reserve habitat was still being improved. I recall the day itself was very hot with great views of Marsh Harrier, Hobby and Cuckoo and eventually a few good glimpses of male Golden Orioles flying through the popular plantations, the views were brief but hearing it's fluty call more than made up for it not showing particularly well. My everlasting memory from the day would be despite the fact that the Golden Oriole is a bright yellow and jet black bird they can be a bugger to see.
A very close friend of mine has a son who has taken a bit of an interest in birding and of course soon found the Golden Oriole page in his bird guide, taking an immediate liking to this species he has been asking me to take him to see one since last autumn and I promised as soon as they returned this summer we'd take a visit to Lakenheath. Each time I visited them he asked me if they were there yet and when we would be going, that then followed by him telling me he'd seen them on their bird feeders so I guess you can say he was rather enthusiastic. Despite him continually asking throughout October, November, December, January and February I managed to quell his excitement until the Orioles arrived and then arranged the trip to Lakenheath and then on to Weeting Heath.
We seemed to have picked the warmest day of the year so far and left with clear blue skies beckoning us towards the fens. We arrived at Lakenheath in very good time and an already busy reserve car park, after parking up we made our way to the visitor centre to have a quick look around and check the sightings board. We left the visitor centre and were soon greeted by the chattering calls of Sedge & Reed Warbler along with a few Reed Bunting from the reeds next to the path, this continued along the path right up to New Fen viewpoint and we had some exceptional views as the birds actively sang amongst the reeds. I really love this time of year when the once cold quiet winter reed beds suddenly come to life with bird song and activity, most of all from the warbler species that sing almost constantly and flit between the reed stems. Hobbies swift-like in their flight hawk overhead and the final part to the birders quintessential English summer, the Cuckoo. We hadn't gone 500yrds and there was so much going on around us it was difficult to know where to look at times, we came to a halt to watch a very vocal Sedge Warbler clinging to the top of the reeds right next to the path, it didn't seemed bothered by us and continued to chatter away right up to the point where I got my camera out and then it dropped in to the reeds. I waited for a few minutes and managed to get a few photos as others appeared and disappeared around me but I wasn't so lucky with the Reed warblers which were skulking low down in the reeds, I was tempted to go back towards the visitor centre and try where they were showing much better but there was no way my little birding buddy was going to let me steer him away from the Orioles.
New Fen viewpoint
We continued along the path towards New Fen viewpoint now hearing and seeing the odd Common Whitethroat around the scrub next to the railway track, a Cuckoo then flew over giving us great views which my friends were certainly pleased with, the clear blue skies really gave us great views and with 2 possibly 3 calling I hoped we might get better views of one perched up at some point. We continued passed the New Fen viewpoint and on towards Trial Wood with the calls of a male Cuckoo coming from the wood next to us, it was so close but obscured by the tree canopy so we decided to see if we could get a closer view by taking the footpath south towards the Railway track. We hadn't gone far when the unmistakable fluty calls of a Golden Oriole came from the same wood, we stopped in our tracks and listened scanning the trees whilst waiting for it's next call which it did at regular intervals but it was impossible to find. We edged our way along the path listening to both Golden Oriole and Cuckoo as we went, still no luck seeing either and after a couple of minutes the Oriole stopped calling. The Cuckoo or should I now say Cuckoo's flew in to the trees above us, firstly a male which perched in the tree tops above us quickly followed by a Rufous coloured female which was soon partly obscured in the trees, then from nowhere another male flew in to join the others. The males began calling to the female to which she replied with her bubbling chuckle, this continued for a few minutes allowing me time to get a few photos before they flew off one by one towards the last popular plantation. We were all very pleased at such good views and I actually managed to get a few good photos which was added bonus, fantastic birds and to see 3 together was a great moment.
We followed the path along to the third plantation where right on cue a male golden oriole began to call, waiting patiently with a small group of people we scanned the poplars. The male showed briefly a couple of times as it flew between the popular stands but certainly not great views, it continued to sing on and off for over an hour and in which time Hants & Berks birder Andy Johnson had turned up. After waiting for the Oriole to appear and discussing the berks bird race that we had both taken part in a week before it was time for us to head off, I said goodbye to Andy and back towards the visitor centre we heeded with a fly over Hobby passing us near New Fen. The calls of Common whitethroat, Sedge and Reed Warbler still going ten to the dozen and yet another Cuckoo sighting overhead. I was certainly impressed at how the reserve has matured, the visitor centre is very nice and of course the staff are very friendly. Big thumbs up from me for RSPB Lakenheath and although we didn't get to see the Orioles up close the visit was well worth it.
After leaving Lakenheath we headed for nearby Weeting Heath with the hope of seeing Stone Curlew, although having visited before I did have my doubts as the heat would certainly give off a certain amount of heat haze and unless the birds were in close it would be difficult to get good views. From the west hide a Stone Curlew was spotted far off in the distance, more of a shimmering blur than anything recognisable but eventually as the temperature cooled and the bird moved it became more evident. We left the hide meeting a group of people watching another Stone curlew on the far side of the road, again shrouded in heat haze but this time more distinguishable than the last view. The day was very rewarding especially with the close views of Cuckoo at Lakenheath, I never tire of watching these fascinating birds and lets hope the current decline can be overturned, just imagine an English summer without the iconic call of the Cuckoo!!!