Shriking it Lucky in the Forest of Dean

A well overdue break saw Team Sausage head west for a four day sojourn in the Forest Of Dean, Gloucestershire. From the 11th to the 14th March, our home from home was the superb Stay At The Rock B&B in Coleford. Perfectly located for our planned trips in and around the forest, we couldn’t have picked a friendlier or more suitable base with superb rooms, a perfect breakfast and surrounded by beautiful scenery. The omens were good from the start as a Barn Owl flew straight past us as we pulled into the car park.

We quickly settled in thanks to Lindy and Chris’s super hosting and decided to explore an area of forest immediately across the road from the B&B. With dusk soon approaching, we only had a few hours at most but managed a few discoveries. A noisy Nuthatch was busy tapping away at a tree trunk. We were soon aware that there were several of these birds around us, flitting from tree to tree, tapping and calling. Poor light and their perpetual motion meant pictures eluded us this time. We were both also quite enamoured at the sheer amount of frog spawn settled in what was a fairly shallow and narrow stretch of water in this part of the forest.

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The pictures perhaps don’t convey just how much of this soon-to-be amphibian life there was here. As we zoomed in and out of the spawn we picked up a very still frog just under the water.

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Once we had seen one we started to find more frogs nestled below it. The final tally of motionless amphibians came to five clearly visible individuals but quite possibly more below the water. We believe these to be Common Frogs. It was however the sheer amount of frogspawn that was the eye-opener for us.

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With the late afternoon light fading fast we made our way back to The Rock, but not before having our presence checked by a curious Sika Deer. Frustratingly, it remained just out of focus for a clear shot.

With dinner planned at the White Horse Inn in nearby Staunton, we took a slow drive down the unlit, twisty roads of the forest, eyes peeled for any interesting nocturnal nature. Whilst the journey to dinner was uneventful, the return did see the cars headlights pick out some eye-shine on a totally dark road. As we slowed we were able to see that we had a Wild Boar piglet crossing the road in front of us! It was fleeting and dark but we had no doubt that we had finally had a mostly clear view of the porcine inhabitants of the forest, a perfect way to finish our first day.

Saturday morning greeted us with blue skies, cool but pleasant temperatures and the field in front of us full of Fieldfare. Hearty breakfast consumed, we made our way to our first location of the day, New Fancy View. The site of a former coal mine, the old spoil heap has been used as a spectacular view point across the Forest.

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We had hopes for a few new sightings at New Fancy and conditions were perfect. Reward for the short climb came quickly as several Buzzards rose on the breeze around us. With plenty of Crows and the odd Raven flying past, things were warming up nicely and hopes were raised for a sighting of our target bird, a Goshawk. With scopes and powerful lenses aplenty all scanning horizon and sky ahead of us, there were plenty of eyes to the skies. A Peregrine Falcon cut across the view and just above it was a different shaped raptor. Goshawk came the confirmation from those in the know around us. It may have been far and high but clearly visible and trackable with binoculars until it dipped below the horizon. Our first ever view of one of the UK’s more elusive birds of prey. This spectacular sighting, the ever-present Buzzards and one speedy fly-past by a Crossbill convinced us that we may have peaked at New Fancy view for the morning. We made our way back down the hill and decided to explore the area around the base of the viewing point, where there were signs of Wild Boar activity all around.

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All the damage to the grass seen in the pics is the tell-tale sign of Wild Boar as they dig up the terrain looking for bulbs, roots, insects, pretty much anything goes! We also found some footprints in the still wet mud nearby suggesting perhaps there had been boar here around dawn before we arrived.

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We did finally manage to get a half decent shot of a Nuthatch too, having been teased by several the previous evening.

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We left New Fancy for a look around RSPB Nagshead, which was disappointingly quiet on the bird front, but beautifully serene and calm for a mid-afternoon walk. Several drumming Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Goldfinches and the usual array of Blue and Great Tits were the only sightings of any note.

Sunday’s weather was almost as good as Saturday’s, more sunshine accompanied with cool temperatures. Pretty much perfect spring conditions. Woorgreens Lake is a lovely reserve in the Forest Of Dean, even if particularly muddy and boggy in places. Within Woorgreens is Crabtree Hill, where reports of more interesting birds had been reported consistently in the days prior to our visit. We got off to a good start within a few minutes of entering the reserve with this obligingly perched male Kestrel our first bird of the day.

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We took a rather circuitous route to Crabtree Hill, trying to take in as much of the surroundings as we could. Mrs Sausage found this unfortunate dead Common Frog among more frog spawn.

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Was it sheer exhaustion or a predation attempt that saw this amphibian meet its end?

As we made our way up Crabtree Hill there was already a considerable crowd scene forming, and with good reason too. The bird they and we had come to see was on site and showing. Sadly, the best view we had of the “resident” Great Grey Shrike was as we approached the crowd, it soon moved away for more hunting and the opportunity to take some pictures was gone. We were compensated somewhat with several noisy Stonechat, topping the brush with some regularity.

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On our way down the hill, we bumped into the very friendly and knowledgeable Lewis Thomson from the RSPB. He showed us the tree where the Great Grey Shrike has been impaling prey, and signs of this were very visible.

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Lewis also found a pellet at the base of the tree, expelled by the shrike, post-digestion.

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It was a real bonus to bump into Lewis – in a few minutes we were treated to two bits of cracking knowledge we would have just walked past otherwise. With a few hunting Buzzards and a Lesser Black-backed Gull to add to the day’s sightings we made our way back to New Fancy view for another crack at Goshawks and Crossbills. We managed some very clear views of a distant Goshawk and Mrs Sausage had a fly-by from a Siskin. With a chilly breeze starting to buffer the heights of New Fancy we moved on to our final location of the day, Cannop Wharf.

We chose Cannop Wharf based on the excellent night walk we had there last summer and wanted to explore the area in daylight. It was a good choice as it presented us the best chance of some bird photography so far. There were a good two to three pairs of Mandarin Ducks on the water here, and they always present themselves as attractive camera fodder. Myself and Mrs Sausage both indulged in these colourful fowl.

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Food had also been put out at the wharf and was attracting Blue, Great and Coal Tits, Robins, Dunnock and the occasional Goldfinch and Chaffinch. They may be common birds but with all our “exciting” species being seen at a distance so far it was good to give the cameras a bit of a workout at last.

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Our last night in the forest was perfect, a cloudless sky affording us the opportunity to watch the stars through the skylight in our room; no light or noise pollution at all.

We made the most of our last day in the Forest. Being a Monday it was a little quieter but the weather remained very kind – no need for coats at all as the sun bathed the west country. Top of the targets today was another attempt at the Great Grey Shrike on Crabtree Hill and we were finally rewarded with some not so distant shots.

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There is something quite enigmatic about shrikes. Their size and shape is more akin to a large garden or woodland bird but their reputation as effective predators of insects, small mammals and other birds reminds you that these are genuine birds of prey.

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All these lovely Shrike pics are courtesy of Mrs Sausage.

A very nice three hours in and around Crabtree Hill saw us have some alone time with the Shrike and a possible but unconfirmed sighting of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

Whilst our four day stay was not spectacular on the pictures front we managed to see Sika Deer, Wild Boar, Common Frogs and three new birds for us in the Goshawks, Great Grey Shrike and the brief sighting of a Crossbill. We missed out on two of our target birds, Hawfinches and the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker but this was more than compensated for by being able to spend our days in such wonderful surroundings. From the superb Stay At The Rock B&B to some fabulous dinners and lunches, to wandering around for hours and barely seeing another person to enjoying the sight of a Goshawk soaring over the horizon from New Fancy, we had some unforgettable days in the Forest Of Dean and came away feeling there is much more left to explore another time in the near future.

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