Sunday, 4 November 2018

18. RSPB Minsmere

Reeds rustling in the November wind, their purple-grey seed heads shimmering in the low sun, waving to the rhythm of the breeze greeted us at RSPB Minsmere. Small birds kept a low profile, sheltering, and Bittern Hide appeared lifeless in a beautiful panorama of golden light and reflection. The unseasonably warm day brought common darters out to sunbathe on wooden benches and swarm together over the land, the last of their dragonfly-kind on the wing this year; they paved our way to Island Mere Hide.

This hide was alive with birds and human visitors alike. Over the bright water, swans paddled, whilst marsh harriers danced in the distance. A bittern, overly confiding and confident, appeared straight in front of the hide. These usually elusive birds I usually only glimpse through dense reeds, or hear their booming calls in spring, but this was something else entirely. The piercing yellow eye and beautiful golden-brown-black-white barred plumage, perfectly echoing the dancing reeds behind, demonstrating cryptic colouration working flawlessly for this little heron.

In contrast, the Canopy Hide gave us only trees for company, although their chorus was beautiful to listen to and their changing colours and tumbling leaves were a feast for the eyes in themselves. Although our avian friends seemed to be avoiding the tree tops, lower in the canopy we stumbled across a mixed flock of chatty little birds; blue-, great- and long tailed tits called and hunted for insects in a little gang, one in particular being very successful at finding moths on the bark. A rabbit with tatty ears feasted on fallen blackberries on the ground, whilst squirrels continued on their never-ending mission of finding and caching their winter stores.

The sea, high and rippled with waves that never seemed to reach the shore, was brisk, with the dunes providing us with some shelter as we battled with sand to reach the East Hide. A stone chat, characteristically perching on the tips of small twigs, accompanied us as the light began to drain from the sky at mid-afternoon. Teal, wigeon, shoveler, shelduck, gadwall and other wildfowl huddled down on the little islands, others preening or fighting out on the water. Similar critters could be found at South Hide, with a particularly stunning shoveler showing off his iridescent green head and neck smothered in water droplets from his dabbling.

Monday, 20 August 2018

A Dragonfly and Butterfly Safari at Strumpshaw Fen

It was a mild, cloudy and windy day; nothing like the scorching, calm weather we’ve gotten used to, so we weren’t overly optimistic about how many of our spectacular aerial display masters we would find on our dragonfly and butterfly safari at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen. Luckily, the cooler weather meant the smaller species were less quick on the wing so Andy from Butterfly Conservation Norfolk, who was leading the walk, was able to quickly net a common blue damselfly less than five minutes in to point out the identifying features. I’ve always loved dragonflies, but I’m still getting to grips with identification techniques, so this was extremely useful, especially for the tricky-to-tell-apart blues. The common has a dot on ‘S2’, the second abdominal segment, whereas an azure, which we didn’t find, has a U-shape. Our next find was a holly blue butterfly enjoying some bramble flowers, unfussed by the small group of interested naturalists keenly watching it crawl.

Common blue damselfly
Holly blue butterfly
This was shortly followed by a willow emerald damselfly, our next catch, even more beautiful up close, this damselfly is a relatively recent colonist here and has spread incredibly quickly.

Willow emerald damselfly
Ruddy darters kept themselves out of reach, perching on tall sticks or staying out over the water to prevent us sneaking up on them. Andy did manage to catch one later, however, to point out its characteristics. More keenly ‘waisted’ than a common darter; this was obvious when in the hand as an identifying feature of this species rather than just going by colour.

Ruddy darter
Southern hawkers I’ve always thought of as an impressive and curious dragonfly, but the female that was netted really impressed. Not at all happy with being caught, she valiantly tried to gnaw her way free, showing the movement in her jaw as she tried to pierce the skin. Up close, this is clearly a robust dragonfly with strong flight muscles and beautiful eyes.

Female Southern hawker
A pretty emerald damselfly was our next catch, really unimpressed with being caught, he curled his abdomen over his back in an attempt to tell us to leave him alone.

Emerald damselfly
Spotting a brown hawker that was far too high to even attempt to reach and several migrant hawkers running rings around us brought our dragonfly total to seven for the afternoon. However, the show wasn’t quite over yet. For a finale, Andy spotted a male southern hawker in the hedge and managed to catch it to show us the colour variation between male and female. This individual had beautiful green-blue eyes and an ‘expression’ that seemed to show how angry it was at being caught.

Male Southern hawker
For anyone interested in dragonflies, I would highly recommend this event – the next is in June 2019. 

Saturday, 4 August 2018

17. SWT Carlton Marshes

Brought to my attention via social media when the American bittern made a visit to this reserve, we finally decided to pay it a visit ourselves. On a day with weather that has become commonplace this summer, with glaring sunshine and a temperature of around 30°, we walked the full trail around Carlton Marshes. A stunning landscape, somehow even flatter and with even more views of the horizon than similar reserves in Norfolk. We primarily visited for dragonflies, with plenty of brown hawkers on the wing and a few emerald damselflies, and I was pleased to find my first small red-eyed damselflies, their eyes almost glowing demonically from their turquoise and metallic brown bodies. Males mate-guarded, clasped fast to the females as they oviposited and a female brown hawker joined in, submersing most of her long abdomen to lay her large eggs into underwater plant material.

Emerald damselfly
Small red-eyed damselflies
Plenty of butterflies were enjoying the Sun too, with bright and fresh red admirals accompanied by other slightly more worn individuals. Gatekeepers and meadow browns fluttered along the waterside vegetation, accompanied by plenty of whites. A peacock butterfly, having seen better days, rested for a while and I had to avoid treading on a skipper.

Any small birds remained quiet, but a number of raptors obliged. A common buzzard soared on thermals, whilst a daring kestrel held its ground on a post until the last second as we approached. As we watched the kestrel, a marsh harrier glided low overhead, showing off its blackened wing tips and pale head as it turned.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

A summer walk at Strumpshaw Fen

There were plenty of majestic dragons and fluttering damsels at a very muggy Strumpshaw Fen on Sunday. Newly emerged dragons lifted from the meadow trail as we walked, their fresh and filmy wings glistening in the harsh sunlight, mostly darters that were not yet developed enough (for me) to identify. Common and ruddy darters appeared and just as quickly disappeared, whilst brown hawkers patrolled, hunted and buzzed at us when we lingered too long. Common and blue tailed damselflies alighted on upright stems off the paths and waterways and a Southern hawker eventually obliged by settling on dead leaves, possibly trying to blend in. Black tailed skimmers always kept a step ahead of us on the paths near fen hide, settling again and lifting off as we approached, rarely realising we would just keep getting closer again.

Black-tailed skimmer
Southern hawker

Vivid butterflies were also out in force, some dark mysteries until opening their wings. Peacocks and red admirals littered the waterside brambles, contrasting with the green foliage. Small and other ‘whites’ were everywhere, like large petals of blossom alighting, then being blown by a spring breeze. The odd small tortoiseshell and speckled wood settled and showed off. Never before had I noticed how furry speckled woods are, usually they are moving too quickly through dappled woodland, chasing their competitors or potential mates.

Red admiral
Small tortoiseshell
Speckled wood

The birds were mostly quiet, with most now being in eclipse. An obliging kingfisher at Fen Hide decided to show off with a long bath and preening session as we watched, in little hurry. Here, a little egret also danced whilst trying to spear fish. Tower hide held a handful of ducks, young and begging black headed gulls and a couple of moulting ruff. There was no sign of the reported great white egrets from the previous day. However, the dragonflies and butterflies certainly made up for it – I’m now looking forward to their butterfly and dragonfly safari next month!

Sunday, 6 May 2018

16. NWT Foxley Wood

The Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Foxley Wood is a place we have visited many times, but this is the first visit since we started our challenge. The largest remaining area of ancient woodland in Norfolk, it has an amazing array plant and pollinator species, including ancient woodland indicator species.

It was one of these species that we had come to see in its full glory today: native English bluebells. The walk is always boggy and wet underfoot, but if you can persevere, it is well worth the effort. Little clumps of blue nodding heads herald what lies ahead, along with other pretty wildflowers, such as cuckoo flower and water avens, with its delicate flowers atop tall sinewy stems, their yellow anthers just visible under a cloak of dark red sepals. Then there are the showy blossoms of various trees in the Rosaceae family, pink and white clusters irresistible to bees and their allies. More blue and purple blooms came from the upright flower spikes of bugle. As the blue tide began to swell, the bluebells were joined by greater stitchwort, tiny white flowers with five bifurcated petals. An out-of-place red campion stood tall and proud to be different above the sea of blue. Reaching the pinnacle of the ocean swamping the ground, hugging the trees, the fragrance of English bluebells is almost too much, but subtle enough that I could have happily stood forever in that sea, listening to the choir of woodland birds, breathing in the smell and gazing at all of those individual blue heads melting into one huge blue wave.

Water avens
Great tit
Red campion
Bugle and water avens

Sunday, 15 April 2018

A trip to the Cairngorms: Day 3 Wildlife Safari

To try to spot as many Cairngorm specialities as possible, we decided to book a full day with Highland Wildlife Safaris, and it was well worth it! By the end of an 11 hour day, we had seen at least 50 bird and 8 mammal species. We visited a variety of habitats, so many that I couldn’t even begin to describe where we were, nor would I be able to as, quite rightly, our guide didn’t wish to publicise the locations to protect the landscape and wildlife from too many visitors.
We had an early start, 5:00 am, to visit a black grouse lek up on a misty moor side. We watched as four male birds displayed their white bloomers to each other and inflated their red eye crests in aggression. Red grouse joined the scene, calling and landing all around. The eerie sound of a curlew calling across the landscape was accompanied by the ghostly shape of a short eared owl gliding over us.

Red and roe deer, rabbits and brown hares watched our vehicle from neighbouring fields. Woodcock took flight from the verges, white forms in the headlights disappearing into the gloom. Our next stop was a large loch looking for divers, but on the mirror-like loch were goldeneye and mallard iridescent in the morning light.

Moving on to Cairngorm, a pair of whooper swan on another loch caught our eye, their reflections perfect in the placid water. A red grouse greeted us in Cairngorm car park astride a picnic bench. Here, we listened and looked for ring ouzel and it didn’t take long for them to find us. The males were calling and tussling from the Cairngorm welcome sign. They had a song thrush and many meadow pipits for company, all giving their best at a little after dawn.

Our next stop was a very close view of the nest of a beautiful pair of osprey, and, as luck would have it, the male was present for a few minutes before heading off for his breakfast at a local fishery. As he left, a grey heron glided in on huge dark wings and we noticed a pair of great tits nesting in a signal post.

From one loch to another, we went in search of a newly arrived Slavonian grebe. A species I have never seen before, it’s glowing golden eyebrows were amazing above a startling blood red eye. Defending its food source, it chased away a pair of little grebes and continually dived under the surface to fish.

Driving from this loch to an upland glen, we encountered a small herd of sika deer and an unusually brazen woodcock sitting in the sunshine in a driveway. As we stopped, it slowly moved, bobbing its way into the long grass. A grey wagtail wagged on rocks in the river and a dipper nesting under a bridge foraged, dipping on rocks and diving in the river. There were so many birds of prey in this glen, buzzards and kestrels came into view and the impressively hefty form of a goshawk, another first for us. Well camouflaged against the lichen and moss encrusted boulders, male wheatears lined the road that we had to try to and avoid more migrating toads on. Reaching our destination, we soon spotted a number of patchy mountain hares chasing each other up and down the slopes, their disproportionately long and strong back legs giving them a great deal of speed.

On our journey to our next stop we came across a whole herd of red deer stags, the first time we had seen impressive antlered males. They stared us out as we approached and a couple decided to put on a show and have a short boxing match. An upland moor was where we heading where we had lovely views of red grouse, their beautiful colours standing out in the afternoon sunlight in the crispy heather. Unsuccessfully we searched for divers in the loch, but we were not disappointed by the huge variety of species we had already seen. Instead, a confident red shank dabbled at the edge or the loch right next to us. For a final flourish on our way back to our accommodation, we happened across a group of ravens mobbing a red kite and a buzzard. Ravens were another first for us and I was impressed by their size and heavy duty beaks.

We had an amazing time and saw so much, I would thoroughly recommend this for anyone visiting the area and wanting to see as much wildlife as possible in a diverse range of habitats.

A trip to the Cairngorms: Day 2 Abernethy

Today started out with patchy cloud and sunshine, but by the afternoon it was constant drizzle. We began at RSPB Loch Garten and the Osprey Centre. The ospreys weren’t showing, but there were dozens of chaffinches and siskins battling for pole position on the feeders.

We walked from the Osprey Centre to Loch Garten and Loch Mallachie; chaffinches and coal tits were everywhere in the surrounding forests. Like our walk through Rothiemurchus, again there were common toads everywhere. Some alone, some mating and some groups a mixture of the two. Greylags flew in noisily to the small island on Loch Mallachie, but the loch was otherwise quiet, calm and clear.

Walking through the beautiful pine forests, I noticed the diverse understorey flora, so different to the forests and woods I’m used to exploring. They were full of fluffy and bouncy looking mosses, among other things and, of course, the wispy lichens hugging the trees. We could hear many goldcrests but only caught one glimpse of this tiny and quick little bird on a small trail towards Boat of Garten. It was at this point there was a sudden aggregation of birds; great tits, goldcrest, a tree creeper and more chaffinches.

Returning to the Osprey Centre through the drizzle, it was very quiet. All woodland birds seemed to have gone into hiding as we made our way back through the forest. However, the feeding station at the Osprey Centre was even more active than earlier in the day; bolshie siskins trying to push the chaffinches from the feeders, determined despite their smaller stature. A brambling brightening the sea of chaffinches with his stripes, a woodpecker feasting on peanuts and many fast moving coal tits; no ospreys today, but we held our hopes out for our wildlife safari the next day.