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.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

A trip to the Cairngorms: Day 1 Rothiemurchus

This is our second trip to the Cairngorms, we enjoyed it so much last year, we decided to come back in search of more wildlife, fresh air and great walks.

The most amazing thing about walking in this general area is the sheer abundance of lichen dripping from almost every tree – spiky, filamentous, hairy; the diversity and volume of this green fuzz is phenomenal. That, and being surrounded by almost constant bird song shows what an incredible place this is. Great, blue and coal tits, the latter a less shy and retiring and seemingly much more abundant bird than in Norfolk. Chaffinches pairing up, fighting and chasing each other; white flashes of wings and tails as they zip between trees in hot pursuit of each other. Unseen goldcrests trilled from somewhere and great spotted woodpeckers drummed, their percussions resounding from another unknown location, successfully remaining unseen.

Following one of the footpaths to Loch Eilein, we took a sidepath to Lochan Mor. This little loch was writhing with common toads by the bridge on which we stood, some just coming to the surface to sunbathe. Tearing our eyes away from the toads, drawn by a number of loud little grebes, and up to the stunning view (there were a lot of those!), it was evident there were other residents to this loch. Piebald ducks with a shocking yellow iris, a few male goldeneyes skimmed the surface and dived. A sleepy pair of goosander drifted with the slight current, occasional awoken by the grebes.

Back tracking to the main path, we had to watch our feet. Common frogs, toads and even a newt were sitting on the path. A few of which we tried to move to prevent their early demise from unwary walkers and cyclists.

On reaching Loch Eilein and making a quick visit to the shop for supplies, I almost missed our first red squirrel of our visit. Luckily, my husband was quick on the uptake with my camera for evidence. I just caught the flash of auburn moving through the silver birch and pines, with a flash of blonde gracing the end of tip of its luxurious tail. Despite the number of visitors and dogs, to which it seemed oblivious, it returned and foraged lower to the ground. A good omen for the next few days of wildlife watching. 

Monday, 12 February 2018

15. WWT Welney Wetland Centre

It was a bright, cold day as we set out to visit WWT Welney Wetland Centre. Owned by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and one of their smallest reserves, this was the first time we had visited this site. It’s a location I’ve wanted to visit for a long time and it did not disappoint with four ‘life species’ today. I had imagined that all of the wildfowl would be far away and difficult to spot, and although this was the case for a few species, on the whole I was wrong.

We started our visit in the main observatory looking out over the main lagoon. Instantly, we had excellent views of whooper swans (life species number one) right next to the glass, the foreground to a huge raft of pochard. There were also a few tufted ducks thrown in for good measure. However, as we had been informed that the swan feed would be at midday, we set out for the half mile walk to furthest hide, aiming to return in time.

Whooper swan
Pintail (group in centre)
Due to flooding, the pathway to ‘Reedbed hide’ was closed, so we walked instead to ‘Friends hide’ in the opposite direction. Here, we watched flocks of pochard, wigeon and a few pintail (life species number two) be put up by a low flying marsh harrier searching for easy pickings. The small quartet of swans in the distance, whose beaks were indistinguishable through binoculars, turned out to be Bewick’s swans (life species number three) when shown to us through a scope by a fellow bird watcher.

It seemed like all the birders and other visitors on site descended upon the main observatory for the swan feed. We watched as two of the three species, mute and whooper, came in close for their supplementary feed. Escaping early to beat the lunch time rush, we watched reed buntings and gold finches from the cafĂ©, then went straight back out to explore the hides we missed earlier: ‘Lyle’ and ‘Nelson-Lyle’. Here we had good views of the adorable whistling wigeon and a dainty pair of teal, alongside the significantly larger and tricoloured shelduck.

Reed bunting
Tree sparrows (mostly)
Eventually, we made our way back to the Visitor Centre to partake in the pre-booked hare walk. Whilst we were waiting, we looked out over the fields and wetlands and a solitary tree. This tree soon became a ‘bird tree’, full of tree sparrows (life species number four), with their chestnut heads and dirty cheeks.

Following our guide across muddy fields, we were treated to a number of hares bolting at high speeds (top speeds of 45 mph according to the mammal society). A male kestrel quartered, flocks of fieldfare chuckling lifted when we approached too close and a snipe shot up with its jinking flight.

The day didn’t end there, however, as we set out for home, we passed fields full of hundreds of swans. It would seem these ‘wild swans’ are an almost definite spot from in and around WWT Welney.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

14. UEA Broads & River Yare

I often think that we don’t explore this area enough. Within walking distance of our house, we really should take advantage of this wildlife rich area more often. Awake early on a Sunday morning, we took advantage of the (seemingly) bright and brisk weather, and went for a muddy stomp around the UEA broad, a body of water created by quarrying for university building material in the 1970s, working our way back into Eaton along the River Yare.

We started in the woodland ‘behind’ the broad, past the ‘rabbit enclosure’ (a small conservation area used for ecological research) and over the bridge to meet the oncoming onslaught of cold rain and hail. The three great crested grebes, gulls and cormorants seemed a lot less bothered by this sudden downpour than we were. As the sunshine broke back through, we met the boardwalk that borders the River Yare. As we turned, we watched a wren bathe in a shallow pool to the tune of a singing robin. Two kingfishers whistled past us, flashes of orange and blue, one giving chase to the other. Stopping and waiting to see if they would return, we could hear blue and great tits in the trees, watching them nibble at pinky-purple catkins overhanging the mirror of water. My knowledge of tree species is shamefully poor, but I think these may have been alder…

Continuing until the boardwalk became the very muddy path to continue following the river, we were suddenly aware of two bright yellow birds watching us; a pair of siskin, the first I have seen in this area, chatting to each other and quickly flitting out of view. We slipped and slid our way along the river bank, encountering a mute swan using the current to its advantage and putting our slow progress to shame. Eventually, we caught up with her whilst she spruced up her already pristine coat of snowy feathers.

There is an area of land, where, last year, a number of trees were felled, chopped and left as dead wood. Here, a wren played hide and seek with us, searching its way into every nook and cranny in the tangled mess of wood. Here, we also found an excellent ‘bird tree’, with a host of woodland bird species. Watching blue tits and listening to the ‘teacher teacher’ of a great tit, I was suddenly aware of a small brown bird working its way up the bark, a tree creeper. Just when I thought I had spotted another, I realised from the high pitched call and (through the bins) a fiery head, that a goldcrest had joined the fray. This was quickly followed by a pair of nuthatch and a small team of long tailed tits all foraging in the branches.

For whatever reason, that particular tree seemed a great place for all of these woodland birds and I have marked it on my mental map to return to throughout the year.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

13. RSPB Surlingham Church Marshes

After purchasing Best Birdwatching Sites: Norfolk by Neil Glenn, we were inspired to explore even more new wildlife sites this year. Today, we met a friend (and her dog – they are allowed on this reserve on a lead) to try the circular walk at RSPB Surlingham Church Marshes. A balmy 15 °C for January, sunshine and a light wind apparently provided some good conditions for birds of prey.

We began the muddy journey from the church, encountering my first cluster of snowdrops this year by the cottages. Continuing on, reaching the River Yare, two Egyptian geese sized us up from the adjacent field, whilst a kestrel hovered over some unseen prey. A pair of great crested grebe began their elaborate courtship display as we watched from the bank, behind the viewing screen. Head ducking, gift exchanging and rising up out of the water at each other, this pair certainly had spring on their minds. As we were watching this spectacle, a large raptor appeared overhead; a red kite was flying lazily low, its yellow eyes keen on the ground.

The mud made it difficult to walk, but, inspired by our sightings so far, we slogged on, eventually reaching open reed bed. A couple of cormorants darted across the sky, then my eye was caught by another large raptor; this time a marsh harrier. Quartering the reeds, it repeatedly pulled up to check below, but did not seem to spot anything worth its interest.

Heading back through the small woodland, a few common woodland birds: chaffinch, blue tit, great tit and a robin to sing us out.