Monday, 20 February 2017

5. Lakenheath Fen

Reed bunting
A pale sky, blanket cloud filtering the Sun’s light as it tried to break through. The songs of robins, blue tits and great tits serenaded visitors as they tumbled out of their cars and into the reserve. Chatting to one of the volunteers in the visitors centre, we were told that bearded tits were showing well around the reserve, as were marsh harriers. With optimism, we set out to see what we could find. The staccato shouts of wrens coming from the sides of the visitor trails guided our way towards New Fen Viewpoint. A serenely calm pool awaited us, the surface disturbed only by two coots dabbling and diving, a few mallards and gadwalls and a great crested grebe proudly showing its red mohican above a white cheek. A trail through the reed bed, adjacent to the main path revealed more wrens. Cetti’s warblers began their appealing song whilst remaining deep within the vegetation. The whistling calls of a coil of wigeon passed overhead. Canada geese and mute swans graced the neighbouring pools and a great spotted woodpecker could be heard drumming in the surrounding trees.

Stonchat (m)
Despite listening keenly for bearded tits on our way to Mere hide, we were not in luck. The pool at the hide was just as calm as the previous viewpoint, this time with a coot, a moorhen and four mallards disturbing the placid water. A pair of wrens burst from the reeds, chasing each other along a corridor through the vegetation. Never before today had I really believed that the wren is the UK’s most numerous breeding bird. Almost as if they were respecting the silence, a flock of lapwings flew over the hide as we made our exit, their chunky square wings silhouetted against the brightening sky. At the hide and on the trail leading away were empty platforms offering grit to the invisible bearded tits.

On the trail to joist fen viewpoint, instead of bearded tits, we found a reed bunting picking grit from the path, flying only a few metres ahead each time we approached before eventually veering off into the safety of reeds and trees.

Great white egret
A footpath parallel to the reserve boundary, following the River Little Ouse gave an elevated view over the reserve and surrounding countryside. A pair of stonechats flitted between tall grasses and reed heads, almost bouncing up and down as they transferred from one stem to another. A kestrel hung in the sky, hovering, and then, missing its meal, rested in the woodland trees. The lakes beyond the river, looking away from the reserve boasted jewels of colour: shoveler, teal, lapwings, little egrets. The largest was the tall, yellow-billed great white egret, towering above the little egrets, despite being further away. Broken oyster shells littered the sides of the path. Back in the reserve, a whole gang of long tailed tits decorated the heads of tall reed stems and a single leafless tree amidst the rustling golden stalks. They jingled through like early blossoms drifting from the tree.

Re-entering the reserve trail, blue tits and great tits littered the feeders by the visitor’s centre and a kestrel perched on a tree in the car park. A pair of roe deer bade us farewell at the reserve entrance.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

4. Pensthorpe Natural Park

A brisk Valentine ’s Day walk in the dappled afternoon sunshine around Pensthorpe Natural Park gave us some unexpected sightings. Meandering through the wave garden, the bright white stars of snowdrops illuminating the leaf litter and bark chippings, heralding the beginning of early spring. A little egret similarly lighting up the opposite bank as we passed, balancing the great crested grebe on water, on our way to the wader scrape hides. Here, an oystercatcher pulled worms mercilessly from the bank, whilst rafts of teal dabbled and dived. A small coil of wigeon pulled at the grasses and a desert of lapwings pee-witted to each other, standing ankle deep in the water. A smattering of other ducks; shelduck, mallard and shoveler, brightened the scene. We crossed the River Wensum, startling a moorhen and a pair of teal, making our way up towards the wildflower meadow and woodland. Across the meadow, we saw our first bird of prey: a male kestrel quartering and alighting in a slender tree. A trio of redpoll landed unwittingly in a tree nearby.

Delving into the woodland, we were met by the evening songs of birds; blue tit, great tit, finches and others, alongside the disappearing white rump of a roe deer. The woodland hide had some unusual invaders amongst its usual visitors of tits and finches. Two male mandarin ducks waited below the bird feeders for seeds to drop. A muntjac deer joined the fray briefly before blending back into the surrounding trees. Leaving the hide, we were met by several roe deer hiding behind low branches, and a young deer, less shy than the others, eyeballing us from the safety of the trees. A buzzard mewed overhead.

Making our way back to the visitors centre, tufted ducks showed off their contrasting colours on the lake and were joined by a goosander, it’s streamlined shape standing out against the stockier forms of the ducks. A quartet of displaying oystercatchers heralded our way out of the park.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

3. Marston Marsh

Walking along the railway line near Keswick Mill, the air was filled with the plaintive song of the robin. In every direction, in every tree, there seemed to be another red breasted songster, advertising its presence to its competitors. The odd black bird chimed in, not wanting to be overlooked. The more we walked, getting further from the golf course and closer to the marsh and the surrounding stands of trees, the more variety in bird song we heard. A green finch calling its ‘tzveeee’ song from the other side of the railway line, blue tits chattering and seemingly shouting at us and each other, and long tailed tits ‘see-see-seeing’ companionably. Their stocky bodies and long tails stark against the bare twigs of the trees, making it very obvious where the old name of ‘barrel bird’ came from.

Once we were out on the open marsh and field, we strolled along the ‘path’ clinging closely to the River Yare. A little egret perched, preening its long white feathers, framed by the branches of the tree on which it sat, enjoying the sun as it broke through the cloud. The golden rays of winter sunlight brought the colours back to the landscape, picking out the green of the grasses, the gold of the reeds, the fawn of the trees and the yellow of the lichen encrusting them. There also seemed to be an audible difference in the level of birdsong. A song thrush began its beautifully repetitive song and a green woodpecker yaffled across the marsh, but stayed well hidden. Jay’s showed off their blue and orange flashes, reflecting strongly those wavelengths of the sun’s light. A collection of quiet birds, which may have been tree sparrows (they moved too quickly to get a clear look, but their heads looked wrong for house sparrows) and a charm of goldfinches heralded our way out of the reserve and back in Eaton. However, a parting gift was a crowd of redwings foraging in the grounds of the scout activity centre. Sometimes, you find good sightings in unexpected places!

Sunday, 22 January 2017

2. Lower Wood, Ashwellthorpe

The Sun’s rays scattered by ice covered glass and grass turned into cake 
frosting; white, hard and crunchy under foot, it was a frosty winter’s morning in Norfolk. Parking at the medieval church in the village, birds could be heard calling from the suburban trees, surrounding fields and woodland. The short walk to the reserve was pleasant, a small distance along the road, then a public footpath along the perimeter of a field. The mixture of open landscape and woodland was a contrast that seemed popular with local birds of prey. A pair of buzzards took flight, greeting us upon entering the woodland over a small bridge. No sooner had we entered the woodland, and we were surrounded by smaller woodland birds calling and scattering, as well as a few chattering grey squirrels and a roe deer, before it caught sight of us. The tiny goldcrest imperceptibly moving from twig to twig and a treecreeper, somewhat more confiding, winding its way up the bark of trees nearby. 

Following the NWT arrows took us around the edge of this small reserve, with robins, blue- and great tits traversing the walkways ahead of us. Great spotted woodpeckers could be heard calling, but did not make themselves known by sight. A kestrel silently glided, carving the skyscape with long tail and arrow like wings, landing gracefully in the bare canopy. The coppiced trees provide ample cover for small birds with their almost impenetrable vertical swords of thin branches, closely packed. Larger trees twisted their gnarled trunks skyward, their asymmetry pleasing to the eye. Every tree, it seemed, filled with the calls and songs of woodland birds. As we completed the trail, a treecreeper was again at the entrance to bid us farewell.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

1. Whitlingham Country Park

On the coldest weekend of the winter so far, when tidal surges had caused parts Great Yarmouth and other coastal areas to be evacuated and many reserves were partially underwater, we tried our first new area of 2017: Whitlingham Country Park.

The forecast had been for snow and sleet most of the day, but, thankfully, the sun shone brightly in a crisp, blue sky all afternoon. We arrived at the park for the final hour of daylight, hoping the cold snap had brought out foraging birds, including winter visitors. Walking briskly to fend off the cold, we took the circular walk around Great Broad. A pair of Egyptian geese plucked at the grass and called softly to each other as we passed. Great rafts of tufted ducks, accompanied by gadwall, pochard, coot and the odd great crested grebe drifted with purpose, diving below the water. Canada and greylag geese, patrolled the margins of the broad, accompanied by several pairs of mute swans.

As the Sun sank further, there was something delicious about the way the light illuminated the water’s surface, putting a spotlight on the wildfowl that danced both below and above the pool of watery winter sunlight; the reeds the fairy lights to guide visitors along the water’s edge. Silhouettes of long tailed tits flitted restlessly in the leafless tall trees, calling to other members of the gang as they flew. Blue tits, as high as they could be, their yellow breasts highlighted by the last rays of Sun. A grey heron glided along the bank, broad wings outstretched. A flock of green finches performed over the broad, settling into a naked tree, decorating its branches. Cormorants adorned yet other trees, settling far apart. A wonderful end to a wintry day.

A Challenge for 2017

Late last year, I ran out of time to update my blog often, but that doesn't mean we weren't out and enjoying the sights and sounds of wild Norfolk.

This year, I've decided to set myself a challenge. I love the reserves we visit regularly, but I haven't discovered anywhere new for a while. This year, I would like to visit as many different reserves in and around Norfolk as I can, hopefully with the added bonus of increasing my life list of species and my identification skills.

I have a few places on my list to start with, but I would appreciate any local knowledge in finding more, so if you have any ideas, please do leave a comment below!

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Staying Wild

Lingering in a forest against an increasingly darkening night, listening to the paranormal churring of nightjars, watching their angular silhouettes carve through the dusky sky. This is how I spent one evening in June, part of ’30 Days Wild’. An incredible experience and a life ‘tick’ for me, it was a wildlife spectacle I’d been longing to see. But that’s not all I discovered when making the most of those 30 days.

I’m a high school science teacher and I escape from the trials and tribulations of term time by venturing to nature reserves and wild places at the weekends. It’s something I’ve come to see as essential for my wellbeing and to keep myself human. However, what ’30 Days Wild’ made me realise, by attempting to record what I’d done, is that I actually do something wild every day without realising it. It’s something that generates conversations with colleagues and pupils too, even if it is just to check that I’m OK because I’m rescuing earthworms from the playground.

I tried to publicise ’30 Days Wild’ at work, to other members of staff and pupils. I got permission to show ‘Project Wild Thing’ to my two PSHE classes. The message didn’t get through to all of them, but one girl saw me after a lesson to tell me she had downloaded the ‘Wild Time’ App and she was spending more time outside as a result. A colleague found me to tell me an orchid was growing outside one of the offices, so we banded together to make sure the contractors didn’t mow the lawn. I took out our STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) Club to scatter more wildflower seeds in our wildlife area / meadow. We made bee hotels and found suitable locations for them, which the girls who attended the club really enjoyed. The trouble is, most pupils are already so distanced and disengaged from the natural world, despite living in a rural community, that it can be difficult to reignite the spark of curiosity and interest in their young minds; especially when there are so many other things to compete with.

In Norfolk, it felt like it rained every single day in June, which meant there were some days where I had to get a little more creative. We had recently moved house, so as well as watching wildlife at work, I was spending my spare time turning our garden into a wildlife haven. I researched and bought bee friendly flowers – sedum, polemonium, honeysuckle, scabious, geranium (cranesbill, not the plants that most call ‘geraniums’ but are actually pelargoniums) – then tried to photograph and identify the bees that visited them. We installed an insect hotel, which, at the time of writing in early August, is slowly being populated by leaf cutter bees. I planted and harvested pollinator friendly herbs in hanging baskets and we watched the birds and their fledglings march around our little garden. The fast favourites were the fledgling pied wagtails who would feed, then patrol along the washing, occasionally cleaning their bills on our clothes. Of course, we visited nature reserves too, including one of our usual haunts, RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, where we were lucky enough to spot a particularly obliging swallowtail butterfly, a Norfolk hawker dragonfly, as well as a scarce chaser and an otter all in one visit.

Nature reserves have their place and there is no way I’d ever want to be without them, but what ’30 Days Wild’ has made me realise is that it’s the little everyday encounters with and interactions about nature that matter. It’s the ‘drip, drip, drip’ rather than one big experience that will make more people care about the things we already love, how it is a part of and an enhancement to our lives. Not just limited to a few areas, but all around us, wherever we are.