Sunday, 20 December 2015

RSPB Strumpshaw Fen & Buckenham Marshes

An unseasonably warm day, but the perfect weather to go for a pleasant stroll around Strumpshaw Fen. We arrived at around 10 o' clock and were asked by the volunteers at the reception to report back what we had seen. All they'd had so far was a cormorant. Looking out onto the pool, there were a raft of mallard, gadwall and shoveler.

Before we got very far, we were greeted by a very handsome male pheasant which had alighted on a fallen tree trunk. Not the most 'exciting' sighting, but he was resplendent in his winter colours.

We began on the woodland trail and it wasn't long before a flock of softly calling finch-sized birds flew overhead and settled in a nearby tree. They set to work on tweezering seeds out of tightly closed cases. It was a mixed flock of siskin and goldfinches. I am slowly becoming more familiar with the siskin this season, getting used to looking for their unique stripy-ness and their high pitched calls when it flight and perched. Reaching the end of the woodland trail, following an unidentified bird of prey (we never did get a good look at it), we spotted a mistle thrush perched on telephone wires in the neighbouring field. It has been a long while since I've seen one of these handsome birds.

We turned onto the fen trail and began the muddy walk towards Tower hide. We heard a great spotted woodpecker calling in the distance, eventually tracking it down to the top of the tallest branches in the woodland. Walking across large clearings like this always makes me notice Norfolk's big skies, and always makes me question why I would ever live anywhere else.

A robin, dunnock and few blackbirds greeted us along the trail, but it was very quiet. Pausing at a clearing just before reaching the hide, I spotted what I am sure was a water vole swimming between patches of reed. All I could make out was little brown head above the water line, swimming completely silently and with almost no wake, I would have missed it had I not already been looking at something else in the same direction. Apart from this potentially exciting encounter, there was little action even looking out from Tower hide, with the exception of two majestic marsh harriers quartering the reed bed below.

Turning back to avoid too much mud, we headed for Fen hide. Unfortunately, there was little to see here either. We decided that all of the geese, ducks and waders must be at nearby Buckenham Marshes instead, so we headed back to the reception and jumped in the car. On the way, we spotted a young grey heron practicing its fishing skills and a marsh harrier bathing at the edge of a pool.

Wigeon, lots and lots of wigeon is what greeted us at Buckenham Marshes, all softly calling to each other in that charming whistle. A small flock of lapwing showed off their contrasting colours in the afternoon sun as they sailed past in the distance.

Perhaps there were fewer birds due to the unseasonably warm weather, perhaps they are just confused. One volunteer told me that another visitor had seen a marsh harrier building a nest.

To finish the day on another unusual sight, after we arrived home, we were visited by a male kestrel in the grounds of our flat in Norwich. He looked in excellent shape. We've never seen one this close to us before.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

November at Sculthorpe

Sculthorpe Moor - 15th November

Apologies for not writing for over a month! November has been a busy one, but we did manage a couple of wildlife watching sessions. We have finally made it back to Sculthorpe Moor; this small site run by the Hawk and Owl Trust really is a hidden treasure. We haven't been here since spring and this return visit certainly wasn't a disappointment. The winds we have had throughout November made the trees talk and sing and with it, the bird life joined in.

On first entering the reserve, there is a viewing panel overlooking a range of birdfeeders. They were alive with green finches, chaffinches, great tits, blue tits, coal and marsh tits, a nuthatch and some beautiful bramblings on the feeders and on the floor below. 

Walking around the reserve, it wasn't just the bird hides that yeilded fantastic views of wildlife. On niger seed feeders suspended from trees were dozens of gold finches in dazzling colours. In trees above were mixed flocks of siskins tweezering out seeds and chattering away to each other with goldfinches trying to join in the conversation. There seemed to be long tailed tits everywhere, one of my favourite bird species, always sociable and 'friendly' in their large gangs, filling the air with their 'see-see-see's. 

The new elevated hide in the reserve gave beautiful close up views of these rosey-pink socialites and a tree creeper amid their chattering and the flocks of gold finches. We also had long distance views of gliding marsh harriers quartering the reed beds below. At the Fen hide we found a little grebe nestled among a quartet of mallards. A male bullfinch took over one of the feeders and bullied other birds away, claiming the seeds for himself. 

Another wonderful visit to this reserve. Hopefully we'll not have to wait another 6 months before we visit again!

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Autumnal activities

Gosh, this has been a whirlwind of a first half-term. I have neglected my blog somewhat, but we have been up to some wildlife watching along the way!

Strumpshaw Fen - Sunday 11th October

This trip was significantly more autumnal than our last, but the common darters were still about in clusters, or rather in rows on any fence, bench or gate they could find. In their wake, they left destruction in the form of fragments of other small insects that had clearly been a feast for one or two of them.

It was quite quiet in terms of wildlife when walking the tracks of the reserve, but we stumbled across some drama when we reached Tower Hide. A huge mixed flock of wigeon, shoveler, teal and mallards, with a few lapwings keeping themselves to themselves, were spread across the lake. Wigeon began whistling and the whole raft of ducks and waders lifted as one, circled, then skimmed the water to return. At first, it was hard to see why, but they repeated this performance and we realised there was a marsh harrier gliding in close looking for a snack...

Queen Elizabeth Country Park, Hampshire - Friday 23rd October

This park full of beautiful trees of many varieties felt very autumnal today. The trees were beginning to turn from green to shades of yellow-orange-red. Some appeared to glow in the half light made by the clouds and being deep beneath the upper canopy.

Southsea - Saturday 24th October

An early morning walk full of urban wildlife. I couldn't resist a photo of these starlings on their lighthouse roost, seemingly ignoring the flashing light silhouetting them at times.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Canoeing and fungi at Foxley

It's been a while since my last post; the start of the new school year has been a little on the hectic side! I am happy though - our wild flower meadow has worked, I just need to take some photos for a proper update on it soon. For now though, here are my wildlife outings we managed in September - two in one day!

An early start on a Sunday morning... at 6:00 am some friends and I decided to go on a 'River Bure Otter Spotting' trail with the Canoe Man. Unfortunately, the otters stayed well out of our way, but the river at this time of day was beautiful; an ethereal mist rose from the surface in the early morning sunlight and wraith-like herons merged with the mist until their movements betrayed them. An occasional kingfisher would dart in front of the boat, showing off its neon plumage, bright compared with the rising mist. Long tailed tits 'see see seed' to each other in the branches around us, giving a constant chorus to the still air.

Later the same day, to a completely different habitat, we took a trip to Foxley Woods. The ancient woodland that, in spring, is carpeted with fragrant swathes of bluebells, becomes a heaven for fungi in autumn. Fungi are my least competent kingdom when it comes to identification, but their shapes, textures and colours fascinate me, even if I won't ever master the tricks of identifying them.

Spectacular rustgill?
Agaricus sp.?

Also below us, in the mud of the passed rains, were huge deer footprints - far too large to be roe, I think, they must be the work of a red deer. The stride length between prints was incredibly large. Above us, charms of gold finches flitted from tree to tree chattering their charming musical calls. Marsh tits, blue tits and great tits were also busy feeding from hidden insects in the tree canopy. A great spotted woodpecker betrayed itself by its loud genial call from the top of a pine tree.

In the sunnier spots of the wood were some late butterflies and dragonflies; common darter dragonflies and speckled wood butterflies alighting on living and dead leaves in bright shafts of sunlight.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Last weekend of summer

So, we're back at school. Fortunately, last weekend, I made the most of the freedom and spent a lovely couple of days at Pensthorpe and Strumpshaw Fen with friends as well as walking around our local patch and admiring the hordes of birds that have been visiting our feeders.

For birds and other wildlife, our local patch was quiet. However, in the late summer sunlight, it was a beautiful sight across the River Wensum and the surrounding trees.

Surprisingly, our bird feeders have been a hive of activity throughout August; the complete opposite to what I would have expected. Flocks of 20 strong long tailed tits have been visiting alongside groups of greenfiches, chaffinches, blue tits, great tits, starlings, sparrows, coal tits... and a sparrowhawk!

The sun was shining and the waterfowl were out in force at Pensthorpe, as well as the small tortoiseshells and red admirals, dazzling with their fiery wings and occasionally sharing flower heads with horse flies. There were also swallows and house martins cutting through the air at speed and occasionally settling, but not for long. It was almost possible to feel their restlessness as they ready for migration.

The weirdest thing we spotted was at a river crossing. Just below the surface, sunning themselves on the silted river bottom were dozens of signal crayfish of all sizes. Alien and almost dastardly looking with their odd claws and segmented bodies.

The following day at Strumpshaw, the conditions were very different - blanket cloud smothered the sky despite it still being warm. It was a poor day for invertebrates (we didn't see a single butterfly), but a fantastic day for birds. We took the Meadow trail and my attention was immediately caught by a calling great spotted woodpecker foraging beneath the bark of a dead branch. I then very nearly trod on a common froglet, who kindly posed on a pile of dung.

We gradually made our way through the mud to Tower hide. We were greeted this time, not with a chorus of lapwings, but with a gaggle of greylag geese, knot, shoveler, teal and other ducks, a kingfisher, common terns, grey herons, little egrets and a great egret. The first confirmed sighting of a great egret in the UK for me. We sat and watched the little egrets display, with one (the male, we think) being somewhat keener...

Fen hide was next on our list, so we back tracked and took the turning. We were very glad we did. Here, the small jewel of kingfisher granted us good views as it flitted from reeds to post and back again multiple times. Marsh harriers kept their distance, but visibly quartered the reedbeds below. Chinese water deer chased each other through the clearings between reed beds, but the light grew too poor for photographs very quickly. Hopefully now autumn is (nearly) here, I might actually get a photo of these quirky looking animals...

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Blue butterflies and darting dragonflies at Strumpshaw

Last Sunday had good weather for cycling, so rather than driving to Strumpshaw Fen as we usually would, we decided to attempt the cycle out from Norwich. It took a while, but was a satisfying ride. Arriving slightly(!) more exhausted than usual, we were cheered by seeing a young blackbird sitting atop the 'Nature trails' sign outside the reception hide.

Aware of time and the fact that we would need to cycle home after our visit, we didn't complete a full circuit, but instead followed the Fen trail to Fen hide, Tower hide, then returned along the same route back to reception.

Stopping at the pond dipping station not far from the reception, common darters alighted regularly on the wooden fence. In the process of trying to photograph one, a fly took my camera's focus instead, resulting in the image below. Eventually, an opportunity presented itself to photograph an un-obscured common darter dragonfly. The other dragonflies we saw were too fast for me to photograph, but included brown hawkers, emperors and black-tailed skimmers.

The usual birds of the reserve were remarkably quiet, but the butterflies were out in force. On the short trail to Fen hide, a painted lady landed, sunning itself on the dry mud of the 'path'. Except for the individuals I have raised and released with my classes at school, I had not seen a painted lady in the UK before.

There were three stars of the show in Fen hide. From speaking to other visitors, we had just missed a kingfisher, but we had other avian species to occupy us. A young marsh harrier had claimed a spot in a small tree not far from the hide. After a few minutes of waiting and watching, a black swan gracefully swam into view, preening itself in the shallow water. A bittern also appeared a way back, lightly skimming over the reeds before descending and vanishing again.

We lingered by the buddleia where, on our last visit, we saw a swallowtail butterfly. No swallowtails today, despite hearing news of the second brood being on the wing, but plenty of other butterflies taking the limelight and looking glorious in the sunshine. The brimstones and red admirals looked particularly impressive today, with the sun back lighting their delicate forms.

Before we even reached Tower hide we could hear the lovely, incessant calling of a desert of lapwings. Entering the hide painted a more detailed scene; intermingled with the sea of purpley-green lapwings were orange-beaked ruffs, a single common tern, a royal looking cormorant on a throne of driftwood, bright white little egrets, statuesque grey herons and snow white mute swans. Above them all were dancing marsh harriers silhouetted against the bright sky. There was also a sleeping wader which has proved a bit of a mystery to identify. I think it may be a ruff, but opinion on iSpot is split, so I would appreciate any suggestions.

After watching the antics of lapwings chasing each other and the mallards that got in their way, we made our way back to the reception. On the way, we encountered a gentleman from Butterfly Conservation and some photographers who had discovered a common blue butterfly. They very kindly let me take a couple of pictures before continuing on our way. A good way to end the walk and start the long cycle home.