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.

Monday, 17 August 2015

A week on the canals

This year, our holiday consisted of spending a week on a narrow boat on the canals around Wolverhampton and Birmingham. They might not have the best water quality in the world, but they can prove quite fruitful for wildlife that you may not usually see by foot. We began our journey at Kings Bromley Marina, starting on the Trent and Mersey Canal, turning onto the Staffordshire and Worcestershire, then finally the Shropshire Union, before turning around and heading back. We were lucky to have fantastic weather for all but the last day. Here are a few of our wildlife encounters whilst we were en route.

The first wildlife I noticed at the marina was the sheer number of housemartins and swallows swooping and diving , picking up water and flying insects. They were a constant presence throughout our canal journey, gathering on overhead cables, flying alongside us, crossing our paths, burbling and chattering to each other overhead. I completely agree with my Collins Bird Guide that their "song sounds rather sweet and 'eager'." I have never seen so many together or in such a short space of time.

Unlike the house martins, the kingfishers of the canals took a few days to discover. We saw two in our week on the boat, far fewer than a similar journey two years ago. They were equally charismatic and pleasing though. One delighted us with staying close to our boat for 10 minutes or more, waiting for us to draw level with it before taking a direct flight in front of the boat, diving in an attempt to fish and landing the other side again. It is very rare for us to get such a close up view of these electric blue birds, so having close encounters at roughly head height were a real treat.

Another treat, and very unexpected it was too, was a flock of lapwings passing overhead. We could hear their "bubbling, wheezy 'song'", peewitting to each other, showing off their apparently disproportionately long black and white wings.

Grey herons tend to be the comedians of the canals. They wait on the bank until the front of the boat begins to close on them, then they will side step and shuffle before taking off in a lazy, but agitated, flight to land only meters ahead. As the boat begins to close on them again, they look more and more irritated the greater the number of times they must repeat this performance. Eventually, they realise this can be solved by flying around and behind the boat, or by disappearing for a time into a nearby field. The canals also seem to be the only place that I ever see herons sitting in trees, surveying the surrounding habitat with their piercing yellow eyes.

Mallards, moorhens and coots are often seen either skulking in the reeds or begging for food at the boat windows. We occasionally had a following of mallards and swans, despite not feeding them, for five minutes or more. Many of them had young, who would call heartbreakingly if they were separated from their parents by the boat. They were always soon reunited, but watching their agitation is always unpleasant. On one occasion, we saw a Muscovy duck on the bank in addition to our usual crew of mallards.

When moored, the chinking chorus of blackbirds and wrens could often be heard. Robins would also sing at strange hours, sometimes bursting into full song at 9:00 pm, despite the darkness.

We saw few dragonflies and butterflies. The bankside vegetation was often choked with Himalayan balsam, but there were the occasional stretches of native wildflowers. My favourites of which were the fragrant meadowsweet and majestic fox gloves.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

A literary account of the birds, dragonflies and butterflies of Strumpshaw Fen

It was our first anniversary on Sunday, so we began the celebrations with a walk around our favourite nature reserve: RSPB Strumpshaw Fen. I had an aim for today too - I wanted to see a Norfolk Hawker dragonfly. A little late in the season, but there were still a few reports of them and we thought we'd try our luck. The reserve held a few surprises for us, so I'm going to split this post into three sections: Birds, Dragonflies and Butterflies. I've also been reading the fantastically written book Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, so I will attempt to correctly use some of the new words I have learnt to describe the habitats and locations of our sightings.


Part of the broads, the loch* at the visitor's centre can sometimes prove unfruitful for visible wildlife. Today was exceptional. The upright wall of reeds and rushes boasted a decorative electric blue gem; a kingfisher perched among them like a sapphire burning brightly, making the surrounding vegetation seem dull and uninviting. The cranks* of a tree beyond the loch held a camouflaged shape, betrayed only by its harsh swift-like silhouette; an adult hobby resting, possibly post-Odonata-hunt from the many pickings around the reserve. 

Taking the Meadow trail, in the hope of spotting dragonflies, we were passed by two gargantuan pairs of wings following the River Yare. Large white wing bars and fringed with black, I could not find their likeness in my Collins Bird Guide (I checked geese and cranes), so they had to remain our mystery birds of the day. The more recognisable shape of a hunting kestrel was a welcome distraction above the reed bed, with wings spread and tail spanned it hovered, surveying its target. Taking the trail to Tower hide, a great crested grebe made its presence known on the large lake preceding the hide. We paused for a snack, then continued on our doddle* to and up the steps of Tower hide. The vast expanse of the broads greeted our eyes with emerald greens and sapphire blues of the reed bed and water. Imperfections in the sapphire surface, other than the small ripples which could have been caused by a cat's paw upon the water, proved to be little egrets and a juvenile grey heron which looked strange to my untrained eye. I am not yet used to identifying juvenile or eclipsing plumage. The graceful white curves of the necks of the mute swans stood out in stark contrast to the dark, sharpened edges of the heron. A common tern brought attention to itself by standing behind tall, upright blooms of mauve and calling in its slightly aggravated tones, seemingly warding off other winged creatures from his spot. In the distance, sitting low and nestled within a small tree smothered in bindweed was a juvenile marsh harrier. Its dark plumage and blonde head shouting to be noticed in front of the backdrop of bleached green.


 By speaking with the RSPB volunteers at the Reception, we discovered that there were still reports of Norfolk hawkers on the reserve, although they were coming to an end, and our best bet would be to try a peddel* along the Meadow trail. Many species of Odonata patrol territories, so if we paused when we thought we had glimpsed one, it would return. At every single plash*, lochan*, lidden* and hassock* we were instantly surrounding by dainty common blue and emerald damselflies. The latter of which really does appear to have an emerald stone on the thorax above the wings. Amidst the fluttering damsels rose a green clear winged dragonfly to settle on the opposite bank of the wide stream. In my mind it had to be a Norfolk hawker, but has since turned out to be a teneral (newly emerged) darter species. Surrounding us, buzzing us and disappearing from view always, as soon as we reached the path along the Yare, were large and colourful brown hawkers, flying fast and direct as military jets to do battle, to hunt or simply to vanish. As we neared Tower hide, other species of dragonfly became apparent, with the occasional passing emperor or the passing and gentle vertical resting of Southern hawkers among the leaves and twigs at the head height of a tall human (of which I am well below). The showy bright blue and green of the protruding eyes and body segments of the males standing out from the foliage and blurring together when in flight.


 In the glorious sunshine and among the many many Buddleia, Strumpshaw was abounding in fluttering and graceful Rhopalocera. The most numerous was the stunning peacock, alighting on almost any flowering plant in bloom we walked past. Meadow brown and gatekeeper butterflies were also abundant, flying low and indecisively over and between knee-height cover at the sides of the trails. Dark red admirals and bright white (small and large) fluttered and almost landed upon us as they flapped by to higher feeding positions. Brimstones, with their lurid yellow-green, seeming less neon in colour than they would on a duller day. The star of the butterfly show, however, one that I had not dared hope to see, and only did due to the kindness of other visitors pointing it out, was a Swallowtail. Very high on an impossibly tall Buddleia tree, not far from Tower hide, perched the large winged yellow-black-blue-red form, with its protruding hind wings far beyond the base of its abdomen. But, as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone again, leaving us doubting whether we had actually been in its spirit-like presence at all.


  • Crank = dead branch of a tree (Cotswolds)
  • Doddle = to walk slowly and pleasurably (Northern Island)
  • Hassock = large pond (Kent)
  • Lidden = pond (west Cornwall)
  • Loch = lake (Gaelic)
  • Lochan = small lake (Gaelic)
  • Peddel = to walk in a hesitating manner (Shetland)
  • Plash = small pool (Cotswolds)