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)


  1. Hi Sarah.
    Your mystery bird flying down the River Yare sounds to me like Egyptian Geese. You wouldn't necessarily think of it to see them walking about, but in flight the wings have a lot of black on them, with a large white wing bar made up of the covert feathers.
    Regards, James

    1. Hi James, thank you for both pointing out I'd used the wrong river name (I live very close to the Wensum, so have got far too used to mentioning it rather than any other) and for your suggestion of Egyptian geese. I hadn't thought of checking them, as they seemed far too big, but then thinking about it I don't know if I've ever seen them in flight. The wing markings certainly do seem to match. Thanks for solving the mystery!