Tuesday, 16 August 2016
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.
Tuesday, 21 June 2016
Bus stop wildlife
This morning I had to wait, sheltering from persistent rain (the sort that gets you soaked no matter how long you stay out in it), at our local bus stop. I amused myself by watching a slightly soggy song thrush foraging in the damp grass. The thrush must have chosen a successful patch, as it was soon joined by a female blackbird before it decided to take flight.
Two mornings in a row at the bus stop. Only one morning sat in the rain though, today was quite pleasant with some cloud and sunshine. The bus never did arrive, but we enjoyed listening to the prolific birdsong from the surrounding trees. A carrion crow also decided to display to apparently thin air, arching and shouting as it did so. As the weather was being surprisingly cooperative, we decided to BBQ for lunch, and were equally surprised by the showy pink flashes of the hind-wings of a cinnabar moth who decided to join us.
A day of very heavy rain showers, whipping the pupils up into a frenzy and creating a small lake on the tennis courts. We watched the lake form from the fat rain drops hitting every-which-way in awe during our department meeting. I was then equally stunned at the visible evaporation of the puddles on my drive home in the sun not long afterwards. The evening was filled with natural phenomena and wildlife surprises. The sky had completely cleared by moon rise, leading to astonishing views of the intensely bright moon, the likes of which I may be lucky enough to see once more (the next is in 46 years' time). Picking up my binoculars, so much detail was visible, the impact craters and scars marking the surface were apparent in such clarity that I've never before achieved through binoculars. Looking out into the night caused us to notice something else - our first bat above our garden. Apparently rather small, I would guess at a pipistrelle. Having windows open also meant we heard more than usual; tonight, a baby tawny owl calling from the large trees in the nearby park.
A school orchid
A barn owl gliding on its broad wings accompanied me on a short stretch of my drive this morning, presumably making the most of the drier weather before the next wet spell. A wonderful way to start the day. On my arrival at work, I bumped into a fellow wildlife enthusiast who pointed out that an orchid was on flower in the middle of a small patch of lawn on the school site. I went, armed with my phone, to try to figure out what it might be... it looks to me like it could be a common spotted orchid. A dainty and sweet smelling pyramidal bloom, not something we've noticed at school before.
Monday, 20 June 2016
RSPB Norwich Local Group Meeting
The first Monday of every month is when our local group meets for an indoor talk. This month's talk was by Mark Thomas from the RSPB, he is part of their investigations team for wildlife crime. He told us of some shocking stories with appalling outcomes. I genuinely thought that harsher punishments would be handed out to wildlife criminals rather than what many would see as trivial fines or prison sentences of only a few months. Especially when, as per one of the examples he used, an entire population of nightjars and nightingales were wiped out at a county level due to successive egg collecting across several breeding seasons. Certainly food for thought which left me feeling quite angry about the whole situation. The key thing is, if you see a wildlife crime taking place, whatever it may be, always note down the vehicle number plate to report to the RSPB or the police.
After moving house, I decided I would try something different with my hanging baskets this spring. I wanted to make two hanging herb baskets. In each, I planted a Moroccan mint in the centre, surrounded by a dwarf lavender, a creeping rosemary, variegated oregano and lemon thyme. All had the 'perfect for pollinators' logo and smelled delicious - a treat for the pollinators as well as us. Never having grown herbs in containers before, I didn't realise quite how prolific the mint plant would become... It has started to (somehow) escape the bottom of the hanging basket and was greatly over shadowing the lavender and rosemary. I decided to prune it, but rather than waste so much mint, I looked up ways of storing it - freezing roughly chopped mint cubes in ice cubes seems to be the convention, and it appears to work rather well. It certainly went down nicely in a glass of Pimms...
An evening walk
Today was slightly less wet than we've become used to. When I arrived home from work, I attempted to rearrange our bird feeders to make them less of an easy target for the wood pigeon and to encourage our small birds to come back. All have disappeared over the last week, except our reliable and loud male chaffinch. We also took a walk through the park and got caught in a short downpour - the delicious feel and small of cool summer rain. Throughout it all, the birds kept singing. We heard the songs of blackbirds, robins and chaffinches as well as the monotonous cooing of a stock dove well hidden amongst the branches.
Honeysuckle and bird song
I always try to take advantage of the fact we now have a garden, even if only a small one. Before I went to work, I took five minutes to stand in the morning sunshine, close my eyes and listen. There were birds everywhere around me: chiff chaff calling from the park; a chaffinch or maybe two, trilling seemingly at varying distances; a small charm of goldfinches flying overhead; a pair of house martins chattering to each other above, alongside a few silent swifts gravely soaring side by side; jackdaws accusing 'Jack' as they flew.
The English honeysuckle is opening up and living up to its name of 'Heaven Scent'.
As a last ditch attempt at growing some wildflowers from seed, I scattered a great number of oxeye daisy seeds in a tray. It seems they have all germinated and are doing rather well. I started pricking out seedlings this evening, 30 of them, but there are many more to go!
Sunday, 12 June 2016
Well, it's certainly been a wild weekend. The photos I managed to take at Minsmere don't do justice to the phenomenal amount of wildlife we actually saw...
We arrived at RSPB Minsmere in early afternoon, so headed straight to the Discovery Centre for the picnic area. It was far quieter than we imagined for a weekend during #Springwatch, and genuinely debated eating our lunch on the play area, in the mock-up sand martin bank... but as a group of teachers, we decided to be sensible and use the picnic table instead. As we sat next to the swaying oak trees, we were joined by a single robin and a bushy tailed squirrel, and we sweltered in the warm humidity of the surrounding air. A female black cap made her presence known at the top of a small tree.
Walking through the cool woodland, we were surprised to find great tits nesting in a number of the brightly coloured bird boxes directly next to the visitor trails. We could hear them calling to the parent birds for food as we passed, but did not linger to avoid disturbing them. My attention was also caught by the calls of a great spotted woodpecker. We looked up to be greeted by the face of a woodpecker chick poking out of its tree stump home. Soon, the adult visited to feed its young and the chick retreated back in, with only a shadow of its bill visible.
We headed to bittern hide. It was packed and we had to stand, but that did not spoil the beautiful landscape sprawling in front of us. A huge marsh harrier made a close pass to the hide, a beautiful and majestic bird, it's dark 'fingers' clearly visible at the end of its wings. Bursts of the babble of Cetti's warbler surrounded us, but there seemed little to see in the afternoon heat. A water rail made a run for it across a small open inlet, its long legs carrying it quickly across. A hobby graced the sky, flying directly towards the hide, before scything off to one side and disappearing over the trees. Then, a bird which I always try and fail to see at Minsmere appeared. A bittern flew out from almost directly underneath the hide and landed in the reeds a few metres away. The sun caught its wings beautifully, each feather showing in exquisite detail. Almost as suddenly as it appeared, it vanished again, leaving me wondering if we'd all just imagined this other-worldly encounter. However, it began booming and eventually showed movement, reeds flattening in its wake and an almost imperceptible bill and head, with those dark bars near the eyes, moved up and remained vertical for some time, before it slunk further into the reeds and disappeared.
On our way to the next hide, we noticed cameras set up on a number of stickleback nests. Maybe this will be another 'Spineless Si' on Springwatch?
Looking over the side of the boardwalk, which was flanked with early marsh orchids, we noticed a small, long-tailed, auburn coloured bird flitting back and forth - there were bearded tits!!! None were close or still enough to photograph, but watching them through binoculars was treat enough for me today, with their blue heads and ridiculous moustaches, they were impressively agile flyers and disappearing artists. As soon as they landed, they were gone from sight.
In the hide, we watched a pair of reed warblers either squabbling or courting, it was hard to tell, right next to the windows. An otter made an appearance, bobbing along at the very back of the water body. Marsh harriers graced the sky here too, gliding across the fenland.
Walking back, we tried the adder trail, but rather than adders, it was full of rabbits and dragonflies (mainly four-spotted chasers), as well as a young scurry of squirrels. I have to love the common British wildlife as much as the rare!
Wildlife at the allotment is my focus of today. I have to admit that I haven't visited in a while, but I was pleased by the wildlife we saw in the brief spell we had whilst the sun was still shining. Digging over a patch of soil, I came across ladybird larvae, which I tried my best to save. Poppies which had self seeded over some of ours and the surrounding patches were humming with bees and the larkspur I diligently tried to raise indoors last year were thriving in the great outdoors. A robin joined us to hoover up grubs we were unearthing and a blackbird was chinking from nearby trees. Swifts screamed overhead and gradually got lower and lower with the changing air pressure, until the heavens opened and we got a proper basking (drenched in a heavy rain shower).
Thursday, 9 June 2016
We took a few frames of honey off the school beehives and scored them to let the honey drain out. However, I couldn't quite get all of it, so rather than wasting the little that was left, I thought I'd put a the remains out in the garden to help the wild bees. I did not expect to find so many when I got home though - a complete mix of honeybees and bumblebees all over the place!
Last year, we sowed a wildflower meadow at school, somewhere between the allotment and the beehives. We were given quite a large patch of land but did not quite have enough seeds to sow. Luckily, I managed to get hold of a community pack of wildflower seeds from 'Grow Wild'. A box arrived full of packs of wildflower seeds and bug hotels to build. I took STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) Club outside to sow the bare patches. They seemed to have a lovely time (apart from the hay-fever sufferers) and are excited about the idea of making the insect hotels next week. I took a few photos of the wildflowers that are in full bloom already, parts of it are looking quite stunning now.
Tuesday, 7 June 2016
Today I decided to start learning my bees, so whilst I was watering my plants after work, I decided to try and grab my camera to photograph the visiting bees (whilst avoiding them with the watering can). I got the 'Field Guide to the Bees of Britain and Ireland' by Steven Falk and Richard Lewington for Christmas, so have been meaning to re-teach myself to use a dichotomous key to identify the three species I managed to photograph.
The first, I already knew as I help to keep honeybees at work, the dainty Apis mellifera sampled all of my newly added bee friendly plants.
The second I knew was a bumblebee, but had no idea on the species, it was so small and incredibly furry. Using my guide, I think I have now identified it as an early bumblebee, Bombus pratorum.
The final bee was a buff-tailed bumblee, Bombus terrestris audax. This bumblebee was exhibiting behaviour I have seen a few others take part in too. Rather than entering the flowers of the aquilegia, instead it appears to be taking nectar from the long 'horns' at the back of the flower, seemingly without damaging it. This surely can't be beneficial to the flower as no pollen is collected. I think I need to do some more research into this.
Monday, 6 June 2016
RSPB Strumpshaw Fen was fabulous today. Last year, we spent a long time hunting for swallowtails and saw one from quite a distance. Today, there was one large, beautiful individual a stone's throw from the carpark and reception hide.
The swallowtail was close enough that I could really get a perspective of how large these butterflies actually are. Completely unphased by the number of photographers, some of whom were getting rather close to it, it stayed in the same spot for a long time. According to other visitors, it seemed to have a penchant for all things pink and red - including peoples' bags and shoe laces!
Whilst we were watching the elegant swallowtail, a shout of "otter!" went up from the reception hide. We all rushed over to be greeted with the sight of an otter bobbing its head in and out of the water. This is the first time I'd seen an otter in over a year. We were doing well - we'd been at Strumpshaw for all of 10 minutes and had already seen enough to keep us more than happy for the rest of the visit, but it didn't stop there.
Someone overheard us talking about Norfolk hawkers, another insect that we've spent a fair while looking for in the past. Every time I spot a brown hawker at Strumpshaw, I get my hopes up that I might spot those tell-tale green eyes, but never have. However, the kindly visitor who overheard us showed us to a spot where he'd seen them earlier in the day. Out of almost nowhere, a Norfolk Hawker appeared, hunting ever closer until it was nearly over our heads. It was in no mood for settling down for a photo, but very glad that we've finally seen one.
I had some doubts about our next 'big find' of the day, but I believe (thank you for your confirmations, people of twitter!) that the dragonfly below is a scarce chaser. According to my 'Britain's dragonflies' guide, this is a species which is near threatened on the red data list, but locally abundant in a few places in East Anglia.
After seeing two dragonflies which I can now 'tick' (if I had a list), we then spotted their arch nemesis, the agile and hunting hobby. We watched as it scythed through the sky, occasionally catching it's russet underside against the bright sky, over the place we'd been watching the Norfolk hawkers.
These are, of course, only a handful of the wonderful species we found at Strumpshaw, a full list can be found below:
Chinese water deer
Cetti's warbler (heard)
Saturday, 4 June 2016
I got impatient today. A couple of months ago, I sowed various varieties of wildflowers in trays (Sky lupin, field scabious, primrose, cowslip, bugle) in the hope that, by now, I would have a number of plants to scatter around the border. How wrong I was; the only plants that seem to have successfully germinated so far have been the lupins, but even most of those have been eaten by slugs. I currently have five of these surviving, but they are too small to risk planting out yet.
I do already have three honeysuckles, a lavendar, two sedums and a few cosmos, but only the cosmos are currently in flower. So, I decided to go and buy some pollinator friendly plants as a ready source of nectar. I was pleased to find the following in my local garden centre:
Scabious (pink mist)
A cultivated variety of scabious rather than the wildflower I was trying to grow, it is still very attractive to pollinators - within minutes of planting out, bees were already visiting the pretty pink flowers. This is a good plant for this time of year and it should continue flowering until the first frosts (fingers crossed).
An actual geranium rather than the plant type that everyone calls 'geranium'. Again, a cultivated variety, but still seems popular with the bumblebees.
Polemonium (Jacob's ladder)
I have to admit that I had never heard of this variety of plant, but just liked it (and it had an RHS perfect for pollinators logo). After doing a bit of researching in hindsight, it also seems that, as well as being a good source of nectar, it is a food plant for some caterpillars.
The bumblebees were a little fast to photograph, but this little solitary bee (I think?) was very obliging, posing on a few different flowers. If anyone can help with a species specific i.d. I would be very grateful.