Thursday, 7 September 2017

11. RSPB Titchwell Marsh

As our walk at RSPB Snettisham was so early, we decided to continue round the coast to RSPB Titchwell Marsh. Two RSPB reserves in one day – perfect!

A weasel greeted us at this reserve; as soon as we began along the West bank path, it darted across. After that, it really was waders galore at Titchwell: ruff, lapwing, black tailed godwit, redshank, avocets… the list could go on, were all abundant in the freshwater marsh, visible from the path and the Island hide. All foraging in the various ways that their unique bills allow or dozing in the afternoon sunshine. A friendly fellow-birder pointed out a pair of marsh harriers quartering over the surrounding land. However, the beach is where I spotted some of my favourite waders.

I’ve always had a soft spot for oystercatchers and a small group of these black, white and orange jokers made sure we were fully entertained – chasing each other and calling, beaks vertically down and backs reared. Among this chaos, other oystercatchers foraged sensibly and a trio of cute little sanderling dozed (or tried to). Turnstones did what their name suggests, picking their way around the other birds. Godwits with their oversized bills probed the sand, as did the even larger and more curious curlew, who’s haunting call was the leading voice to the backing vocals of the sea. Further out, a lesser black-backed gull bobbed on the small waves.


Returning along the same path, then taking the Fen trail led us to some signs of autumn. Looking out from Fen hide, a raft of wigeon floated along, with the occasional whistle. September feels too early for these winter migrants to appear, but I guess they have to start some time.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

10. RSPB Snettisham

Bright and hazy early morning sunshine warming the still lazy dragonflies and glinting off the electric blue dash of a Kingfisher’s back is how our morning at RSPB Snettisham started. I hadn’t been up this early since the start of the summer and hearing bird song from those oh-so-silent day time summer songsters was wonderful.

The access trail leading from the car park to the beach was full of blackberries. A migrant hawker dragonfly, just warm enough to fly, but not so much that it escaped us, alighted on a bramble to soak up the strengthening rays. Beautiful wildflowers littered the edges, with the dainty harebells showing off the most. Flashes off colour darted before our eyes; speckled wood, tortoiseshell and small white butterflies painted the scene. Wrens and other small birds were calling from the vegetation, but few wanted to be seen.

Eventually reaching the beach trail, we were met with views of the mudflats that stretched almost to the horizon. At first glance, they appeared to just contain huge flocks of black headed gulls, but on closer examination, were also full of small brown blobs with legs and beaks. Dunlin were foraging in a large group, while the odd curlew, redshank and little egret danced around the small pools.

The beach trail was full of small birds; they clearly favoured a branch that great tits, long tailed tits and whitethroats were squabbling over in a small hawthorn. This led us to the loop trail and the rotary hide, looking out onto one of the pits. Here, were huge aggregations of greylag geese, cormorants and black tailed godwits, all on their own little islands. Common terns preened on posts and brought fish across from the wash. The occasional carrion crow, unlucky enough to pester them, was mobbed by terns and gulls.

Back out on the loop, flocks of starlings descended into the pits and terns flew overhead, noisily bringing in their silver catches. Something caused a stir among the gulls out on the mudflats, causing them all to take flight, circle and land. House martins and swallows swooped and dived, feasting off the abundant insect life above the water. Common darters, showing off in their red-orange garb, teased us by landing in front of our feet, taking to the air at the last second.

A beautiful morning for a beautiful walk, but next time, we’ll get our dates right for the Snettisham spectacular!

Sunday, 27 August 2017

9. Ted Ellis Nature Reserve, Surlingham

A russet brown coat glistening in the sunshine and tail aloft with the fire of summer, an apparition guided our way along the path to the nature reserve entrance. Our first visit to this reserve, and what better way to start the journey than with a stoat sighting. The Ted Ellis Trust was founded to preserve Wheatfen which, as the visitors guide states, “is one of the few remaining areas of the once extensive Yare Valley swamp” and is a SSSI. It’s not quite like any of the other reserves we have visited, with a mixture of habitats and a diverse array of insect life, and, I would imagine, bird life at any other time of year.

I don’t expect to see or hear many birds in August and walks can seem eerily quiet at times. The summer silence was broken today by the half-call of a cetti’s warbler, the explosion of a woodpigeon from a tree, or the gentle dabbling of a family of mute swans. A pair of buzzards circled silently and lazily over the summer-bleached fenland. The only other sounds were those of rodents rustling in the undergrowth, the buzz of bees or the flit of dragonfly wings as they deftly avoided a face-on collision.

Dragonflies and butterflies were the stars of the show today. Speckled woods darted through the woodland, unusually fast and direct flights for a member of the Lepidoptera. Peacocks sunned themselves along the board walk and a single brimstone nectared on the beautiful purple flower spikes bordering the water. Many members of the Odonata order were on the wing today, taking advantage of the blazing sunshine and warmth to show off their aerial acrobatics to the full. Brown hawkers patrolled their territories, often flying low along the paths in front of us. Southern hawkers, dressed in their bright disco colours alighted on leaves momentarily before resuming their hunting. Common and ruddy darters basked in the sunshine, or couple up in-copu. Willow emeralds were in a similarly amorous mood, with more in tandem pairs than singletons (this adds to my list of dragonfly species spotted this year, bringing the current total up to 15). They were everywhere along the latter parts of the walk.

Ruddy darter
Common darters
Common darters
Willow emerald damselflies
Willow emerald damselflies

We tried to explore as much of the reserve as possible and ended it with a dash through Surlingham Wood to avoid the mosquitoes (not altogether successfully). A beautiful reserve that we will definitely be visiting again.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Dragonflies 2017

I've always had a bit of an obsession with dragonflies. Their speed and agility, their gracefulness and curiosity has always fascinated me. But, it is has only been over the past couple of years that I have truly started to learn to identify them. I've seen more diversity of species this year than I think I ever have before, and I haven't had the time to write blogs about all the reserves I've been to. So, here is a photographic summary of the species I've got fairly good photos of this year. I've included a written list at the bottom of other species I have seen this year, but not managed to photograph well.

I am still learning to identify them, so if you think I have made a mistake, please let me know. Thanks to @BDSdragonflies for their help in identifying species knew to me.

May / June 2017, RSPB Strumpshaw Fen:

Large red damselfly
Common blue damselfly
Blue tailed damselfly

Banded demoiselle
Broad bodied chaser
Scarce chaser
Hairy dragonfly

Black tailed skimmer

August 2017, Upton Broad:

Ruddy darter
Emerald damselfy

August 2017, Home:

Migrant hawker

Other species I've seen this year:
Common darter
Brown hawker
Southern hawker

That makes 14 different species I have knowingly seen and identified this year. Let's hope there's more to come!

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

8. Upton Broad and Marshes

We finally made it to another new Norfolk Reserve today: NWT Upton Broad and Marshes, apparently well known to host a great number and diversity of my favourite insect, the dragonfly. It is August and the high season for many dragonfly species on the wing, and this quiet reserve did not disappoint.

We decided to stick to the shorter NWT Nature Trail rather than tackle the full public walk around Upton Broad. We saw only two other people, but hundreds of dragonflies. On entering the fen, a cloud of dragonflies materialised; mainly common darters, but with a few larger species like brown and southern hawkers too. All moving with such speed and agility, I couldn't help but call this research study to mind as they prowled the reed bed for other insect prey. A black tailed skimmer briefly joined the fray before we reached the alder carr woodland.

Entering the woodland, there were fewer dragonflies, but there were a couple of particularly inquisitive southern hawkers who repeatedly 'buzzed' us - hovering with precision right in front of us. Such a colourful and beautiful species. Equally colourful and graceful butterflies alighted often to sun themselves on the board walks, flowers and reeds as we explored - small tortoiseshells, green-veined whites, peacocks and gatekeepers.

An emerald damselfly and a few ruddy darters met us as we emerged from the woodland and reentered the fen. I still find it tricky to tell this species apart from the common darter, but these individuals seemed distinctly more red.

I look forward to visiting this reserve again, although perhaps at a cooler time of day to offer better photographic opportunities!

Monday, 1 May 2017

Cairngorms National Park

I’ve always wanted to visit Scotland and, this April, we made it to the Cairngorms. We stayed in Aviemore and travelled out for days to different areas and reserves to try to see as much wildlife as we could. Here’s a summary of what we did, where we went and what we saw.

Monday 10th April

Our first day in the Cairngorm National Park took us to Glenmore Forest Park for a lovely walk thought the pine forest and to the summit of Meall a’ Bhuachaille. It was a beautiful day, sunshine breaking through the cloud and trees, with a few showers. Coming from Norfolk, the landscape was so different; it was almost hard to believe we were still in the UK. Snow-capped mountains in every direction and a green loch before walking along a narrow pass through the forest. The pine forest seemed the perfect habitat for coal tits and chaffinches, who were very confiding. So many coal tits, we almost missed the crested tit that alighted in branches close to the path.

That evening, I had booked us into a hide for a dusk watch on the Rothiemurchus Estate through Speyside Wildlife to try to see pine martins and badgers. Unfortunately, the pine martins didn’t come out to play, but a group of four badgers did – we got lovely views of them as they came right up to the windows. The wood mice stealing peanuts were really charming too, sneaking out, freezing as they picked up a morsel of food, the disappearing under the rocks just as fast as they appeared.

Tuesday 11th April

Watching gorgeous ospreys from the Osprey Visitor Centre at RSPB Loch Garten is how our day began. The massive nesting platform, drenched in sunlight, stark against the hazy mountains behind. Male and female change overs were frequent, with one egg in the nest so far. There were reports of another intruding male the day before where the egg had been jolted, but not damaged. Siskins and chaffinches, as well as wood mice and voles, frequented the feeders close to the centre. A great spotted woodpecker flashed its colours in the surrounding trees. From here, we took the ‘Big Pines’ and ‘Two Lochs trail’, in the hope of seeing crested tits and red squirrels. The latter we had only seen so far darting across roads. Although we didn’t see either of these species, coal tits seemed to be a lot more common here than in Norfolk and we seemed to be followed by flocks of siskins prizing open pine cones and calling ‘finching’ contacts to each other. Reaching the viewpoint at Loch Mallachie, gazing out to the small island offshore, we saw a large, red, finch-like bird: a male crossbill perusing the surroundings from a bare tree branch. The bird life through the forest was constant – treecreepers, goldcrests, redpoll, coal tits, robins, chaffinches, siskins… wherever we were, there were birds calling, courting, combating and mostly rather confiding.

Wednesday 12th April

Another RSPB reserve was on the cards today: RSPB Insh Marshes. Curlews have become and rarer and rarer sight at home for me, but here, they were present in abundance. Their long slender curved bills and desolate calls, reminiscent of cold winter days at the beach, identifying them despite their well camouflaged plumage. Huge flocks of greylag geese swarmed over the mound that can be seen from the circular lookout hide. We walked the Invertromie and the Tromie Meadow trails, spotting lapwings, a mistle thrush, buzzards, siskins and many grey herons, some of which were mobbed by lapwings and gulls. One of the most amazing sights was the abundance of hair-like lichens hanging like cobwebs from trees, drenching them from top to bottom. A very quiet reserve in terms of human traffic, but with a sense of calm and undisturbed habitats.

As we still hadn’t ‘properly’ seen a red squirrel, our lovely hosts in our guest house suggested we visit a café called the ‘The Potting Shed’ where they feed them. The café was small, set in a huge well managed garden, and was partly set up like a hide with a bench and huge windows to look out over the feeding stations. There were plenty of birds to look at, but there were shouts of excitement when a red squirrel came down to feed. A great way to watch wildlife – in a warm café with good cake and hot chocolate!

Thursday 13th April

We couldn’t come to the Cairngorms National Park without visiting Cairngorm. We’d also had tips from various sources that the Cairngorm car park was a great place for spotting mountain hares, ptarmigan and red grouse. Within minute of us being there, we saw a white / brown streak scale the side of a slope: our first mountain hare! A beautiful creature, similar but distinct from our other lagomorphs. Despite being such a distance away, it seemed larger and more robust than the brown hare. It was somewhere between its summer and winter coat; mainly brown with a white nose, ears, underside and legs. It still had those irresistible black ear tips though. Our next sighting, completely by chance (and when bumping into others from the RSPB Norwich Group!), was of ring ouzel. We then took to the walk to Ptarmigan station, coming across some confiding snow buntings near the path. The ptarmigan were not in evidence, so we decided to walk to the summit, and were pelted by horizontal snow. When we began the descent and were just past Ptarmigan station, one of the birds in question flew overhead, and we spent the rest of the walk inspecting bird-shaped rocks for more of them.

The Sottish highlands were a magical experience and I would love to return to look for more wildlife! Here are some more details about where we stayed and visited:

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

7. Sculthorpe Moor

A gloriously bright day, feeling truly like spring, with chiff chaffs calling from every bush and tree, or at least that’s how it felt. Their humble song, announcing their name, whilst mostly staying hidden amongst twigs, new leaves and catkins, accompanied us on our walk from reception to the reserve entrance. A viewing panel overlooking long feeders was our first stop. Drawing back the shutters, we were greeted by a male bullfinch in full colour, his deep red feathers shining out like a jewel from the feeding station.

M. bullfinch
F. reed bunting

Following the boardwalk, through the woodland and over ‘watervole bridge’, although we saw no water voles, a pair of marsh tits alighted in a low tree, their completely black caps contrasting with the brightness of the day. When we arrived at the woodland hide, at first, all was quiet, with little to be seen or heard. A pair of muntjac deer skulked along the shadows, occasionally dashing through sunlit patches, dining on new shoots and leaves. Chaffinches, both male and female, began to descend, balancing on feeder perches and gathering on the floor below. A female reed bunting joined in, flitting from tree to ground and back again, her yellow and chocolate brown stripes seemingly out of place in the woodland. A pair of green finches dined, serenaded by the fluting and slightly scratchy song of a male black cap.

Leaving the woodland hide and continuing on the boardwalk towards fen hide, a commotion began above us. A pair of very agitated great tits shouting at a pair of nuthatches paying too much attention to a particular nest box; they continued their harsh calls until well after the nuthatches had flown. Perhaps a war over a as yet unoccupied box? Or the nuthatches trying to invade?

Fen hide was bathed in sharp sunlight, reflecting prettily off the ripples made by the little grebes, mallards and coots. The little grebes had a small nest right in front of the hide, almost invisible until they shifted vegetation, exposing a clutch of eggs, then carefully covering them over again before heading back out to forage. A pair of doves and a selection of male reed buntings had ownership of one bird table, whilst the other was swarming with more reed buntings and bramblings, with the occasional visit by a long tailed tit, bullfinch or nuthatch.

M. reed bunting
Little grebe

The newest hide at the reserve is the tower hide, built so as to be level with the canopy. Here, we had amazing views of the small birds brave enough to alight on platforms close to the hide windows. Today, a brambling was one of them, as well as an acrobatic long tailed tit, who would steal a morsel of food, hang from a twig with one claw whilst gripping the morsel in the other and feeding from it. A red poll, less brave, but no less attractive, sat on a niger seed feeder slightly further away.

Red poll
Long tailed tit
Peacock butterfly

We continued, walking along the boardwalk bathed in sunlight, towards the scrape hides, where, unfortunately, there was nothing to be seen, but a green woodpecker could be heard yaffling from nearby. The warm day had tempted out a few different butterflies; an orange-tip gliding along the path edges and peacock butterflies basking on the boardwalk or chasing each other in spirals.

A day to herald the arrival of spring.