Saturday, 1 June 2019

Swallowtails at Strumpshaw

What a start to #30DaysWild! Strumpshaw Fen was literally buzzing with activity. I have never seen so many visitors here, there was no room left for parking, so we continued to Buckenham Marshes and walked back. This was a good choice, however, as I *think* we spotted a couple of Norfolk Hawkers along the lane – brown dragonfly with clear wings – but they were too fast to spot the diagnostic green eyes. Butterflies like commas and orange-tips also graced the hedgerows.

Arriving at the Strumpshaw Fen reception hide, their small ‘wildlife garden’ was surrounded by photographers all snapping away at a single Swallowtail butterfly who was clearly trying to give everyone a good view. I always forget how big these insects are, but being able to compare it to a brimstone and orange tip on the same patch really showed the size difference. Happily feeding on the white flowers of Honesty, these impressive creatures stand out with their bold patterning of yellow and black with the faint dusting of blue near their shocking red eye-spots.

We decided to take the woodland trail leading to the river, then back to the reception hide via Fen Hide. The woodland trail was a good choice for dragons and damsels; countless blue damselflies (a little quick to identify), some large red damselflies and female scarce chaser surrounding the stream. This is only the second time I’ve seen a scarce chaser and it was in exactly the same place as several years ago. The yellow-almost-orange body and wing patches with the bold black stripe leading up the abdomen and tapering to a point near the wings.

A kestrel hovered as we walked the river bank and a family of swans with young cygnets appeared at Fen Hide, alongside a confiding reed bunting who perched on reeds next to the hide.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Cairngorms 2019

RSPB Loch Garten

Returning to the highlands of Scotland with its beautiful mountains and lichen clad trees is always a breath of fresh air, quite literally. Not long after we passed the sign welcoming us to Scotland, a red squirrel dashed across the A-road we were driving on, a little ginger harbinger of the days to come.

A bold little red squirrel also welcomed us to RSPB Loch Garten, a literal manifestation of the term ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’. Much more agile than the chunkier grey squirrels that preside back home, this lithe individual seemed perfectly at home feasting on the peanuts provided at the Osprey Centre before taking up the spiral tree trunk chase with another. The best view I’ve ever had of this species, it gave me time to study his features and expressions in more detail; the luscious ear tufts, the flecks of ginger, red, grey, blond, white in his coat, the unspoilt creamy white of his underside, the slender but strong ‘fingers’ and toes’ for grasping and the long strands of fur making up a magnificent tail.

Other visitors here included an endless stream of chaffinches alongside a few siskins and great tits. We followed the ‘Two lochs trail’ in the hope of seeing crossbills and cresties, but neither decided to show themselves. A male goldeneye out on Loch Garten showed off its markings above and below by rolling in the still water to clean.


The base station at CairGorm has been a brilliant location for spotting wildlife in the past, and, although we saw fewer species here this time, the ring ouzels did not disappoint. The male in particular was very showy, sporting his white bib against ebony feathers, each outlined in white, giving a scalloped appearance to his plumage.

As we ascended higher, our attention was caught by the motor-sounding call of a red grouse that landed amongst the heather lower down. The higher we walked, the more snow appeared under foot. Another ring ouzel appeared, and, as we were looking at him, we heard tiny footsteps on the snow behind us. As we turned, we were met with a pair of ptarmigan scurrying across the snow on their fluffy feet, softly calling to each other. Another pair, slightly closer this time, were outside the ‘Ptarmigan cafĂ©’. These two really let us appreciate their markings. The male, having lost most of his winter plumage, was still white below with almost-black tortoiseshell feathers above, dappled black and white head and neck and large red ‘eyebrow’. The female still retained some of her winter plumage with a few tortoiseshell feathers coming through and a generally daintier build, especially around the head and beak. This is the first time we have seen these birds properly, rather than just a far off flying bird.

As the day drew on, and the mountain got busier, the wildlife got less, but the constant sounds to the walk were the calls of meadow pipits at all levels, alighting on the heather or wires of the ski lifts. 

Sunday, 4 November 2018

18. RSPB Minsmere

Reeds rustling in the November wind, their purple-grey seed heads shimmering in the low sun, waving to the rhythm of the breeze greeted us at RSPB Minsmere. Small birds kept a low profile, sheltering, and Bittern Hide appeared lifeless in a beautiful panorama of golden light and reflection. The unseasonably warm day brought common darters out to sunbathe on wooden benches and swarm together over the land, the last of their dragonfly-kind on the wing this year; they paved our way to Island Mere Hide.

This hide was alive with birds and human visitors alike. Over the bright water, swans paddled, whilst marsh harriers danced in the distance. A bittern, overly confiding and confident, appeared straight in front of the hide. These usually elusive birds I usually only glimpse through dense reeds, or hear their booming calls in spring, but this was something else entirely. The piercing yellow eye and beautiful golden-brown-black-white barred plumage, perfectly echoing the dancing reeds behind, demonstrating cryptic colouration working flawlessly for this little heron.

In contrast, the Canopy Hide gave us only trees for company, although their chorus was beautiful to listen to and their changing colours and tumbling leaves were a feast for the eyes in themselves. Although our avian friends seemed to be avoiding the tree tops, lower in the canopy we stumbled across a mixed flock of chatty little birds; blue-, great- and long tailed tits called and hunted for insects in a little gang, one in particular being very successful at finding moths on the bark. A rabbit with tatty ears feasted on fallen blackberries on the ground, whilst squirrels continued on their never-ending mission of finding and caching their winter stores.

The sea, high and rippled with waves that never seemed to reach the shore, was brisk, with the dunes providing us with some shelter as we battled with sand to reach the East Hide. A stone chat, characteristically perching on the tips of small twigs, accompanied us as the light began to drain from the sky at mid-afternoon. Teal, wigeon, shoveler, shelduck, gadwall and other wildfowl huddled down on the little islands, others preening or fighting out on the water. Similar critters could be found at South Hide, with a particularly stunning shoveler showing off his iridescent green head and neck smothered in water droplets from his dabbling.

Monday, 20 August 2018

A Dragonfly and Butterfly Safari at Strumpshaw Fen

It was a mild, cloudy and windy day; nothing like the scorching, calm weather we’ve gotten used to, so we weren’t overly optimistic about how many of our spectacular aerial display masters we would find on our dragonfly and butterfly safari at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen. Luckily, the cooler weather meant the smaller species were less quick on the wing so Andy from Butterfly Conservation Norfolk, who was leading the walk, was able to quickly net a common blue damselfly less than five minutes in to point out the identifying features. I’ve always loved dragonflies, but I’m still getting to grips with identification techniques, so this was extremely useful, especially for the tricky-to-tell-apart blues. The common has a dot on ‘S2’, the second abdominal segment, whereas an azure, which we didn’t find, has a U-shape. Our next find was a holly blue butterfly enjoying some bramble flowers, unfussed by the small group of interested naturalists keenly watching it crawl.

Common blue damselfly
Holly blue butterfly
This was shortly followed by a willow emerald damselfly, our next catch, even more beautiful up close, this damselfly is a relatively recent colonist here and has spread incredibly quickly.

Willow emerald damselfly
Ruddy darters kept themselves out of reach, perching on tall sticks or staying out over the water to prevent us sneaking up on them. Andy did manage to catch one later, however, to point out its characteristics. More keenly ‘waisted’ than a common darter; this was obvious when in the hand as an identifying feature of this species rather than just going by colour.

Ruddy darter
Southern hawkers I’ve always thought of as an impressive and curious dragonfly, but the female that was netted really impressed. Not at all happy with being caught, she valiantly tried to gnaw her way free, showing the movement in her jaw as she tried to pierce the skin. Up close, this is clearly a robust dragonfly with strong flight muscles and beautiful eyes.

Female Southern hawker
A pretty emerald damselfly was our next catch, really unimpressed with being caught, he curled his abdomen over his back in an attempt to tell us to leave him alone.

Emerald damselfly
Spotting a brown hawker that was far too high to even attempt to reach and several migrant hawkers running rings around us brought our dragonfly total to seven for the afternoon. However, the show wasn’t quite over yet. For a finale, Andy spotted a male southern hawker in the hedge and managed to catch it to show us the colour variation between male and female. This individual had beautiful green-blue eyes and an ‘expression’ that seemed to show how angry it was at being caught.

Male Southern hawker
For anyone interested in dragonflies, I would highly recommend this event – the next is in June 2019. 

Saturday, 4 August 2018

17. SWT Carlton Marshes

Brought to my attention via social media when the American bittern made a visit to this reserve, we finally decided to pay it a visit ourselves. On a day with weather that has become commonplace this summer, with glaring sunshine and a temperature of around 30°, we walked the full trail around Carlton Marshes. A stunning landscape, somehow even flatter and with even more views of the horizon than similar reserves in Norfolk. We primarily visited for dragonflies, with plenty of brown hawkers on the wing and a few emerald damselflies, and I was pleased to find my first small red-eyed damselflies, their eyes almost glowing demonically from their turquoise and metallic brown bodies. Males mate-guarded, clasped fast to the females as they oviposited and a female brown hawker joined in, submersing most of her long abdomen to lay her large eggs into underwater plant material.

Emerald damselfly
Small red-eyed damselflies
Plenty of butterflies were enjoying the Sun too, with bright and fresh red admirals accompanied by other slightly more worn individuals. Gatekeepers and meadow browns fluttered along the waterside vegetation, accompanied by plenty of whites. A peacock butterfly, having seen better days, rested for a while and I had to avoid treading on a skipper.

Any small birds remained quiet, but a number of raptors obliged. A common buzzard soared on thermals, whilst a daring kestrel held its ground on a post until the last second as we approached. As we watched the kestrel, a marsh harrier glided low overhead, showing off its blackened wing tips and pale head as it turned.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

A summer walk at Strumpshaw Fen

There were plenty of majestic dragons and fluttering damsels at a very muggy Strumpshaw Fen on Sunday. Newly emerged dragons lifted from the meadow trail as we walked, their fresh and filmy wings glistening in the harsh sunlight, mostly darters that were not yet developed enough (for me) to identify. Common and ruddy darters appeared and just as quickly disappeared, whilst brown hawkers patrolled, hunted and buzzed at us when we lingered too long. Common and blue tailed damselflies alighted on upright stems off the paths and waterways and a Southern hawker eventually obliged by settling on dead leaves, possibly trying to blend in. Black tailed skimmers always kept a step ahead of us on the paths near fen hide, settling again and lifting off as we approached, rarely realising we would just keep getting closer again.

Black-tailed skimmer
Southern hawker

Vivid butterflies were also out in force, some dark mysteries until opening their wings. Peacocks and red admirals littered the waterside brambles, contrasting with the green foliage. Small and other ‘whites’ were everywhere, like large petals of blossom alighting, then being blown by a spring breeze. The odd small tortoiseshell and speckled wood settled and showed off. Never before had I noticed how furry speckled woods are, usually they are moving too quickly through dappled woodland, chasing their competitors or potential mates.

Red admiral
Small tortoiseshell
Speckled wood

The birds were mostly quiet, with most now being in eclipse. An obliging kingfisher at Fen Hide decided to show off with a long bath and preening session as we watched, in little hurry. Here, a little egret also danced whilst trying to spear fish. Tower hide held a handful of ducks, young and begging black headed gulls and a couple of moulting ruff. There was no sign of the reported great white egrets from the previous day. However, the dragonflies and butterflies certainly made up for it – I’m now looking forward to their butterfly and dragonfly safari next month!

Sunday, 6 May 2018

16. NWT Foxley Wood

The Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Foxley Wood is a place we have visited many times, but this is the first visit since we started our challenge. The largest remaining area of ancient woodland in Norfolk, it has an amazing array plant and pollinator species, including ancient woodland indicator species.

It was one of these species that we had come to see in its full glory today: native English bluebells. The walk is always boggy and wet underfoot, but if you can persevere, it is well worth the effort. Little clumps of blue nodding heads herald what lies ahead, along with other pretty wildflowers, such as cuckoo flower and water avens, with its delicate flowers atop tall sinewy stems, their yellow anthers just visible under a cloak of dark red sepals. Then there are the showy blossoms of various trees in the Rosaceae family, pink and white clusters irresistible to bees and their allies. More blue and purple blooms came from the upright flower spikes of bugle. As the blue tide began to swell, the bluebells were joined by greater stitchwort, tiny white flowers with five bifurcated petals. An out-of-place red campion stood tall and proud to be different above the sea of blue. Reaching the pinnacle of the ocean swamping the ground, hugging the trees, the fragrance of English bluebells is almost too much, but subtle enough that I could have happily stood forever in that sea, listening to the choir of woodland birds, breathing in the smell and gazing at all of those individual blue heads melting into one huge blue wave.

Water avens
Great tit
Red campion
Bugle and water avens