Wednesday, 2 August 2017

What are the chances of that happening?

Life is full of coincidences and Norfolk Wildlife Trust volunteer Derek Longe had a special and rather unusual encounter with a special insect at NWT Thorpe Marshes one evening...

Imagine a damselfly flying well after eight o'clock at night.  It lands onto a photo in a published article about the same species at the same nature reserve. Slim chance you may say? Improbable? Well this actually happened!
 

Here is the photographic proof - 

Willow emerald damselfly admiring a picture of itself, Derek Longe
Mating willow emerald damselflies by Tabs Taberham
The damselfly in question was a male willow emerald damselfly seen at 8.16pm on 19th July 2017 at Thorpe Marshes NWT reserve.  This is a recent coloniser being seen first in Suffolk in 2007 and is rapidly spreading across the south-east of England. The peak emergence time is in August/September and most records range from July to October. This year the first seen nationally was back in June in Essex. Some had been more recently sighted around the local Norwich area so that was not an unexpected species.

Local naturalist and NWT volunteer, Chris Durdin leads monthly walks around Thorpe Marshes NWT reserve.In July, the regular walk is moved to the evening (the June one also) to take advantage of the longer daylight hours. That afternoon was particularly warm and humid, the evening temperate remained above 20C during the duration of the walk.
Warm enough for insects like damselflies to be still active that late in the day.  

At a point where this species has been sighted in previous years, Chris stopped and explained about the willow emerald damselfly and the various tree species it oviposits into. He then mentioned that I had witnessed a pair egg-laying into bramble last September on the reserve and that I had an account of this unusual event recently published in the journal Atropos. Having the article on me, I handed it to the others to have a look at. Whilst one of the group Ann Greenizan had it in her hands to read, a male willow emerald Damselfly magically alighted onto the article photograph. He stayed there just long enough for me to get a couple of photos before flying off, disappearing into the windblown vegetation.

This species has been variously described as "this stunning damselfly","an elusive beauty","enigmatic" and "unique". In my eyes, this surreal combination of real life and printed matter reinforces that "specialness" to me of the willow emerald damselfly!

Friday, 14 July 2017

Conservation: challenge and opportunity

Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Head of People and Wildlife, David North gives a personal view of what the challenges ahead might be for our wildlife and natural environment post Brexit and how we can take action.

Few people would disagree that today is a time of great changes. For both agriculture and nature conservation the future is less certain today than for a generation. Though no one knows for sure what the impact of Brexit will be on agriculture and nature conservation undoubtedly, there will be new challenges and opportunities.

Many of us will have come across the term SWOT analysis which stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Now perhaps is a good time to apply this tool to wildlife conservation. Though what follows is purely my personal take on some of the challenges and opportunities facing wildlife conservation -  if this in any way stimulates further thinking about how we can best protect wildlife in changing times then it will have served a useful purpose.


Some of the 1,400 NWT volunteers Elizabeth Dack
Strengths:  The biggest strength we have as a movement is surely a groundswell of public support.  It’s said that more than 7 million people in the UK belong to conservation organisations and both the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have more members than any political party in the UK. 

Weaknesses:  The continuing loss of habitats and wildlife so clearly demonstrated in many studies, including the recent State of Nature reports, shows clearly that despite many conservation success stories in protecting special sites as nature reserves, and some notable species success stories, such as otters and red kites, that the loss of wildlife in the wider countryside has continued in every decade since the 1940s. Our biggest weakness has been our lack of success in protecting formerly widespread and common species in the wider countryside.

Photo: David Tipling

Opportunities:  In recent times each year £3 billion pounds of funding has gone to support agriculture in the UK through the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy.  Some of these funded schemes, such as Higher Level Stewardship (HLS), have brought about environmental and wildlife benefits and also provided vital financial support to conservation bodies including Norfolk Wildlife Trust, RSPB and National Trust. However, they have largely failed to prevent continuing degradation of our countryside for wildlife. As we take back national control of agricultural support payments there is a huge opportunity to see some of these funds targeted more effectively at helping farmers and conservation organisations to restore wildlife habitats on a landscape scale.  Given that more than 70% of our countryside is farmed if we are to stand any chance of reversing the destruction of vital wildlife habitats and the declines we see across so many formerly common species then the future structure of agricultural subsidies will be crucial. The government has promised a 25 year vision for nature and this needs to clearly identify how in new ways agricultural support funding will better enable farmers and nature conservation bodies to work together to create a more diverse, more wildlife-friendly, richer and more beautiful countryside for both people and wildlife.

Kingfisher by David North
Threats:  It seems to me that the biggest threat is the low priority given to wildlife and the countryside in political discussions about our future.  This was clear during the last election when environmental issues were barely mentioned by politicians or the media.  The threat is that a healthy and wildlife rich ecology, rather than being seen as the bedrock on which our future health and wealth depends is seen as a minority interest of a few awkward activists and naturalists.  We (and in this ‘we’ I include readers of this Blog and NWT members!) know that healthy, properly functioning ecosystems provide us with clean air, clean water, natural  pollution control, help mitigate climate change, provide free natural flood controls, keep our soils healthy, enable  pollinators to ensure our crops thrive and contribute massively to human happiness, health and wellbeing.  But do our politicians and decision makers really understand and act on this?

So if any of this rings true what can we do?  The Government is promising, for the first time in a generation, an Agriculture Bill (the last major Agriculture Bill was in 1947).  We can make sure our elected MPs know that we want to ensure that any Bill that determines how agriculture support will be provided in future absolutely ensures that the health and beauty of the countryside, and the value of restoring healthy functioning ecosystems rich in wildlife delivering the ‘ecosystem services’ such as pollination, healthy soils, and clean water is high on the priority list. The Wildlife Trusts nationally are working with other major environmental bodies to ensure that conservation organisations speak with one voice to ensure that the environmental protections currently provided through the EU Habitats Directive, EU Birds directive and other European environment laws are not lost when we leave the EU.  You can find out more at www.greeneruk.org 


NWT Foxley Wood by Richard Osbourne
However, as was shown when the plans to sell off public forests were reversed, public opinion is a powerful voice when it comes to politics.  I believe that decisions made in the next few years will be crucial to the kind of future environment our children will inherit.  We can all play a part in ensuring that new opportunities for reversing the declines in nature are taken and threats of weakened laws to protect wildlife averted. But we can only ensure this if we make sure as individuals that our voices are heard. And heard loud and clear by the people who will be taking decisions which will affect our countryside and wildlife for a generation.  If you care about the future of our countryside and wildlife please make sure your voice is heard. Wildlife doesn’t have a voice in the decisions which will determine its future. We need to be its voice.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

30 Days Wild: My journey

Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Head of People and Wildlife, David North signed up to the challenge of 30 Days Wild and got in touch with his inner wild child this June.  Close encounters with nature and priceless memories ensued.

Star gazing, moon watching, fire making, sea swimming, bee following, poppy field wandering, opening my eyes and ears for lots of looking and listening: 30 Days Wild has been an adventure.  Too many highlights to list, but I would like to share just some of my 30 Days Wild moments with you and just a few images that hopefully capture some of my special wild June moments.


Baby muntjac with 'Mum' and Swans with cygnets by David North
Waking on June 2 to look out of the window and spot a baby muntjac, still wobbly-legged and spotty-coated, and no bigger than a puppy, accompanied by its mum was a definite ‘isn’t nature amazing moment’ and the swans on Felbrigg lake later that day with nine cygnets scored high on the ‘cute factor’.

Yellow flag, bee orchids and dandelion clock by David North
I had resolved during 30 Days Wild to pay more attention to plants. After all June is peak-flower, both in my garden, and along the lanes and byways where I walk my dog, Rohan. 

Rohan enjoying the poppies
My June started yellow; with buttercups, dandelions and yellow flag iris. The middle of the month brought those stars of the plant world, orchids, into full flower, with both common spotted and bee orchids gracing my local walks. It ended in a blaze of scarlet, with a visit, accompanied by Rohan of course, to a Norfolk speciality, poppy fields in all their mind-altering crimson glory. Like stepping, Alice in wonderland like, into a different and brighter reality.I think Rohan liked it too.

Taking advice from my 30DaysWild pack I decided on several occasions during the month to try following bees. My preferred version of this was lying on my lawn in the sunshine watching countless bumblebees visiting white clover flowers and idling an hour trying to capture that perfect image. Well, no perfection, but one or two just about in focus images resulted!

I resolved with my wife to spend more time out outdoors, so gathering sticks and several outdoor cooking attempts in the garden left me, and the food, well-smoked.  I love the smell of wood-smoke but not sure how my colleagues at work took to my new smoky perfume aroma.

A curious Roe Deer by David North

During June a roe deer adopted us, spending much of its time either in the barley field we look out on, or the grass field next to our entrance. A field of waving Yorkshire Fog I’m proud to say – you see I’ve been learning my common grasses this month helped by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s County Wildlife Action project!  I got a lot of not very good photos of this particular roe deer, which had the early morning habit of eating the roses in our garden, but how could you not forgive such a soft-eyed, elegant, beautiful and gentle creature?  This image of her on the edge of the barley field is one of the better ones. 


Swallowtail detail by David North
 30 Days Wild, and there’s still a few days left as I’m writing this, has seen me adventure out to NWT Hickling Broad where in the hot sunny weather swallowtails were dancing over reeds and fen.But dancing fast enough to blur all my photos. This image I rather liked in an arty kind of way! I hope you do too.
Gossamer threads by David North




Hot days also brought vast numbers of tiny ‘money’ spiders to our garden, tickling hair and face as we ate our evening meals outside. This made me walk at sunrise the next morning to see if a could spot ‘gossamer’ in  the local fields – one of nature’s many miracles, when the usually hidden abundance of spiders is revealed by thin silk strands shining silver across whole fields. Spiderlings release these strands of silk to catch the wind and fly, but its only when   the sun is low in the sky at early morning, or near sunset, that these gossamer strands catch the light and are revealed.

Hoverflies enjoying the nectar on thistle head
What have I liked about 30 Days Wild? 
Well just about everything!  Like most people I need a reason to look and listen just a bit more carefully and to spend a little more time each day enjoying the extraordinary diversity and beauty of nature.  

What has impressed me most?  Probably my ignorance, for as I write this inside virtually every flower in my garden is a unique small  ecosystem teeming with life that seems extraordinary but about which I know almost nothing. Pollen beetles beyond count; small, black and perfect in every way; hoverflies in shades of marmalade- orange and black, with huge eyes that take up most of their heads. They queue in perfect hovers await their turn at my garden flowers.  Hoverflies in a holding pattern waiting for the larger bumblebees to leave some landing space. 
Barley turning gold by David North
As I write this the barley in the field next door is turning gold, and tonight, most likely, I will hear the hoots of tawny owls from a nearby wood and perhaps the barking of deer already thinking of the rutting season to come.  Yesterday my 30DaysWild action was to tempt the rabbits, which live in the brambles at the end of my garden, to come out into the open. I bribed them with a carrot. Small payment for permission to photograph them and to spend a happy half hour watching and smiling at their antics.  

One thing 30 Days Wild has taught me is that if you sit quietly and watch then wildlife may soon lose its fear of coming close.  Definitely true for these young rabbits!
Young rabbits by David North

Norfolk is extraordinary. Nature is extraordinary.  And my resolution, come the end of June, is to make ‘Wildfulness’ practice - simply spending time in, and with, nature, part of my every day and to share nature moments with friends and family. After all, whether we notice or not, we are part of nature and nature is part of us.

‘We are all, bird and human, part of the earth, of its time and its matter, impelled by the mechanisms within, the ones that order our responses to days, months, years, to light and darkness, the rhythms, circadian, circannual, that regulate what we are and what we do.' From: Esther Woolfson, Corvus. A life with birds.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Bee Orchids get my vote

Encounters with nature can happen in the most mundane places... 
Naturalist and Norfolk Wildlife Trust volunteer Chris Durdin happens upon bee orchids on his travels through Norwich.

"Regular readers of NWT's  blog will know that I keep an eye on a surprising colony of bee orchids in Norwich city centre. You may be glad to have an update.

They appeared again, where they first grew nine years ago, at the Big Yellow Self Storage depot on Canary Way opposite Norwich City FC. The meadow in the city is looking good, with ox-eye daisies blooming beside the path as you walk between the tyre garage and Morrison’s supermarket. 
Ox-eye daisies Norwich, Chris Durdin
 


All credit to the team at Big Yellow: looking after their wild flowers has become a routine they have taken to with enthusiasm.

However the bee orchids are well down in numbers this year. A count of eight is well short of last year’s record of 30. I’m fairly sure that the dry winter and spring is the reason. I’ve seen this with orchids in several parts of Europe. Because they grow from a tuber, some will have the resources to flower in any season. However a wet winter or early spring gives that vegetative growth a boost. By contrast, when it’s dry many will stay dormant. 

My part of the deal, as it were, is to encourage some publicity. I met a reporter from the Eastern Evening News and, as ever, stressed that bee orchids are special here because of their city centre location rather than being rare. 
Bee orchid by the bus route, Chris Durdin
I had a second bee orchid encounter in a surprising place on Election Day. I was knocking on doors in North Norfolk – for Norman Lamb, if you were wondering. In a Sheringham front garden a swarm of bee orchids – I estimated 130 – was a glorious surprise. 


Up the road, three painted lady butterflies and a silver-Y moth were drawn to red valerian in another garden. These are both migrants, so this year’s weather patterns have suited them, in contrast to the Big Yellow bee orchids. The lady of the house was equally enthused and very happy to talk about wildlife rather than politics!"
Painted lady on red valerian, Sheringham Chris Durdin

Chris Durdin leads monthly wildlife walks at NWT Thorpe Marshes. Details of monthly walks on http://www.honeyguide.co.uk/thorpemarshes.htm

Monday, 8 May 2017

30 Touches of Nature

The month of June is fast approaching and it's a great time to get outdoors and enjoy nature - it's good for your health and wellbeing.  Why not take up the 30DaysWild challenge?  Here Norfolk Widlife Trust's Head of People and Wildlife, David North explains how going wild in June can make you feel good.

'One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.'  (William Shakespeare)
 


 There is much talk today of the benefits of ‘mindfulness’ as a way of coping with the seemingly ever-increasing stresses and strains of modern life. But ‘wildfulness’, simply spending time in nature, can also bring great rewards.

Bar-tailed godwits by David North
I was lucky enough over the recent Bank Holiday weekend to spend time walking on the Norfolk coast beneath the wild, eroding cliffs of Mundesley. It was a windy day, windy enough to blow your troubles away, and as the waves crashed against seaweed-encrusted, wooden groins masses of bubbly sea foam was flying into the air then bouncing along the beach in foaming masses. In my book, time spent walking along our wonderful Norfolk coast, with its diverse wild landscapes of sand, sea, shingle, mud and marsh, is never wasted.  A walk along the shore is a great place to gain a sense of perspective, to see things both literally and metaphorically in a new light.  And as with any walk in wild places there are always surprises: on this walk winging their way through the flying foam came a small flock of bar-tailed godwits.  They rested briefly on the beach, just long enough to see some were in full ‘red’ breeding plumage and others, perhaps non-breeders or younger birds, still winter grey. With them flew one, extremely smart, black and white spangled, grey plover. What a delight. Today Mundesley beach, next stop, perhaps the Arctic circle! 
 

Spending quiet time in nature, sitting or walking, listening and looking, without rushing or getting distracted by thoughts of jobs I need to do, not only helps me see details in the landscape and natural world that I would otherwise miss, it also helps me make sense of my life.  How often do we simply give ourselves time to ‘tune-in’ to the sounds, smells and textures of nature around us? But at least for me this time is vital: vital to health, happiness and sanity.

Perhaps you need an excuse to simply spend a few moments outside allowing yourself to connect to nature around you?  Well the good news is the Wildlife Trusts are offering the perfect excuse.  It’s free, like the wild world around us, and it’s called 30 Days Wild.
 

The aim is to get as many people as possible to do one small thing – one Random Act of Wildness – which could be as simple as going outside on a clear night and spending a couple of minutes star gazing, find a wild space in a lunchtime and sitting quietly for five minutes tuning in to the living things around us that we share this world with, or getting up early and listening to bird song, really listening so that all your attention is attuned to what you are hearing. It’s happening in June but if you visit the website now, we will send you a pack (by email or post) full of ideas for Random Acts of Wildness to try out in June.  These small actions – walking for a minute barefoot though grass on a dewy morning, taking time to touch the rough bark of a tree, following a bee or butterfly for a minute and observing its life – may sound trivial, but give it 30 days and I suspect you will be surprised at the power that spending time connecting to nature has to change the way you feel.  It should of course come with a health and happiness warning. After 30 days you may well have formed a lifetime habit!

Explore the boundaries between land, sea, sky, earth and nature. In doing so you may begin to discover your own connection to the timeless cycles of nature which in reality, without or without our conscious awareness, we are all participants in.  Is that wildness inside us or outside? Are we part of nature or separate from it?


If ‘one touch of nature makes the whole world kin’ just think what 30 touches can do for you!   To join in visit www.wildlifetrusts.org/30dayswild  You are never too old or too young to enjoy the nature around you and if you are a family and would like to interest your children in wildlife then taking part in 30DaysWild is a great way to start. 

Do you want some help in reconnecting with nature?
The Wildlife Trusts have a saying, ‘All our lives are better when they are a little bit wild’ and have developed hundreds of ‘Random Acts of Wildness’ which are easy and free to do and can help you engage with nature wherever you are. For details visit 30 Days Wild.
 

The Wildlife Trusts believe that people are part of nature; everything we value ultimately comes from it and everything we do has an impact on it. We believe that each year, there should be more wildlife and more wild places, and people should become closer to nature.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Sedge warblers return

Naturalist and Norfolk Wildlife Trust volunteer Chris Durdin welcomes the return of the sedge warbler as spring is much in evidence at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Thorpe Marshes reserve on the edge of Norwich in Thorpe St Andrew.  
Sedge warbler, Derek Longe
April 8th and my first sedge warbler of the year at Thorpe Marshes is singing, half-hidden, in last year’s reeds. It makes me wonder why it’s an exciting moment. The scratchy song has a relentless energy, which appeals to me, though that description also applies to the wren singing close by.

It’s looking like an advanced season for nature with the recent warm weather, for now at least. It’s certainly a good time to visit NWT’s reserve in Thorpe St Andrew on the eastern edge of Norwich. As well as spring bird song, marsh marigolds are in full flower and lady’s smock is coming out, too. Around the latter are orange-tip butterflies – for both nectar and as it’s a larval food plant – which also means the start of the survey season for some of the reserve’s volunteers. For a third year we are counting orange-tips (essentially in April and May) and Norfolk hawker dragonflies (June and July). So if you see someone on the reserve with pen and paper it may be Derek, Susan or me – but feel free to stop us for a chat, we can all multitask!
Orange tip butterfly on cuckoo flower, Derek Longe


My focus on the sedge warbler is for two reasons. One is simply as it’s a new arrival from sub-Saharan Africa, a reminder of the miracle of migration. The second links, I think, with keen birdwatchers’ constant search for the new or different. Yes, they’re back – like seeing an old friend after many months of absence. I haven’t heard a sedge warbler for ages.

What strikes as noteworthy is framed by both timing and place. For example, at Thorpe Marshes in 2017 to hear a Cetti’s warbler is routine, the strident song of this resident species much in evidence through much of the year. But go back a couple of decades and this bird would have been the surprise and across the UK – including in spring at Thorpe Marshes – it’s still scarcer than a sedge warbler. So unusualness depends on where and when.
 

Marsh marigold, Chris Durdin
I start to think: if I’d been there yesterday or the day before, could I have recorded an earlier sedge warbler? This train of thought, on reflection pointless competitiveness, is broken by the sight of male marsh harrier, with tri-coloured wings, flying low over the marshes. The harrier flushes a snipe, twists over the reeds where the sedge warbler was singing and heads up the valley towards Norwich. Moments later the call of a lesser black-backed gull encourages me to look upwards to where the gull is harrying a buzzard. 

Chris Durdin leads monthly wildlife walks at NWT Thorpe Marshes. Details of monthly walks on http://www.honeyguide.co.uk/thorpemarshes.htm

Monday, 27 March 2017

On the verge...

Primroses and violets David North
Spring is good time to brush up on your plant identification skills as the hedge banks, lanes and roadside verges begin to blossom.  Here Norfolk Widlife Trust's Head of People and Wildlife, David North encounters some of our spring species as they emerge from winter.

Early April and nature seems pregnant with possibilities. Along the lanes close to where I live trees – oak, ash, beech and sycamore – are still winter bare, branches stark and darkly silhouetted against spring bright skies.  Birdsong and wildflowers - spring would not be spring without them, and both are in evidence as I walk my dog along familiar verges now brightened with the golds of  primrose and celandine, sky-blue speedwells and the unassuming greenish-yellow flowers of dog’s mercury. 
White dead nettle David North
 
This is the time of year I make my annual resolution to learn my wildflowers. Of course now it’s easy, the list of what’s in flower is comparatively small.  Red dead nettle is in profusion on road verges, forming magenta patches along the lanes.  Everyone knows dandelions and daisies and although both can be spotted in flower throughout the winter, their flowers are now abundant.  They do say spring hasn’t properly arrived until you can cover seven daisy flowers with a single footprint: well by my count spring is clearly here.   

More hidden are the flowers of other arable weeds, escaped from the fields onto my local road verges.  The diminutive white flowers of hairy bittercress, dull yellows of groundsel, the white stars of common chickweed and mauve-blues of ground ivy are easy enough to spot if you stop, bend and look a bit more closely among the grass.  I have some wonderful, shady sunken lanes to walk along. The banks here are festooned with literally hundreds of primroses and looking more closely amongst them I can find the black spotted leaves of early purple orchid and, already in flower, delicate white petals of barren strawberry. Woodland escapees on these shady roadside banks include the first red campion in flower, dog’s mercury, dog violet and ‘lords and ladies’ (wild arum).

'Lords and ladies' David North
The next few weeks in April will bring many more species into flower along our verges.  Look out for greater stitchwort, lacy-white cow parsley, and one of my favourites, growing on just a few local verges, the meadow saxifrage. I must dig out my wild flower guide and remind myself of how to distinguish creeping buttercup from bulbous and meadow buttercups and take on the annual challenge of speedwells: now is that one germander, field, slender, wall or ivy-leaved?

Few wildflower meadows remain in Norfolk but we probably all have a roadside verge close to where we live and these can be a haven for wildflowers.  And where there are flowers there will be butterflies and bees to spot. In the longer grass small mammals such as shrews and voles can thrive and their predators, barn owls, kestrels, foxes, weasels and stoats all hunt along grassy verges. So our roadside verges are like long, thin nature reserves and help wildlife move across the landscape

Red campion David North
Our roadside verges, if managed sensitively, can be hugely important for nature and our living landscapes. There are 238,000 hectares of road verge grassland in Britain with Norfolk alone having around 20,000 kms of road verges.  Across Britain verges support over 1,000 species of flowering plants including some species only found here.  With the loss of so many natural meadows in Norfolk today you are more likely to see a cowslip growing on a road verge than in a wild meadow. Even many orchid species, from common spotted to the early-purple and bee orchid, may be found thriving on road-sides. So why not take a walk on the verge and see what’s in flower in your local patch.  If you find something unusual don’t forget to let us know or send a photo to our gallery.    


If you, like me, would like to get to know your local wild flowers better then here are some to look out for along Norfolk’s roadside verges in April.  

  • Common daisy
  • Dandelion
    Violet David North
  • Celandine
  • Common vetch 
  • Cow Parsley

  • Garlic Mustard

  • Greater Stitchwort

  • Lords and Ladies (Cuckoo Pint)

  • Red campion

  • Red dead nettle

  • Self heal

  • Dog and Sweet Violet

  • White dead nettle


Wednesday, 22 February 2017

'The times they are a-changin’ - NWT Thorpe Marshes

Naturalist and Norfolk Wildlife Trust volunteer Chris Durdin reflects on 'new nature' and how wildlife responds to climate change at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Thorpe Marshes reserve on the edge of Norwich in Thorpe St Andrew.

Approaching dusk in February, and there’s a loud burst of song: a Cetti’s warbler
Cetti's warbler by Elizabeth Dack
. It’s an unremarkable record in 2017 for this bird, unusually among warblers a resident species.

But it’s a reminder of how wildlife responds to changes in climate. Cetti’s warblers first bred in Britain in Kent in 1973 and they soon moved into the Yare Valley. Broadland is now a stronghold and they are also found in wet scrub in much of the south and east of the UK.

There are plenty of other examples of ‘new nature’ on my local patch. We see little egrets fairly regularly. The first little egret I saw, in my student days, was in the Camargue in the south of France, and I can clearly recall my first in Norfolk, on Breydon Water, years later. Today it’s a distinctive and easily-recognised Broadland bird. Like Cetti’s warblers, numbers can be hit if there is a long cold spell, but how often do we get weather like that?

The Migrant Hawker dragonfly was once known as Scarce Hawker, and the new name came after regular appearances in the UK in the 20th century. Now well-established as a breeding species, it’s often the commonest dragonfly at Thorpe Marshes in late summer and with luck you can see them laying eggs. 


Speckled wood butterfly by Elizabeth Dack
More recently arriving still is the Willow Emerald damselfly, breeding in Britain for just a decade, but in good numbers at NWT Thorpe Marshes, elsewhere in the Broads and beyond. The northward spread of the speckled wood butterfly is another example.  


Losses related to climate change can be more difficult to pin down. Snipe used to ‘drum’ – their distinctive breeding display – at Thorpe Marshes when I first knew the area but have stopped breeding here, as in much of lowland England. Climate is probably partly at issue, but also subtle habitat changes. Willow warblers are getting scarcer, and cuckoos too, but for these and other birds that winter in sub-Saharan Africa other factors play a part.
For me, spotting how wildlife responds to changes in climate is obvious: what my eyes and ears reveal backs up what climate scientists say. Perhaps the climate change sceptics are less in tune with the natural world. Writing here, I hope I am preaching to the converted … and that naturalists everywhere will use the evidence of nature to challenge the cynics and doubters.

Discover Thorpe Marshes
Chris leads monthly wildlife walks at NWT Thorpe Marshes. Details of these and recent sightings on the reserve are on www.honeyguide.co.uk/thorpemarshes.htm. The website also has the 15-page NWT Thorpe Marshes Wildlife Report for 2016.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Winter wildlife magic at Hickling Broad

Wildlife enthusiast, blogger and NWT Volunteer Barry Madden braved the bitterness of the east wind on a February evening to watch the spectacular wildlife at Stubb Mill Raptor Roost at Hickling Broad.
A fly past of common crane at Hickling Broad Nick Goodrum

It is cold here. Bitterly cold. A raw easterly wind whipping in from the North Sea a mile or two away; the boundary between the flat lands of eastern Norfolk and the miles of cruel grey water marked by a line of raised dunes seen as a smudge of dull green on the horizon. The scene before us a patchwork of reed bed, course grazing marshes and fen, interspersed with twisted and stunted hawthorn. The closest you can get to a barren wilderness in this part of the world for there are but scant traces of human activity: a forlorn and long abandoned wind pump, its skeletal sail arm pointing defiantly skywards; a single distant house rendered almost invisible by its light-coloured walls blending seamlessly into the gathering murk. Nothing else, just the wild open landscape unique to this Broadland haven at Norfolk Wildife Trust’s Stubb Mill Raptor Watchpoint at Hickling Broad

Us five friends have trudged to this spot, nothing more than a raised bank bordering a drainage dyke, to witness one of nature’s most thrilling and humbling spectacles; the winter roosting of the harriers. We are quite early, 90 minutes before true dusk, but already the leaden, squall-laden skies are casting their shadows over the marshes. Light is poor, visibility far from ideal, but we know the birds will come to seek out this quiet sanctuary to spend another bitterly cold night. And we don’t have long to wait before harriers sail in. First a dark marsh harrier, then a brighter male both gliding on slightly raised wings, buffeted this way and that as they cruise low over the boggy ground. Then delight; a ringtail hen harrier, its bright white rump shining as a beacon through the gloom. A flock of fieldfares appears in a nearby tree and jinking parties of smaller birds, perhaps finches or maybe yellowhammers, are flushed by a buzzard which perches atop a bush before joining another pair of harriers purposely heading towards their roosting zone.

Whilst our attention is focused on the raptors, a pair of common cranes glide over us, dropping down into a hidden pool where they are instantly consumed by the tall ranks of thick reed; lost to sight. These birds are doing well here, naturally arriving as a party of 9 nearly 40 years ago they found the place to their liking and took up residence. Slowly and painfully, with many false starts, the birds began to breed until we now have over 40 gracing the rich and fertile acreage around Hickling and Horsey. In recent years maybe 10 or so pairs attempt to raise young with varying degrees of success, allowing the birds to expand their range into other Broadland reserves and further afield into neighbouring counties. This success story owes all to the sterling efforts of NWT, other local conservation bodies and landowners. Cranes have recently been artificially reintroduced to Somerset, but it must be remembered that in this remote corner of Norfolk where the harriers circle over the reeds and the bittern still finds refuge, we have had majestic cranes for decades. And they always manage to thrill us.


Hen harrier by Elizabeth Dack
Things begin to hot up now with more harriers drifting into view, amongst them a simply beautiful, ghostly grey, resplendently perfect, male hen harrier. What truly gorgeous creatures they are, these birds of wild open spaces. This one drops to the ground seemingly finding his supper, an unlucky pipit perhaps, before he reaches the roosting zone. Through my telescope I can just make out his head tugging at the flesh of the prey he has caught. Such rare birds these and we are privileged to be able to see them in such a setting.

On past visits, on milder, sometimes even bright, winter evenings, the harriers, merlins, barn owls and cranes can put on a wonderful show with massed spiralling as a new bird joins the throng. Merlins arrow into the roost and will happily harass the much bigger harriers, chasing them across the vast open sky in sport. They choose to spend the chill of the night perched atop small hawthorn bushes whereas the larger raptors will roost on the ground or on low branches of dead and broken willows. The owls quarter the fields silent and relentless whilst the sky slower darkens and the stars come out to play. Not today though; the wind chill is numbing our hands, cutting through coats, hats and gloves and making our eyes water. We decide we have seen enough and head back along the narrow, lonely lane to the reserve centre where it is evident much activity is taking place to update and refurbish ready for the coming summer season.

Before this place became more well-known, I used to walk back alone along this lane, bordered by high dark hedges, with all kinds of ghoulish fancies running through my mind. I defy anyone to make this lonely journey and not look over their shoulder every 100 yards, just in case there may be something following; a darker shadow amongst the gathering gloom, an echo of footsteps or an unnatural rustling in the bushes. Hard not to speed up against all reason to reach your car before darkness falls complete. It is the workings of M R James; the fleeting glimpse of something unholy, for nobody knows you are here and your screams will be lost amidst the howl of the wind.

For us five folk though, chatting as a group, we had no such concerns. We instead were lucky enough to see three more cranes, a family party probably, fly towards the broad before we sought welcome refuge ourselves in the warmth of the local pub. Back to civilisation, cosy and comfortable, whilst close by there were the harriers roosting in the reeds, steeling themselves silently against the chilling bitterness of a moonless February night.   


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Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Exploring layers of history in the Norfolk Claylands

January may not be abundant with wildflowers but there is plenty to discover on a winter's walk as Helen Baczkowska, Conservation Officer with Norfolk Wildlife Trust records in her Claylands Diary for January.
 

Although I am an enthusiast of wild flowers, January walks are strangely a joy; for once I am not distracted by the delights of stitchwort or speedwell, by trying to sort greater from lesser bird’s foot trefoil.  Instead, I can look out on landscapes, study bare trees and cold winter ponds with a different eye.

On a walk through the heart of the Claylands Living Landscape, my brother, an archaeologist, slowed us down by lightly kicking at molehills. One revealed the treasure he sought – a thin, curved blade of flint I would not have looked twice at.  The chipped edge he showed me was human made, one of the thousand upon thousand Mesolithic flint tools discarded across these lands.  Most, he explained, were found on dry sandy soils, the reasons uncertain, yet how, he asked, had they recognised these places?  For an ecologist, this one question begs many more about how the vegetation of Britain developed as the last glaciers retreated to the north and as herds of large herbivores, from prehistoric bison, to deer and ponies, spread out across the cold steppe grasslands and scrub.
Gorse by David North
   


One thing I could certainly say is that even today, the patches of sandy soils left on the edge of the ice sheets can be easily distinguished amongst the ground up chalky clay of South Norfolk; earlier walking over the County Wildlife Site at Wood Green, we had crossed an area of gorse and fine grasses, visible even in winter.  In summer, heath bedstraw and heath speedwell grow here, although most of the common is clay, with meadow vetchling, meadow buttercup, cowslip and black knapweed.

Nearby Fritton Common is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, with orchids and ponds were great crested newts breed, but in the bleakness of January, my attention was drawn to the almost straight rows of oak trees, most noticeable on the western boundary.  Some of these are huge old trees, the largest in the south-west corner showing signs of pollarding – a way that small wood was once produced by cutting and re-cutting above the height of grazing stock. Collecting small wood from pollards was often the right of the commoners, whereas the timber trees themselves were the property of the lord of the manor. 


Old oak tree by Brian Beckett
In the centuries when barns and houses and especially warships were built on oak frames, these trees were valuable, their management and planting central to a farm’s income and survival; it is likely that the amount of oak across many English counties is not a virtue of ecology, so much a legacy of old economies and the insatiable need for timber for ships.  Today, being winter bare, these trees make curious shapes, with a large, gnarled trunks and many holes; invertebrates inhabit the crevices and barbestelle bats, which are have been recorded hunting over the common, no doubt find a roost in the cracks and fissured bark.

The lines of pollards continue south of Fritton Common, along a sinuous path, known locally as Snake Lane.  Hedges in the Claylands are often tall, with mature trees and a flora suggesting these are old fragments of woodland. The wide hedges of Snake Lane indicate long generations of woodland management, with pollards of oak and field maple; between them the pale slender trunks of hazel show signs of past coppicing.  Like pollarding, this produced small wood for hurdles and tool handles by cutting and re-cutting, but this time at ground level; the re-grown trees have many stems and a distinctive stump or “stool”.  A few hornbeam grow here too, their bark smooth and twisted into long creases, their timber once famed for its hardness.

Returning home, across Morningthorpe Common, a whisper makes me look up.  With a sound like the lightest of summer breezes in tall trees, a flock of fieldfares is heading to roost.  I have spotted a lot of these large, grey-backed thrushes over the past week, no doubt forced briefly south by cold weather. 
Fieldfare by Elizabeth Dack
 

By the end of our walk, dusk is wintry, grey and damp; warmth and hot tea beckon, but so do more days of walking the quiet, hidden tracks of the Claylands, exploring the endless, inseparable layering of human and natural history.