Wednesday, 10 July 2013

A water vole encounter

Jessica Riederer, Seasonal Education Officer

Since I moved to England in 2008 I have been trying to catch a good glimpse of a water vole. I know they are fairly common in Norfolk, that every other person seems to have seen one, and that they can ‘regularly’ be seen in this place or that place – none the less – I have yet to see one. I have heard the familiar ‘plop’ into the water many times and if I stretch my imagination I could probably say that once, at NWT Thorpe Marshes, I saw a streak of dark, wet fur before one disappeared into a dyke, but I certainly have never seen one sitting on its haunches, nibbling on a reed and looking ever so cute as they always seem to be doing in the photographs of the hundreds of people who have not only seen but managed to photograph one.

Water voles aside, for me it was all about dragonflies this weekend. On Saturday I spent three enchanting hours watching an emperor dragonfly on his relentless but elegant patrolling of his lily pad laden pond patch, but on Sunday, I devoted the sweet sticky sunny hours to my favorites – banded damselflies. I live next to the River Tas which hosts a healthy population of them and this morning when they kept visiting my garden, I knew that this would definitely be a good banded damselfly day. 

In shorts and sandals, camera in hand, I strode across the sheep field that borders my house and down to the bridge that crossed the crystal clear waters of the Tas. As suspected, there were more banded’s than I had ever seen. Of course they were not flying anywhere near me - they all seemed to be landing quite low on the foliage just above the water’s surface. Observing and photographing them from the bridge would not work. I needed to get down to the river. This of course would cause considerable pain as there was a good three meter strip of stinging nettles lining it. Fortunately there were no children about as I pushed my bare-legged way through the elbow high nettles enduring considerably more pain than I had envisioned. At the river’s edge I slid down the embankment in a most ungraceful manner and landed thigh deep in water that was much colder than I had hoped. 

Banded damselfly, by Jessica Riederer
Wading through the river I found a nice shallow patch of submerged sandy (and not too silty) gravel to sit on. For an hour I sat, River crowfoot flowering around me, tiny fish darting amongst my toes, and more banded damselflies than I had ever seen, fluttering, chasing, landing, hunting, mating – their dainty iridescent blue and green bodies and the barely audible flap of their wings making me incredibly happy. 

The longer I sat with the river flowing around me, the more life I noticed. The air was thick with insects and I was feeling quite pleased with myself as nothing seemed to be biting me or landing on me although every now and then a banded would land on my camera or my knees that remained poking out of the water. After about an hour, I decided that in actual fact I was cold, and my legs were cramped, and my sandals were not in fact waterproof so perhaps it was time to exit the river.

But then, about 10 feet in front of me, I saw the slightest, graceful movement of something small swimming against the flow of the river, beneath the overhanging vegetation. Leaves were pushed aside and water rippled where it had not rippled before, as a little body made its way closer and closer and - to my absolute disbelieve - out of the water, not three feet from me, emerged a water vole. My heart pounded in my chest and I sat there stupefied. A water vole - not three feet from me! So close! From his bent reed perch, he stared at me, lifted his nose into the air once or twice perhaps trying to detect my presence, but then just carried on doing his water vole thing. I watched in awe as he cleaned his chunky little face and groomed his whiskers with his perfect slender little feet. For once I was not worried about trying to get a photograph – he was far too close for me to focus, but being unable to help myself (and perhaps to assist in my memory) I slowly pointed my camera towards him, leaning back away from him as far as I could, and got one blurry shot. He just continued grooming himself.

The water vole that visited, by Jessica Riederer
After a moment or two, he slid back into the water and I turned to watch him swim up the stream behind me. Not five feet past me I heard – and this time saw – that familiar PLOP as another water vole jumped off the embankment into the water and proceeded to chase my little visitor up and down the overhanging brambles, in and out of the reeds and back and forth under the river behind me – little brown bodies showing ever so clearly though the transparent waters of the Tas. Further upstream another large water vole busied its way towards me on the surface of the water, and after more splashing, all went quiet and it was as if nothing had happened except for the hum of insects and the blissful dainty flight of damselflies. 

Walking home, I couldn’t stop smiling to myself. As I write this, I STILL can’t stop smiling. As one of NWT’s seasonal education officers, I have the opportunity to spend my days at some of Norfolk’s most beautiful places, but I have this thirst to experience as much of Norfolk’s beauty as I can, so on my days off I am constantly on the move, when really I know I need to just slow down – or even sit in a river! By spending time in my own neighbourhood, and just stopping and sitting and listening, I encountered a small but significant animal that I have spent years searching for. I now have lots of scratches and achy legs but I also have one blurry photograph and incredible memories of the day I sat in a river and a water vole came and sat next to me.

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