Saturday, 27 April 2013

Signs of Spring at Cley and Salthouse Marshes

Carl Brooker, Summer Warden

What a difference a few days of warm sunshine makes, not only to our Fauna and Flora, but also to our Human visitors to Cley and Salthouse Marshes. Gone are the gortex coats and woolly hats and this week’s dress code has become short sleeves and tilly hats. Believe it or not even shorts have been sighted around the reserve!

It seems that some of our birds have been told that spring is here but not all of them, with lower numbers than we recorded last year at this time.

 Last weekend bought a few yellow wagtails and wheatears on the Eye field, while swallows, sand martins and one or two house martins have been using Cley as a kind of motorway service station to refuel as they pass northwards.

Sunday produced a bird that is very difficult to spot but once you’ve heard it there’s no mistaking it. We had a bittern booming in the area of Salthouse Marshes that is the focus of our Cley Marshes land purchase appeal. This is always a good area to check out on your visit to Cley from the East Bank, other notables there this week have included a red kite, a couple of common sandpipers, over a hundred sandwich terns and a lovely pair of whimbrel.

Water carpet moth
A couple of grasshopper warblers along the path by the Visitor Centre have been entertaining themselves by eluding the photographers. Sedge warblers have appeared in several spots around the reserve singing their hearts out on the few elderberry trees dotted along the main boardwalk to the hides.

Thursday mornings at the visitor centre is the time when we check our moth traps. After a disappointing couple of weeks, the fine weather brought us a really good crop that included a species only recorded once before at Cley, a water carpet moth.  (Lampropteryx suffumata)

Looks like rain is forecast for the weekend but whatever the weather there is always something exciting to see here at Cley and Salthouse Marshes, even if it’s from the excellent viewing point provided by our visitor centre with a nice cup of coffee.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Cley Catch-up: 24 April 2013

Barry Madden, Volunteer Bird Guide at NWT Cley Marshes

 A group of people staring intently into an old, lichen encrusted elder bush on the edge of a reed bed at NWT Cley Marshes is likely to mean only one thing – there’s an unusual bird in there somewhere.  

Today’s gem was a grasshopper warbler ‘reeling’ away for all it was worth, whilst the assembled knot of birders tried to catch a glimpse of it amidst the tangle of branches, or even more frustratingly capture a clear photograph. This elusive and seldom seen species performed well today though, eventually affording most people a good view as it twisted its head from side to side whilst pouring forth its high-pitched rattle. Yet despite the bird being so close it was sometimes difficult to pin down its position with any certainty; such is the ventriloquist nature of the ‘song’. Another male could be heard from deeper in the reeds towards the East Bank footpath. Hopefully they will both attract mates and settle down to breed.

The ‘groppers’ were not the only migrants on show today, and after a poor start, April is now producing the goods. Sedge warblers were performing their parachute display flights from every corner of the reed bed, wheatears were busy darting after flies on Cley Eye, and everywhere was busy, busy, busy with birds and insects staking out territory, attracting mates or nest building.
Marsh Harrier, photo by Barry Madden
My morning vigil from Bishop’s Hide always produces good conversation with visitors to the reserve, and inevitably close encounters with the resident marsh harriers. Today three of us watched a pair of these impressive raptors building their nest very close to the hide. Both male and female brought in bunches of reed stems, and we also saw the male pick up a clump of debris from the edge of the scrape and deposit it at the nest site. These birds learn to avoid flying over the scrapes themselves during the breeding season, thus largely escaping the mobbing by avocets and lapwings, but this particular nesting attempt is close enough to create conflict; we witnessed the pair getting severely scolded more than once.
Lapwing, photo by Barry Madden
When the marsh harriers were absent, we were entertained by a displaying lapwing that passed so close we could easily hear its wing beats as it zigzagged around Pat’s Pool. Is there any more evocative sound of spring than the bubbling courtship calls of a lapwing? The female bird was feeding close to, seemingly unimpressed by the mad helter-skeltering of its mate above. Sometimes the bird world seems remarkably akin to our own! I always think lapwings are beautiful creatures, and with the reflected light dancing across its back, this imperturbable lady revealed vivid flashes of purple, green and bronze. Stunning.

The afternoon stroll around the perimeter of the reserve coincided with acceleration in the passage of swallows and house martins, not a flood exactly, but a steady trickle that proved spring has truly arrived. Some birds had clearly reached the end of their northerly journey and were busy inspecting the remains of the war-time pill-box near the car park. It was lovely to watch them swooping around twittering to each other as they began to settle in for the summer. Other birds making their way westwards included small parties of whimbrel and good numbers of sandwich terns; all flying purposefully into the stiffening breeze. But not all the winter visitors had gone, and I was surprised to see groups of Brent geese flying in off the sea. These birds joined several hundreds of others assembled on the marsh. Presumably this is just a rallying point prior to the push north in a few days time.
What a lovely day to be out patrolling the nature reserve; blue skies, warm sunshine and a pleasant westerly breeze.  Peacock butterflies awakened from hibernation were fluttering around and everywhere a feeling of vibrancy. Even the flat tyre on my car couldn’t dampen my spirits engendered by another day spent on these wonderful coastal wetlands.

Encountering stone curlews

Jessica Reiderer, Education Co-ordinator

My first visit to NWT Weeting Heath reserve on 25 April 2013, like so many visits to NWT reserves, proved to be a memorable one. As one of the new seasonal Education Co-ordinators, a lot of my time has been spent learning about and experiencing the splendour of Norfolk’s north coast and the broads, so I was very keen to learn more about the management of the heathland habitat. I was especially interested in the use of rabbits as a conservation tool, as well as the rare plants that could be seen growing at Weeting – such as spiked speedwell, but, of course, I was perhaps more keen to catch a glimpse of the stone curlew. These rare birds are notoriously elusive, so my expectations were not tremendously high, but as Head of People and Wildlife, David North and Reserves Manager Darrell Stevens were accompanying us, I figured a stone curlew would definitely be spotted! 

We had the pleasure of observing not one but seven stone curlews yesterday morning. I had expected to see one or two crouched down in the distance and well camouflaged in the grazed grassland, but not only were they stood up, they were very active, running on their long yellow legs, catching insects buried in the grass. One individual came particularly close to the hide and I got some video footage of him/ her:

I had encountered Bush stone curlews in Australia, but until yesterday had never seen a stone curlew in England, and I feel so grateful for having had the opportunity to view these incredibly rare birds (around 400 pair nest in the UK of which 260 pairs breed in the Brecks). Stone curlews are ground nesting birds and this makes their eggs and their chicks vulnerable to predators. Sadly, when I learned that only one chick survived last year, the importance of habitat management to aid in the survival of this species became even more apparent to me. I hope that the birds we viewed yesterday will breed and successfully produce chicks this year. I also hope that visitors to NWT Weeting Heath will be rewarded with similar stone curlew encounters.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Spring in the Fens

Nick Carter, Conservation Officer (Fens)

Despite the run of relatively dry weather we have had recently it is still too wet to finish off the wetland construction work at Hilgay. There is positive news in that some fencing work has been done which will allow us to graze parts of the site to get the vegetation under control, ready for reed planting later this year. Although reeds are colonising the site rapidly planting of reed plugs will speed up the establishment of the reedbed.

Little ringed plover, photo by Nick Appleton
Although construction work has not been finished birds are already using the site.  At least three little ringed plovers, which bred successfully last year, have returned and are displaying. Several pairs of lapwing are already established and oystercatchers and redshank are also present. Last week sand martins were hawking for insects over the storage lagoon and it is hoped they will breed again in the sandy ditches that they used last year.  A second brood of Egyptian geese with seven young goslings were spotted in the lagoon (the first brood present in March were only seen once) and there was a pair each of tufted duck and gadwall, along with numerous mallard and shelduck.

Herons from the small, adjacent heronry were using the lagoon for fishing but there was no sign of the usual little egrets. A new species for the site, red kite was being mobbed by a crow before it drifted off south. One had been noted in the area by two observers and it follows on the heels of a first sighting of a male hen harrier hunting over the Hilgay site a few weeks before. Nightingale have already been heard in the area but last year’s bird on the Methwold site has not yet returned.

Red kite, photo by Lawrie Webb

The bulk of the summer migrants have still to return but it is hoped with the warmer weather that these will arrive over the next few weeks.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Mineral County Wildlife Sites

 Helen Baczkowska, Conservation Officer

Snettisham common pit north, credit Tim Holt-Wilson
Once exploited for sand, gravel, clay or peat, disused mineral workings are found across Norfolk, ranging from small, hand-dug workings to huge pits filled with water.  Many of them, no longer worked, offer fantastic habitats for wildlife.

In the 1980s about 60 former mineral sites across Norfolk were surveyed and notified as County Wildlife Sites; habitats found included fragments of lowland heath, acid grassland, secondary woodland and open water.  By 2012, it was evident that many records for these sites were out of date and that re-surveys were essential to ensure the County Wildlife Site register was accurate.

Funding for survey work was supplied by Norfolk County Council and the Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership. Botanist, Chris Roberts set to work on a list of sites in need of survey.  As well as surveying plants and habitats, NWT worked with entomologists from the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists Society to investigate invertebrates on some of the old mineral workings.  Abandoned workings often contain bare soil and heathland plants, which can provide a warm, rich habitat for ants, spiders and other insect life.

A third part of the investigations was to join forces with Norfolk’s keen amateur geologists; in a county like Norfolk, where there are few rocks in evidence, mineral workings often expose interesting geology otherwise well concealed beneath soil and vegetation.

By the end of last summer, 15 sites had been visited, with two new sites being added to the County Wildlife Site register. Perhaps the most interesting of the sites are those that have naturally reverted to heathland with heather and gorse, as well as those vital patches of bare soil. These habitats require careful management to ensure they are retained and over the coming months, NWT will be working with land owners to safeguard the future of these vulnerable habitats.

Snettisham Common, CWS 476 – a case study
Yellow meadow ant, Alan Price
Originally surveyed in 1984, the 2012 re-survey revealed extensive areas of secondary woodland, with a large, disused sandstone pit and fragments of lowland heath.

Geologist, Tim Holt-Wilson produced the report. The cliff exposes the Sandringham Formation of Lower Cretaceous, meaning it was laid down in a warm ocean around 100 million years ago. This is overlain by sands, clay and clay ironstone of the Dersingham Formation. A notable feature of the site is the faults, or cracks, which may be associated with the effects of glaciers or peri-glacial soil conditions.

One exciting find at the site was what is believed to be the first record in Norfolk for a rare, heathland pirate spider Ero aphana. A pirate spider is able to enter the webs of other spiders undetected and attack them. Other invertebrates found on the Common included the yellow meadow ant, Lasius flavus and the ruby-tailed wasp, Chrysis ignite, burrowing in the exposed sandstone. 

Snettisham Common is managed by Snettisham Parish Council and following advice from all the experts involved, NWT is helping them to work with the West Norfolk Conservation Volunteers and developing a management plan to enhance both the heathland and the exposed sandstone quarry.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Species of the Month: Rabbit

Ed Parnell, Norfolk Wildlife Trust
Rabbit, photo by WildStock
Visit the Brecks Living Landscape in spring and you’re sure to see one of the UK’s most well-loved creatures, the rabbit – an animal familiar from the books of Beatrix Potter and Richard Adams’ Watership Down. The best thing is that, unlike most other mammal species, your sighting won’t be restricted to a brief blur fleeing away through the trees, but virtually-guaranteed views of hundreds of cute creatures contentedly feeding in front of you.

Although rabbits seem an integral part of the British countryside, they aren’t actually native to the UK. It’s thought their presence dates back to the Romans (who kept them here in small numbers), though there is also some evidence that pre-ice age populations may have existed. However, rabbits really began to flourish after the arrival of the Normans, when warrening – the management of rabbit enclosures – became a highly-profitable profession, with rabbits farmed for their manure, meat and fur.

From the 12th century Breckland was a stronghold for the rabbit industry and had one of the country’s largest concentrations of warrens – the dry, sandy ground, relatively sunny climate and sparse rainfall were ideal, mimicking the favoured conditions of the rabbit’s native Mediterranean. Rabbits also began to escape from their penned areas and establish feral populations, though warrens continued to be an important part of the local landscape over the following centuries. Indeed, during the late Victorian period the entire bowler hat industry in London depended on rabbit felt, with three felting factories in Brandon employing 500 people.

During the twentieth century, demand for rabbit products diminished and, with the conversion of much of the Brecks to forestry plantations after WWI, rabbits became regarded as a pest. The Forestry Commission employed up to 30 men locally to control them, though a more devastating reduction of their population resulted from the arrival of myxomatosis in the 1950s, which almost eradicated the species.

Today, rabbit numbers are recovering and at Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserves such as East Wretham and Weeting Heaths the animals are actively encouraged for their vital grass-nibbling, which keeps the heathland at the perfect height for maximum biodiversity. Indeed, a 2011 study led by scientists from UEA showed that 12,500 species of plants and animals are found in the Brecks, including 28% of the UK’s rare species – all in an area covering less than 1% of the country’s land area. 

So, why not hop over to the Brecks this spring to enjoy the area’s unique wildlife – and the rabbit-rich landscape!

NWT East Wretham Heath is located 5km north of Thetford on the A1075. It is open all year and entrance is free. NWT Weeting Heath is just west of Weeting village (near Brandon) on the minor road towards Hockwold cum Wilton. It is open from April to September, with a small entrance charge for non-NWT members.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Holme - The first decent push of migrants

 The day started clear and sunny with a slight south-west wind as I started a breeding bird line transect at 0600hrs. Migration was not that obvious, but my first swallow and a few high meadow pipits and linnets suggested something may be happening at nearby Hunstanton Cliffs. Andy Brown was indeed having a decent morning, the greater height on the cliffs providing closer views of the birds moving south overhead, read his account on Trektellen.

  Back at Holme the day provided some nice highlights and included a red kite over The Firs, harassed by four sparrowhawks, five common buzzards over the marshes, 37 avocets, a ruff west, small numbers of swallows, sand martins and a few house martins west, two tree pipits west, three yellow wagtails with the konick ponies, a black redstart at the Saltings car park, two brief ring ouzels and a firecrest (also Saltings CP).

  Tomorrow looks to be a good day with strong overnight south-westerlies, and a clear looking Spain combined with mild air might produce good numbers British bound migrants, and  perhaps a few over-shooting species like hoopoe or alpine swift!

Conservation needs both scientists and artists

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Nature conservation isn’t a science or an art. It’s an idea. An idea about our relationship with nature. An idea about how we relate to the other species with which we share our planet and how we treat the natural world.

Nature conservation is most often linked to a science perspective. There are probably more people employed in conservation with a science background than with an arts background. Much of our conservation jargon is, or at least sounds, scientific: sites of special scientific interest, biodiversity, species, habitats, National Vegetation Classification surveys, ecosystem services. The language of science. Classifying the natural world into boxes seems a sciency thing to do!

Don’t get me wrong I’m not suggesting that good science isn’t vital to protect nature and save endangered species. Science has informed conservation massively. It’s science based surveys, research and statistics which tell us about biodiversity loss, both globally and locally. It’s science which helps inform the management techniques which can restore habitats.It’s science which can monitor the impact of pollutants, help us understand the causes and cures for climate change, discover ways to control non-native invasive species, and help us ensure that conservation action achieves real results.

However while science is necessary for conservation it’s not the whole story.  If conservation is about changing attitudes then perhaps its artists who have the skills to speak to people’s hearts and help people care. When you think of the big five drivers of biodiversity loss: habitat loss, climate change, over-exploitation of natural resources, human introductions of invasive alien species and pollution then what do they have in common?  Surely they are all the product of human actions and their solution is about changing human behaviour. Perhaps nature conservation is more about us than about nature.

Artists, more than scientists, may have the skills to bring about a change of perception of how we relate to nature. Surely it’s our hearts that motivate us more than our heads. Artists are brilliant at communicating in the language of feelings, whereas science deliberately avoids this language.

What have I learnt working in nature conservation? That conservation is fundamentally about people. About our relationship with nature. That changing people’s attitudes and communicating in ways that people can relate to is achieved as effectively by artists as by scientists. Perhaps we need more artists working in conservation to bring about the changes to the human heart without which conservation will never truly succeed.

I’ll end this post with a quote from Tanaka Shozo who was born in Japan in 1841:
‘The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.’

Friday, 12 April 2013

Signs of spring at Hickling

Caroline de Carle, Hickling Visitor Centre

As we sit and look out at a rather wintery, grey scene at Hickling - in the middle of April - it would be all too easy to feel more than a little glum. But NO! The signs of spring are here in abundance, but you just have to look and listen that bit more closely. 

Brimstone butterfly, photo by Liz Dack
There, see, a flash of yellow. Not one of our blousey daffodils but a beautiful male yellowhammer in full spring plumage, singing his sweet song of "bread and no cheese" to attract a mate. Another flash of yellow: a male brimstone, making the most of brief spells of sunshine to show of his acidic green colour as he seeks out nectar from the few flowering plants in bloom. 

Early sources of nectar and pollen are so vital to our insects, especially when the weather is far from warm. Emerging queen bumblebees have been making the most of the pollen-rich willow catkins to build up their energy on cold day and nights.

A few spring visitors are back; chiffchaff, redshank and garganey are all present but not in great numbers yet. And what of our reserve specialities? Three male bitterns have been booming since early April and establishing territories. Our cranes are also busy setting up home and have treated visitors to some noisy and spectacular fly-overs. Bearded tits are still very elusive but hopefully some fine weather will get them singing and pinging into breeding action.

So you see, there is always something exciting to see and hear at NWT Hickling Broad National Nature Reserve, but sometimes you have to make just a little bit more effort to find it. It's always worth the wait.