Friday, 31 May 2013

Upton, Hicking and Cley in a week

Barry Madden, Volunteer Bird Guide at NWT Cley Marshes

Over the course of the past week I’ve had the good fortune to spend time at three of Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s reserves. Being able to sample the diverse landscapes and associated wildlife of these special places has reinforced my belief that NWT is doing a fantastic job of conserving our open spaces, as well as connecting people of all ages and experience levels to their natural heritage.

Upton Broad and Marshes was the first port of call, where a happy day was spent in the company of a few friends walking around this unique area of fresh grazing marsh, fen and wet meadows. As part of the Bure Valley Living Landscapes initiative, much management work is being carried out here to create an environment better suited to the feeding and breeding requirements of wetland wildlife. Already the signs are good; we saw whimbrel, breeding lapwing and oystercatcher, a little ringed plover that was quite possibly one of a breeding pair, and the reed fringed dykes were alive with reed, sedge and Cetti’s warblers. We had a great view of a cuckoo calling from a dead tree, and the air was full of swifts, swallows and martins hawking flies low over the pools formed by the recent flood defence works. We stopped and watched the antics of these summer visitors, some of which actually swooped between us at knee height as we stood admiring their aerial skills. Birds of prey were also well represented with marsh harrier, buzzard, kestrel, sparrowhawk and a pair of hobbies all being seen within a 30 minute spell. But it wasn’t just about birds, because we also had views of Chinese water deer, stoat, rabbits and a party of seven lovely hares that were still engaging in their spring ‘boxing’. Larger insects were absent on this occasion, mainly thanks to the inclement weather, but I’ve been here when the woodland rides and footpaths, blanketed in wild flowers, are alive with butterflies and dragonflies; in fact Upton is one of the best places in the UK to see dragonflies during the summer. It would be easy to spend a few hours at Upton, the footpaths are extensive and there’s always something interesting to see. If you get a chance you should visit.

A few days later I was asked to assist the NWT Education Team, lovely friends, with an event at Hickling Broad NNR. Here, a group of students from Great Yarmouth College were being introduced to the varied habitats and wildlife of Broadland. My task was to talk about moths…unfortunately there wasn’t a single moth to be seen in the trap set the previous evening! No matter, Plan B kicked in, and we simply talked about the diversity of moths, their life cycle, feeding requirements and what would happen if they disappeared (disaster for blue tits). The students were also treated to a boat trip around the reserve, a butterfly walk, a pond dipping session and 30 minutes of dissecting owl pellets – a fascinating activity.  On this day Hickling also played host to a school party of younger children, that were having a great time rummaging nets in the dykes from the specially constructed platforms, then crowding around the trays to inspect their catch. This is what a nature reserve should be like – making areas accessible to all whilst being able to retain large areas for the needs of the indigenous flora and fauna.   

So, to Cley Marshes for my weekly stint sitting in the hides and walking around the reserve helping people with any identification issues, and talking generally about the work of NWT. We had the usual grey skies and wind, but as always a variety of birds, interesting conversations and an excellent lunchtime meal from the visitor centre.

Common sandpipers at Cley Marshes, photo by Barry Madden

This day was mainly about waders, with a lone wood sandpiper engaging the attention of most visitors as it took advantage of the flooded grassland on the ‘Serpentine’ off East Bank. Then a few of us had the rare privilege of being able to watch the courtship antics of a pair of common sandpipers from Bishop’s Hide. This pair chased each other across the south-eastern corner of Pat’s Pool for a couple of hours during the afternoon, piping loudly as they scurried over the muds. Sometimes they trotted very close to the hide, affording excellent views of their fine mottled plumage. It was tempting to harbour thoughts of them remaining on the reserve to breed, but they will no doubt move on in a day or two. Later in the day, a female red-backed shrike could be admired from the other side of the reserve, proving once again that Cley is simply one of the best places to see birds in the country.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Spot the birdie?

 Gary Hibberd, Holme Dunes Warden 

Can you see the sitting bird?

It's that time of year again when ringed plovers are nesting on Norfolk's beaches. At this time of year nests will be trampled underfoot fairly easily, as the incubating bird will often run off ahead of the observer. Their cryptic colouration makes the "Stonerunner" (the Norfolk name for the ringed plover) difficult to see to the untrained eye.  

This familiar species has declined dramatically in Norfolk during the last 20 years so awareness of were these birds are likely to nest will hopefully make visitors to local beaches more knowledgeable of areas to avoid. Many areas along the coast are temporarily fenced at this time of year to protect nesting ringed plovers, oystercatchers and little terns but not all nests can be protected in this way. Please be aware of this and if you find a nest please stay well away from it and the incubating bird will return.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Unusual Fenland Visitors

Nick Carter, Conservation Officer (Fens)

The breeding season is now underway on the wetland creation site near Hilgay, although the continuing cold weather must be causing problems for adult birds looking for insects to feed their young.  The sand martins have excavated new burrows and are working hard to catch the meagre numbers of flying insects around.  Last week I watched a hobby catching insects at close quarters but the insects were too small for me to identify.  Waders too seem to be struggling, with lapwing eggs disappearing from nests, probably as a result of predation.  

Common seal in the Fens, photo by Darren Williams
Grey herons and little egrets are regularly seen on-site but a recent surprise visitor was a great white egret. It has been around the Fens for some time and dropped in to the site but did not stay. Although the site is still under construction it is exciting to see that wetland birds are already moving in.

The most surprising visitor to the Fens was seen by Darren Williams, a local member, while picking his kids up from Ten Mile Bank on the River Great Ouse.  He has got some great pictures of a common seal, and in one of them he has caught it eating a pike, which must have been taken by surprise by this normally marine predator. Although seals have been seen in Fenland rivers before, including a common seal filmed near St Ives in the New Year, it’s certainly an unexpected find; lucky Darren had his camera with him!

Common seal eating a pike, photo by Darren Williams

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Ashwellthorpe and New Buckenham

Jessica Reiderer, Education Co-ordinator

This weekend I spent some time at two of my local NWT reserves - Lower Wood, Ashwellthorpe and New Buckenham Common.
Wild garlic in Lower Wood, Ashwellthorpe
Lower Wood has definitely become one of my favourite spots. Bluebells continue to bloom throughout the woods - as do hundreds of early purple orchids, and on the other side of the wood, wild garlic is carpeting as far as the eye can see.  The smell wafting up from forest floor is just stunning. Large and small whites, orange tips, peacock, common blues as well as large red damselflies could be seen amongst the wild garlic. Herb Paris is also blooming but more difficult to spot. 
Green winged orchid at New Buckenham Common

My first visit to New Buckenham Common was lovely. I spotted my first dragonfly of the year here on Monday 27 May - a broad bodied chaser, as well as my first skipper. I went to specifically see the green winged orchids and could not believe how many there were. They are just gorgeous, blooming amongst the buttercups and cowslips. I found a lovely little patch of white orchid too. Skimming above the wetlands were large numbers of house martins and swifts  - and clearly some swifts have already fledged as watching loud screaming chicks chasing their parents around was very amusing.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Cley Catch-up: 17 May 2013

Barry Madden, Volunteer Bird Guide at NWT Cley Marshes

Just as you think things have really changed for the better, you turn your back and winter creeps along to take a quick nip at your heels. So you rummage in the boot of your car to once again adorn thick jacket, hat and gloves, find your heavy walking boots, jut your chin into the wind and stoically set forth to spend the day on one of the finest nature reserves in the country. Not a bad way to spend your time in truth, and once ensconced in the hides, soaking in the panorama of regenerating reed beds and lush green marshland, all moans about the weather become a minor irritation and you can settle down to discover what wildlife is on show.

I saw my first brood of avocet chicks today, four little balls of down sandwiched between their ever-vigilant parents. Last year the avocets did remarkably well here at Cley Marshes, with large numbers of chicks reaching the flying stage. Hopefully this year they can repeat that success, but the odds are stacked against them. The weather can create problems with cold and wet spells taking their toll. And then there are crows, kestrels, herons, marsh harriers, stoats, rats and foxes to contend with, not to mention hungry gulls, grumpy coots and bickering adults of their own kind. They have a challenging few weeks ahead of them. This was cruelly illustrated later in the day when the target of a clamouring group of adults proved to be a carrion crow that had managed to snatch a newly hatched chick, perhaps only a few hours out of the egg.

Linnet, photo by Barry Madden
A walk along East bank revealed no obvious migrants other than a light westerly passage of swifts and martins, and the raucous screeches of sandwich terns could no longer be heard from Arnold’s Marsh; the birds have moved to their breeding grounds a few miles to the west. With very little birdlife evident on the sea or the beach, I sought refuge in North hide. It was a similar story here with very few waders on show, and so to avoid the cold wind blasting straight into my face, I turned my position and my attention to a twittering linnet perched atop a blaze of gorse. As I watched this brightly coloured little finch proclaiming rights to his coconut scented oasis, the sun briefly broke through the clouds illuminating his fine livery to maximum effect. For a few brief moments I was able to really appreciate the combination of rosy pink, grey, buff and brown, made more vivid when highlighted against the backdrop of the threatening deep blue clouds. Such a lovely little bird, but one that is largely overlooked on the basis that it is relatively common; we really should take more time to admire these familiar species, after all they are the bedrock of our avian fauna and are quite lovely in their own right.

Sand martin, photo by Barry Madden
 Some other familiar and often overlooked birds formed the focus (literally) of attention later in the afternoon, where from Bishop’s hide a group of us tried our hand at photographing sand martins. These welcome migrants were still passing through in small numbers and some stayed for a few minutes to snatch a few insects or to quench their thirst. Battling against the strong wind, these jaunty birds sometimes seemed to move in slow motion, and that is when the photographer can strike. Even so, it was a frustrating business with much muted cursing, consequent giggling and the occasional murmur of satisfaction rippling amongst those assembled. It was quite refreshing to concentrate on something as unremarkable as sand martins for a change, and at least five people spent the best part of an hour watching them – and what excellent entertainment it was! The light was poor, the wind was cruel, the birding a bit low key, but it didn’t matter. As one visitor remarked today ‘we just love it here’.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

A Late Shift at Cley and Salthouse Marshes

Carl Brooker, Cley Summer Warden

Sometimes at Cley the working day doesn’t always adhere to a standard nine to five routine; last Tuesday found centre manager, Jonathan Clarkson , myself and guests in Dawkes hide at 10pm. We were running our second Dusk Patrol event of the year (the last one was on a freezing cold January evening!).

The Dusk Patrol walks are all about experiencing the sights and sounds of Cley Marshes as the sun goes down after a tasty jacket potato supper in the visitor centre. For a while I thought the sights were going to be limited as fog crept in off the sea while we were dining. Thankfully it dissipated during dessert and we set off down the boardwalk just as the sun was on the horizon. The first thing one of our guests pointed out was how golden the colour of the reed bed looked against the low sun.

The straw colour of the reed beds, last year’s growth, is starting to be punctuated with new green growth this week and it’s amazing how quick this grows, when it starts you can see  it change on a daily basis.

First sounds we had was  two Cetti's warblers singing alongside the A149 coast road (such an amazingly loud song for such a small bird). I have a theory that they are like Dr. Who’s Tardis and bigger on the inside, but as more often than not with Cetti's no one got a look at them as they tend to skulk in the undergrowth of the bramble bushes. When we arrived at the boardwalk the newly arrived sedge warbler (see last blog) gave us a good rendition from the elderberry trees, and we had another six singing by the time we arrived at the hides.

We chose Dawkes hide, the middle hide of the three, and opened up all the flaps. Although it was now getting very dusky there were still quite a number of birds feeding on Pat’s pool and the surrounding dykes. Avocet, that distinctly black and while wader with its upturned bill were easy to spot in the fading light and we also managed to spot redshank, greenshank, a large flock of greylag and just about made out little ringed plover running along the edge of one of the islands. For some strange reason the male lapwing continued to display even though we could hardly see him. A hare loped past the front of the hide totally unaware of our presence, but the big surprise of the evening was the four bats that kept zooming past the windows of the hide often only inches away from our faces. These were pipistrelles judging from their flight pattern but of the two types we have in the UK, common and soprano, I couldn’t determine without a bat detector. Mental note to self, bring a bat detector to next event!

The oddest moment of the evening was, as we were making our way back to the centre, a couple of the sedge warblers were still singing although it was by now totally dark. It was nice to do something a bit different, and all our guests were keen to book for the next one. Why not come and join us for the next event, keep an eye on the events page on our website.

Visitors to Cley and Salthouse this week will have noticed the reserve team has expanded in numbers with the arrival of some large mammals roaming the Eye field. This is our regular summer addition to the Cley team, our cattle. Their role, which they manage very successfully, is to crop the vegetation to different heights and create bare ground patches that suit the widest range of our wildlife species. This is a good time to look for yellow wagtails feeding around the feet of the cattle as they disturb insects whilst grazing.

Ruddy Shelduck
Bird highlights on the reserve this week have included four temmincks stints present on the North scrape along with a curlew sandpiper, some common sandpipers and a ruddy shelduck between the 8th and the 12th.

During the same period we had a Montague’s harrier ring tail (ring tail donates a bird that is female or a juvenile bird of that species) over the marsh on a few occasions along with a hobby. On the 11th while catching up with Mick and Kath the BTO recorders, we had a turtle dove going west over Cricket Marsh. Yellow wagtails continue to grace the Eye field with blue-headed being observed on a daily basis at the moment as well as white wagtails.

In the visitor centre this week we are hosting a fantastic exhibition wildlife sculptures by local artist Mary Richardson.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Weeting Warden’s Diary: May

Simon Thompson: Summer Warden Weeting Heath NNR

A few weeks has made a massive difference to the landscape here at Weeting. The white blanket of snow has been replaced by a peppering of blossom against the long awaited green of spring. The chorus of sound from the pine belts at dawn is becoming progressively more complex with blackcaps, chiffchaffs, willow warblers and whitethroats adding their warbles to the line-up. My peaceful nights on the reserve are now being regularly interrupted by the eerie wailing of Weeting’s most eagerly anticipated arrivals; the stone curlews. 

Stone curlew mating, photo by Stephen Youngs

It’s been a tough start to the breeding season for stone curlews in the Brecks. Birds returning early in March were greeted with unseasonably wintery conditions and forced to struggle in the ice to find any quantity of invertebrate prey. The birds returning to Weeting Heath were much later arriving than we have seen in previous years, with no birds showing in front of the hides until Wednesday 10 April: around three weeks later than we might expect. Happily they wasted little time on arrival and got straight into breeding mode and several of our visitors witnessed and photographed mating on the following Saturday.

‘Upper-Right-Black’, photo by D & J Moreton
The stone curlews have been showing particularly well so far this season, with one pair setting up territory well within view in front of West Hide. The People and Wildlife team spent the morning at Weeting Heath two Thursdays ago and got perhaps the closest views of the season so far. Jessica shot a great video of a male known as ‘Upper-Right Black’ (not the most catchy of names but he has a very clear black ring on his right thigh) feeding just in front of the hide which you can see in her blog, ‘Encountering Stone Curlews’. We currently have very good numbers of stone curlews on the reserve and hope that they will all defy the odds and manage to raise young this season.

We have been having fantastic views of common crossbills from the car park over the Bank Holiday weekend. A group of nine regularly move through the pine belt and this weekend they were lingering in the tops long enough for excellent views. We had some visitors who had never seen crossbills before and come specifically to see them; a couple of hours and a few cups of coffee later they were treated to a twenty minute show from some very smart males and all from the comfort of our picnic benches.

A pair of spotted flycatchers have bred successfully very close to the west hide for the last two years and were perhaps the most photographed birds in Norfolk last year, continually darting out from their favoured perch to grab a passing insect on the wing. Hopefully they’ll be back in the next week or so and I’ll be listening out for their squeaking scratchy song and eeez-tk calls hidden within the layers of song that have become my personal dawn wake-up call.