Friday, 23 May 2014

The Birds and the Bees at Weeting Heath

Matt Twydell, Weeting Heath Summer Warden

We now have our first stone curlew chicks of the year at Weeting Heath! Both pairs that nested outside the hides hatched two chicks each. Unfortunately one of the pairs lost its chicks soon after hatching, possibly due to the immediate cold and wet weather conditions. The good news is that the second pairs chicks are now about 11 days old and have been viewed feeding and being fed with the adults. These chicks will also hopefully be rung in the next few weeks. I was lucky enough to capture some video though the scope of the two adults and two chicks

The adult male in the video is the one with rings on its legs, you can see the more striking features of the bird around the eye for instance which makes it stand out more than the female, this is just one way to identify between the sexes.

The pair that lost their chicks have already laid another clutch and are now viewable from the west hide, so hopefully by about mid-June they should hatch two more chicks.

The pine belt along the visitor centre is home to a variety of woodland bird species. This has been evident the past few days with adults feeding the chicks of 13 different species of birds, including goldcrest, treecreeper, mistle thrush, blackcap and several finch and tit species.
Blue tit chicks in a nest box

Spotted flycatchers have returned to nest in the pines. They are one of the latest arrivals back from Africa and we are fortunate to have them return. They were once a common sight in some gardens but unfortunately their breeding population has decreased by 86% over the last 40 years. So far we have just the one pair near the Visitor Centre, so look out in the pines for their distinctive up right posture from perches and you might just come across the audible snapping sound that the bill sometimes makes when the bird snatches an insect from the air.

Bombus hypnorum or their more common name of tree bee have decided to nest in our bird box with a camera inside, unfortunately they are not camera friendly! and have obstructed the lens. Tree bees are a new species of bumblebee to the UK, first colonising the country from the continent in 2001 and have quite quickly moved up through  the country. As their name suggests they nest in holes in trees, or in this case our bird box outside the visitor centre.

Other wildlife that has been seen on the reserve includes a turtle dove, tree pipit, woodlark and hobby on the woodland trail, as well as several butterfly species including common and holly blue and green hairstreak.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Species of the month: Bittern

Ed Parnell of Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Visit some of the larger reedbeds of the Broads in May, particularly early in the morning or around dusk, and there’s every chance you’ll hear a strange booming sound, reminiscent of someone blowing across the top of an empty bottle: the breeding call of the male bittern, one of the UK’s rarest and most unusual birds.

Bittern, photo by Ed Parnell
The bittern is a member of the heron family, but differs widely in its plumage from the commonly-encountered grey heron. Bitterns have a light, straw coloured base colour, which is exotically streaked with darker, almost-black, lines and chevrons. The overall effect is exceptionally cryptic and it is little wonder that the bird blends so effortlessly into its favoured reedbed habitat. Although bitterns have a long neck, which they stretch out vertically to mimic their surroundings when alarmed, they never appear as tall and elegant as herons. Indeed, in certain poses they almost seem to take on a rather hunched, owl-like appearance. What never changes is the lethal dagger-like bill, which is used to impale unfortunate frogs, fish and small mammals with lethal precision.

As to the bittern’s boom, this remarkable sound is produced when the courting male bird exhales air from its oesophagus. The noise, usually repeated in short sequences of three or four chimes, has the lowest frequency of any note produced by a British bird and can be heard from up to three miles away.

Bitterns were a common bird in medieval times, when wetland and reedbed in places like the Fens was much more prevalent. They were also considered a great delicacy for the table and eaten in large numbers (sometimes hundreds at a time) at medieval banquets. Over-hunting, along with the loss of its habitat, factored in its decline and by the end of the Victorian age, the species had disappeared as a British breeding bird.

Bittern in the reeds, photo by Liz Dack
So when in 1911 the Edwardian naturalist Emma Turner photographed a nestling at Hickling Broad, there was much excitement. And despite a gradual increase in numbers over the following decades (with Norfolk the UK stronghold), the species began a severe downward spiral in the late 1960s. By 2010 the UK population contained just 14 booming male birds.

However, dedicated conservation work (including generous EU funding) has helped to turn things around so that in 2011 the UK population of the species reached 104 males, with 23 of these in Norfolk. These are centred around the Broads, with smaller numbers in suitable habitat along the north Norfolk coast at sites such as NWT Cley Marshes and NWT Holme Dunes. The best places to hear the species though (for they are very hard to see, unless you happen to be in the right place at the right time) is in the Broads, with NWT Hickling Broad offering a very good chance.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Brecks: curlews and pingos

Isabelle Mudge, Seasonal Education Officer
The Education team has recently been on a visit to the Brecks to learn about the sensitive and rare habitats in the area, and about those species which thrive on them.

Stone curlew, photo by Jessica Riederer
The heathland at NWT Weeting Heath is very different from that at NWT Roydon Common, where a sea of purple in late summer is clear evidence of the heather. Lacking heather, Weeting Heath is perhaps less impressive, but this is only at first glance - if you look more closely at the ground you see an incredible patchwork of different colours and textures thanks to the great variety of mosses and lichens which cover the surface of the soil. It is these, and the numerous other plants exclusive to heathland habitats, which amaze the botanists who come here. It is also this environment that attracts birders from near and far to see lapwing, nightjar and stone curlew. Having heard so much about the elusive and rare stone curlew, we were all thrilled when, after scanning the area for some time, we were lucky enough to see first two, then four stone curlews! 

Pingo at NWT Thompson Common
Following our visit to Weeting, we went on to see the pingos, which are ancient glacial formations, at nearby NWT Thompson Common. The pingo trail gives the impression of going back in time, by initially taking you through what looks a bit like a prehistoric jungle swamp where the several pools of water are often concealed by dense vegetation. Then out in the open, however, the clear water of the pingos is exposed and brimming with life, with an abundance of freshwater invertebrates, and several plants such as water violets and lilies, making the pools beautiful and unearthly.

We had a fantastic day, and came away feeling that these two contrasting sites provide the visitor with a unique experience not to be missed.

June's Wildlife Watch event for children takes place at NWT Weeting Heath. Come and discover our Magical Moths!

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Cley Catch-up: 7 May 2014

Barry Madden, Volunteer Bird Guide at NWT Cley Marshes
Walking around Cley Marshes with the warmth of the sun punching through my sweatshirt, it was strange to think that only a few short weeks ago a sweatshirt would have provided woefully inadequate cover against the biting North wind. But today was so lovely that it made all the trudging through the cold, bleak months worthwhile and left the grey shades of winter nothing but a distant and unwelcome memory. The natural world has burst into life and brings with it a tangible lifting of the spirit and a spring to the step; it seems at this time of year that anything is possible and every field, hedgerow or pool can harbour a surprise.

Looking around the reserve on such a beautiful day it is hard to visualise the devastation that was wrought during December and January. The only obvious reminders of those events are the re-profiled beach and the roadside area which still suffers from being strewn with tonnes of reed debris. So much hard work has been undertaken by reserve staff and volunteers that everything else now looks much as it did before the storm surge. Footpaths have been cleared, hides cleaned out and re-thatched, breaches in the retaining banks plugged, waterways unclogged and fences mended. In fact the destruction of fencing along the beach has provided an opportunity to realign the boundary to make much larger areas of untrodden shingle available for breeding waders whilst still maintaining plenty of space for people. I think it true to say that the reserve today is in good shape and looks splendid. The extent of underlying damage to the flora and fauna is yet to be determined however, and only time will show the effects of the flooding on the less obvious elements of the ecosystem.

Two pairs of marsh harrier have set up territory on the reserve, the first have been nest building within photographic range of Bishop's hide and will no doubt provide many opportunities for amateur photographers to capture that elusive shot of a food pass. The other pair were busy displaying over the reed bed on the newly acquired Pope's Marsh. The male of this second pair chanced his arm at one point and trespassed onto his neighbour's patch provoking a boisterous aerial display by the incumbent bird comprising much swooping from on high and high pitched calling. A treat to witness.

Little ringed plover, photo by David Pelling
It was encouraging to see wader numbers building up on the scrapes. Joining the ever abundant avocets were three pairs of little ringed plovers, a greenshank, several ruff and a group of thirty or so brick red black-tailed godwits. The avocets seem to have sorted out breeding plots and skirmishes were surprisingly few and far between. Not so the black headed gulls that were constantly beating one another up and dive bombing any hapless shelduck that had the audacity to paddle within range. Small individual episodes that collectively form a rich and varied mosaic of relationships between the inhabitants of these wildlife rich marshes.

People were out in force enjoying the warm spring sunshine; family parties, rambling groups, dog walkers, birders, artists and picnickers, each enjoying the reserve in their own way. There's room for all, and indeed without this essential human element the reserve would not be fulfilling its purpose as part of a Living Landscape - a wild space managed for the benefit of people and wildlife in equal measure.

Wheatear, photo by Bob Carpenter
My stroll around the reserve perimeter, punctuated as it was by frequent stops to pass the time of day and chat with visitors, revealed a pleasant sprinkling of summer migrants. Resplendent wheatears in crisp breeding plumage hopped around bare patches of ground close to the shingle ridge, pairs of sandwich terns made their way stoically westward towards breeding grounds at Blakeney and best of all in my book, a gorgeous yellow wagtail fly-catched its way across the Eye. All this set against a background of tootling redshanks, burbling lapwings, trilling skylarks and piping oystercatchers - it really is hard to beat a walk around Cley Marshes on such a vibrant spring day.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Stone curlews and snakes

Mathew Twydell – Seasonal Warden, Weeting

A good start to the season saw stone curlews arriving around 17 March this year.  At present we have two stone curlews nesting outside the hides, and they have been very considerate: one being outside the east and one outside the west this year.  

Six more birds were seen on the adjacent field this week so fingers crossed they will like the look of NWT Weeting Heath

The birds went down on eggs in April, so we are expecting our first stone curlew chicks of the year around the May bank holiday, so keep your eyes peeled!

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to witness quite an amazing site from one of the hides. A battle if you will, between a pair of stone curlews and a grass snake! I first saw the birds acting odd by pecking towards the ground then running backwards, it was only after a few minutes that I saw they had attacked and killed the grass snake. Grass snakes are found on the heath and towards the Little Ouse River and presumably this one strayed to near to this pair’s territory. So the birds instinctively acted to protect their nest. 

I managed to get a short video on my phone through the scope of one of the birds dragging the grass snake by the tail:

It just shows that when watching wildlife you can be lucky and witness some unique behaviour.

In other bird news, we have witnessed the arrival of spring with plenty of warblers in the form of chiffchaff, whitethroat, blackcap and willow, as well as grasshopper, sedge and Cetti’s being heard at the bottom of the reserve. Buzzards, kestrels and the occasional sparrowhawk have been seen on our forest trail, along with woodlarks, which have been seen feeding chicks on the fence posts at the top of the trail. Also several cuckoos can be heard – and if you’re lucky – seen from the hide. Also the first nightingale was heard while I carried out the butterfly transect on part of the reserve this week.

Stone curlew, photo by Matthew Twydel

Butterfly counts have been good so far with 11 species being recorded, including green hairstreak and holly blue outside the visitor centre.

We now await the return of spotted flycatchers, tree pipits and nightjars which should be heard on our forest trail, and hopefully our first stone curlew chicks of the year!