Monday, 20 April 2015

Getting my vote this year…

Gemma Walker, Wildlife and Community Officer

I am often asked what my favourite animal is. I usually respond by saying there are too many fantastic creatures living in Norfolk to choose from, not wanting to show favouritism to any particular species.

But, recently the Urban Birder, David Lindo, really got me thinking when I took part in a survey he had launched to vote for Britain’s national bird. As I scrolled through the ten nominees I was torn as to which bird to pick. Should I choose the robin, that chirpy bird that often keeps me company whilst I am digging in the garden? How about the wren? For a little bird they have such a strong, vibrant song. Or the kingfisher, always a treat to see when I am out walking next to a river, broad or dyke. No, there could only be one bird for me, only one bird that would get my vote: the barn owl.

Barn owl, photo by Nick Appleton
Often as I travel home from work I am lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this remarkable, ghost-like bird as it quarters a field looking for a small mammal or two. A favourite past time of mine as I drive back home in the dark is to spot a barn owl on top of a road sign; it’s amazing how many barn owls seem to make use of these artificial perches. No matter how many times I see this beautiful, elegant, white and brown bird it always brings a smile to my face and I realise how lucky I am to live in a county that seems to have such a good population.

Brown hare, photo by Mark Ollett
With my vote cast for my favourite bird, I felt inspired to pick my favourite mammal. People who know me would probably guess that I would vote for the grey seal as I spend many winter hours wardening a colony, but actually they would be wrong. There has been one mammal that has captured my imagination and admiration for many years. In particular I love the folklore that surrounds this magical, mystical creature. In times gone by it was thought that witches had the power to turn in to this animal to escape their enemies, and it was regarded as an animal sacred to Aphrodite and Eros, with people giving this creature as a gift of love. But, it is probably best known for its apparent mad behaviour in March, when it can be seen leaping and bounding in arable fields across Norfolk. Brown hares would definitely get my vote.

Common frog, photo by Brian Beckett
If I am allowed to be greedy I would like to cast my vote for one more species, and label them along with the barn owl and brown hare as my favourite Norfolk animals. At Norfolk Wildlife Trust I often get phone calls from people concerned about this animal, it is not only my heart it has captured. You may also know of people in villages across Norfolk that volunteer their time to help hundreds of these animals cross the road to their breeding ponds. The common frog would secure my final vote. To me it is an indicator of spring, when they appear in my pond in March. It always feels like you are welcoming back an old friend and to watch the development of frogspawn to tadpole to froglet is simply amazing. A natural wonder that every child should have a chance to experience.

If you were asked what do barn owls, brown hares and common frogs have in common, what would you say? Apart from being my favourite animals in Norfolk and getting my vote they are also animals that rely on a network of wildlife corridors or wildlife stepping stones which will allow them to travel safely to breeding sites, find food and shelter.

Common frogs may breed in your pond but they probably hibernate in a totally different area, and in the summer will move away from the pond to find food and shelter. So common frogs  need a safe corridor or set of stepping stones which will allow them to travel without risk of predation or being killed by cars. We sometimes get phone calls at Norfolk Wildlife Trust from people concerned that their frogs have not returned to their garden pond, one of the reasons for this may be that one of their wildlife corridors has been blocked (by a new road or a fence) or destroyed (through the building of a housing development), and so the route to a garden they usually breed in may have been lost.

Barn owls and brown hares also depend on a set of corridors and stepping stones to travel safely from one place to another and unfortunately seeing a dead hare or owl on a road is not an unusual sight. If you are lucky enough to see a barn owl you may see it flying  backwards and forwards quartering an area looking for food. Grass verges, wide field margins and hedgerows are very important wildlife corridors for barn owls as they provide habitat for small mammals, the main food source for barn owls.

Brown hares do not have burrows like rabbits, even their young are born above ground. If a predator is nearby they stay perfectly still, not moving, until the last minute. Then when no other options remains they run extremely fast, zigzagging as they go, trying to outrun their predators. A landscape consisting of a variety of different wildlife corridors, such as field margins and hedgerows allows the brown hare room to escape and evade predators.

As well as relying on a network of wildlife corridors within the landscape these three species need our help. Barn owl numbers have fallen by more than half since 1932. This decline is due to a fall in the number of nest sites as barns and derelict farm buildings are being converted into homes, plus a decline in areas of rough grassland hunting grounds.

 One way everyone in Norfolk can help in the conservation of these three species is to share your barn owl, brown hare and common frog sightings with Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Recording wildlife is an easy way to get involved in wildlife conservation. It helps Norfolk Wildlife Trust to understand an animal’s distribution across the county, and identify any areas particularly important or lacking in these species. We also pass the records on to Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service, the Local Record Centre holding information on species,habitats and protected sites for the whole of Norfolk.

The survey forms part of a community project run by Norfolk Wildlife Trust called Delivering Living Landscapes, which is working to engage people with their landscape and its wildlife. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Essex & Suffolk Water, John Jarrold Trust and Broads Authority.

Sightings can be submitted easily online at NWT’s website, where you will also be able to see a distribution map of all the sightings submitted so far.

You can also phone your wildlife sighting to Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Wildlife Information Service on 01603 598 333 or pick up a recording card from one of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s visitor centres.

These may be my favourite species but I also hope they are special to you too. Sharing your wildlife sightings of brown hares, barn owls and common frogs will help Norfolk Wildlife Trust and Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service build up a vital picture of where these species are in Norfolk.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The season starts at NWT Weeting Heath

Sophie Harrison, Summer Warden

There has been plenty of stone curlew action to report since NWT Weeting Heath opened for the season on Saturday 28 March. Our first birds arrived as early as 17 March, but have had a slow start due to the high winds and cold weather. Once the sun reappeared and the weather improved, our stone curlews started to establish territories. By Easter weekend nine had arrived onto the heathland. Stone curlews are most active between first light and 9.30am in the morning, and after 4pm in the afternoon.

Stone curlew, photo by Gary Noakes
They are incredibly territorial birds, so the last couple of weeks have consisted of a lot of fighting and running about the heath. All the stone curlews have been running around in a group, calling continuously, with wings outstretched, and tails pointed down. There were even collisions with lapwings and rabbits, which resulted in a lot of wing flapping and the stone curlew retreating to avoid a kicking from a rabbit!

When they started to separate out into pairs, a couple of unpaired individuals would duck down low in the grass and hide to avoid confrontation. This looked like a game of hide and seek, as when one bird stood up, the other would crouch down to avoid being seen. This went on until the unpaired bird was caught out, and was then rapidly chased off by the established pair.

After all this drama, we currently have two established pairs on our heathland. In one corner of the compartment, one of our male birds would forage for food, and then turn around to feed its mate. In response to this, she would lower her beak and lift her tail, presenting herself to him. This courtship behaviour indicates to us that shortly we may have a couple of scrapes being developed with eggs to follow.

Firecrest, photo by Neil Coe

Other news includes our little bandit thief the firecrest! This crafty individual has been hanging around our long tailed tit's nest. Once the coast is clear, and the parents have left the nest to gather more nesting material, the firecrest seizes its opportunity and swoops in to steal the nesting material.

Treecreeper, photo by Neil Coe
 A male treecreeper has taken quiet a fancy to the NWT sign and has started to build a nest behind it! Both birds have been caught on camera by a local photographer, who kindly gave us these beautiful photos.

Since the reserve has been reopened for the season, I have been also keeping a close eye on our lapwings. We currently have five scrapes here at Weeting, so hopefully in the next two weeks we will see some eggs beginning to hatch! These birds are incredibly defensive parents and have been seen doing their ‘tumbling flights’ to draw predators away.

Butterflies that have been spotted so far this season have included: brimstone, peacock, red admiral and common blue. The chiffchaffs have also been singing their hearts out, telling us that spring really has arrived!

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Norfolk butterflies in spring

Nick Acheson, NWT

Peacock butterfly photo by Pat Adams
Among the most heart-warming signs that winter is dying and spring is underway is the sight of a butterfly on a bright, mild day. Through the spring, summer and autumn Norfolk’s butterflies come in waves of species; and the date of emergence of adults of each species is closely related to its life cycle and, in particular, the state in which it spends the winter. The first wave of species to be seen, in early spring or even on mild days during winter, is of those which overwinter as adults, the technical term for an adult insect being imago. Some members of the Nymphalid family, the peacock, small tortoiseshell, comma and, increasingly, red admiral, and one member of the Pierid family, the brimstone, adopt this strategy.

Orange tip, photo by Ray Jones
The first to appear of the second wave of species –  those which have overwintered as pupae – is usually the orange-tip; the male a startling flash of colour over a wet meadow. He is quickly followed by three closely-related species in the Pieridae, the large, small and green-veined whites, which have also overwintered as pupae. At the same time green hairstreaks are busy around gorse, grizzled skippers in unimproved grassland, and holly blues in gardens and along hedgerows. The latest to emerge of the species which overwinter in this form is the swallowtail.

Meadow brown, photo by Maurice Funnell
While these early species are flying as adults, those which overwinter as caterpillars are pupating in spring, in readiness for their emergence as adults in summer. These include most of our familiar grassland species: browns (Nymphalidae), skippers (Hesperidae) and blues (Lycaenidae), though not all blues are blue. Surprisingly, Nymphalid species such as meadow browns, ringlets, graylings and gatekeepers may have fed on grasses as caterpillars all through winter. A few woodland species have also overwintered as caterpillars: white admirals on honeysuckle and silver-washed fritillaries (very recent re-colonists of Norfolk) on violets on the woodland floor.

Silver-studded blue, photo by David Tottman
Though it seems counterintuitive, very few species spend the winter in the most indestructible, hardest-to-find stage of a butterfly’s life cycle: the egg. Most are small, high summer butterflies which have time in the spring to hatch, feed as caterpillars to full size, and briefly pupate before emerging as adults in summer. The Norfolk species which use this strategy are the purple and white-letter hairstreaks, treetop butterflies of oak and elm respectively; the Essex skipper, discovered as recently as 1889; and the chalkhill and silver-studded blues, both of whose caterpillars are protected, to differing degrees, by ants, in return for sweet secretions.

Just one species, the speckled wood, is an exception, overwintering as either a caterpillar or a pupa. This flexibility may account for the speed with which it has spread north through Norfolk in living memory, aided perhaps by climate change.

As you see each butterfly species this spring and summer, spare a thought for the miracles of biology it has been through to reach maturity and brighten our Norfolk landscape as an adult.