The Met Office regards September 1st as the first official day of autumn. As I stepped out of the car at Strumpshaw Fen this morning coincident with rain beginning to fall from dark lowering clouds whipped by a stiff northerly breeze, it seemed the weather was doing its best to ensure summer was indeed at an end. But slowly the thick cloud cover broke up allowing welcome sunlight to filter through the woods and transform the scene to one of riches and delights.
I stopped to peer into a patch of brambles at the crossroads of the woodland trail, standing stock still to slowly scrutinise the myriad leaves and twigs entwined therein. Life was everywhere. Wasps and hornets investigated each fruit cluster; the former for sweet sugars the latter for fresh flesh. Flies of many colours, sizes and shapes basked in the sun’s rays or danced with each other amongst the foliage. Dark bush-crickets sat motionless in the dappled sprays, surprisingly hard to spot until you got your eye in and then they seemed to be everywhere. Common darters perched upon the topmost sprigs angling themselves southwards to absorb the rays of the fleeting sun whilst pristine speckled wood butterflies played around them flying up to intercept anything winged that invaded their territory.
Dark Bush-cricketFearsome looking but completely harmless
Several forms of shield bug, in their camouflage livery of green and brown, bedecked leaves now beginning to drain of chlorophyll and grotesque scorpion flies, banded hover flies and predatory small spiders provided a vibrant supporting cast. A fascinating show of nature’s bounty.
Scorpion FlyAnother Fearsome looking creature
Along the river bank the fruits of the season clustered thickly on the verdant growth. Blackberries gleamed ripe and plump, clusters of elderberries, black and juicy, drooped invitingly, guelder rose berries shone impossibly bright and hips and haws lay ready for plunder. Many birds were already tucking into this rich harvest, blackbirds, blackcaps, robins and bullfinches I watched gorging themselves, the latter located by their soft subtle piping and only glimpsed briefly as they took flight when I clumsily made a too sudden movement. Ivy flowers proved popular with more wasps and flies, almost as popular as the lilac plumes of late buddleia adorned today with lone brimstone, a deep orange comma and several splendid red admirals.
Female Southern Hawker
From the high vantage point of Tower Hide I logged what is for me a UK first in the form of the great white egret that has been present here for a few weeks. This bird flew in squawking to itself from the direction of Brundall before busying itself with making inroads into the local fish fry. The snake-like shape of this species neck is quite extraordinary. From certain angles it looked no thicker than an inch and gave the bird a decidedly ungainly countenance. But they are big birds and make little egrets look very little by comparison. Even grey herons cannot quite compete in stature although surpass the egret in bulk. This coloniser from Continental Europe spent the next hour fishing out of sight behind thick screens of browning reeds heavy now with ripening seed heads, so I contented myself with watching the other characters on display. It was a tranquil scene with the birds content to rest and bask in the late summer warmth, their hectic breeding cycle complete for another year.
Many shoveller, gadwall and teal were busy bathing, preening or taking a nap. The bathers would throw themselves forward, splashing wildly as they momentarily submerged in the clear waters. Then they would vigorously shake themselves before repeating the process a few times. A cormorant gawkily flew in, alighting on the small dead tree used as an anchor for a coots nest during spring. This bird had presumably fed well and was now content to set about anointing its feathers with oily secretions and digesting its catch. When the sun peeped from behind a cloud the plumage of the cormorant was transformed from a drab black to one of subtle green and purple lustre. A young common tern was periodically fed by its parent and a small party of ruff probed the muddy margins, a pair of buff washed juveniles amongst them. Behind them a water rail weaved amongst the reed stems ever stealthy and watchful.
CormorantThis individual was anointing itself with oil secreted from a gland above the tail.
The bird reaches back and collects the oil on its head which it then rubs onto the
rest of its feathers.
On my walk back along a now sodden track thanks to a very high tide, I wondered if I might be able to catch up with the great white egret and so it proved. The bird was fishing with a heron in one of the wider channels overlooked by a conveniently sited wooden bench. I attempted to creep as close as I could with the idea of watching the bird for a few minutes and taking a few photographs. I should have known better although I did manage a few flight shots as it squawked and made its escape.
But Strumpshaw was not quite finished with me yet, for despite getting soggy feet I caught up with several common lizards basking on the wooden sleepers bordering the sandy wall. I saw perhaps half a dozen dozing motionless along here, some of them young of the year. One was quite green in colour and a couple had lost their tails. With care it was possible to get very close to these creatures – smooth slow movements is the key, not easy for my creaking carcass. I sat close to what I believe to be a large female and watched it catch and crunch a spider that scuttled too close. It took the lizard quite a white to consume this hapless arachnid as all it could do was effectively crush it to a digestible pulp before swallowing it. The more I looked the more sense it made for the lizards to choose to spend their time loafing around on these exposed patches. Not only were they maximising the warming effect of the sun but they were also surrounded by prey that quite literally walked into their jaws. Spiders, ants and beetles were all scurrying along this artificial corridor – a highway to hell if only they realised.