Saturday, 31 January 2015

Loving the Alien

The Yare Valley is well known to me being positioned within easy striking distance of the eastern suburbs of Norwich. There as a growing lad I, together with my mates, regularly cycled its narrow windswept lanes throughout the seasons seeing, smelling and tasting its wild delights. Its charm is a subtle one, a gentle one, like so much of this Norfolk of ours. A shallow rolling landscape affording wide open views over the long sloping valley which gives way to a landscape of rich marshland bordering the slow moving river. It takes a while to thoroughly appreciate its raw, sometimes bitter beauty, but over the years its essence has penetrated deep, to my very soul in fact.

If you could compare photographs of how it looked when I used to gaze at it from the high point near Strumpshaw, taking a rest after a hard days cycling, or when we arrived tired and hungry at Buckenham Halt after a full day traipsing across the marshes you would probably say that it hasn't changed much. And at a superficial level you would be right, but in fact much has changed and happily for the better. There are more hedgerows now, and the roadside trees planted in the 1980s are beginning to mature, breaking up the landscape and providing welcome breeding, feeding and roosting sites for the local birds, insects and mammals. Where only trespass was the option in our youth, Public Bridleways, well-marked and maintained, now criss-cross the hare-friendly fields. And of course the marshland itself is now largely managed by the RSPB who ensure the whole wetland between Brundall and Gt Yarmouth is governed for the benefit of wildlife. What a wonderful positive piece of news.

On a whim today we found ourselves slowly motoring the network of byways hoping to stumble upon some of the wild inhabitants of this mercifully un-crowded area. We were not disappointed. But the species that entertained us most were all non-natives, some long standing and familiar inhabitants of our countryside, some relative newcomers, but all introductions from elsewhere.

The first of these interlopers came in the form of a pair of Chinese water deer hunkered down in a field of winter sown cereal. These ever increasing animals are very appealing with their teddy bear countenance and oversized ears. It wasn't many years ago when the sight of one would mark something of a red-letter day, but now they seem to be expanding quite rapidly and certainly ranging ever wider from their traditional wetland homes. This new-found boldness may herald their undoing should they begin to have an impact on crops. I often wonder if sightings of these animals sporting well grown tusks and spotted in the half light of dusk or maybe in the headlights of a passing car are responsible for rumours of big cats roaming our countryside. It would be an easy and forgivable mistake to make.

Are they dogs? Are they big cats? No they're deer with big ears!

You can see how people could think this is not a deer

Next a small group of brown hares, a well-established member of the British fauna, but probably introduced by Roman invaders, caught our attention as they loped lazily around each other. This area is a real stronghold for hares and during early spring it is quite easy to see a score or more engaged in courting activity. With patience one will often approach close enough to allow full appreciation of its oversized eyes, ears and legs. A favoured animal and always good to see.

Brown Hare - Aren't they gorgeous?

But it was a pair of cock pheasants that really engaged and entertained us as they sparred with each other in the waning light of late afternoon. We watched this macho pair posturing and clucking at each other for some time, neither prepared to give way and admit defeat. Occasionally one would lunge at the other resulting in a brief aerial joust, but I think the whole thing was a little half-hearted, perhaps too early in the season. Things will no doubt get more serious as spring advances. Looking at these birds close to through the viewfinder of my camera I could admire the complexity of their head plumage; a startling orange eye set in jowls of shocking scarlet flanking a bright white beak set against a head of deepest green all highlighted by a necklace of purest white. Quite a package.
Who's a pretty boy then?

Shame about the depth of field, but they were so close.
Add to these mammalian residents the sight of fields covered in gulls, plovers both green and golden, crows and geese, with marsh harriers and buzzards patrolling above and you have a scene rich and full of interest. It's ironic really. In a couple of weeks time we are going to visit Extremadura in Spain where no doubt every bird and animal we see will be greeted by an ooh and ahhhh! We will (quite rightly) think it is a marvellous place full of exotic creatures, yet just a few miles from home we have something comparable, maybe not in grandeur, but certainly in diversity.  It doesn't really matter that some of these creatures are not native to our shores, they have all carved a niche for themselves and add interest and colour to the landscape.  It takes an effort to open your eyes and really appreciate what's on your doorstep, but take the time, lift the veil from your eyes and soak it in. I'm so glad I live here. 

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

How cold can it get?

It was bitter at Cley today, so cold that even now some 5 hours after I said goodbye to the bleak winter-washed marshes I am struggling to get warm. Caught in Bishop's Hide when an evil looking cobalt-coloured curtain swept in from the west, I could do nothing but try and shore up the viewing hatches in a vain effort to prevent the horizontal squall soaking me and everything therein. I failed.

To cap it all I somehow managed to lose my footing whilst stepping over one of the logs in the car park after lunch. Whack! Down I went hard onto my left knee. Muddy trousers, now with a lovely tear in them lent an air of mild desparation to my rapidly deteriorating deameanour. After all a man has to have dress standards. To my complete surprise there was no pain, not even after I'd tramped around the reserve perimeter muttering various curses under my least not until I got home when the pain was literally crippling.

So here I sit, watching the footy and nursing my tender patella. I've even managed a chuckle over the exploits of the day which, despite all, did produce some wildlife, and good company from the reserve staff, and much optimism about the imminent completion of the Simon Aspinall Education Centre and the wonderful programme of events planned for the coming year. Surely next week will be warmer? Please let it be warmer.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Praise for the Everyday

It's not all about rare birds you know. I can't help thinking that the worth of a bird is too often judged nowadays by its perceived rarity and that this is a big mistake. The danger with this approach is that you risk overlooking the commonplace, your birding bread and butter, in favour of some exotic creature that has lost its way. Much like being led astray by some temptress who flutters her eyelashes; it is but a temporary infatuation. The eyelashes, together with she who sports them, will soon drift away to beguile some other admirer and leave you bereft and forlorn. No, much better to stick to the stuff that made the effort to charm you in the first place, look at it afresh and really appreciate its value. Much more satisfying I feel.

Take the chap I bumped into at Titchwell yesterday. Instead of taking delight in the wonderful birds on show; the brilliance of the shoveler's head gloss, the red shock of the bullfinch's breast, the ghostly, buoyant flight of the innocent looking barn owls, he began lamenting the fact he had 'missed' the jack snipe (most people do). He was talking to me, a complete stranger, and all he had to offer was the negative. What a shame. I don't suppose for an instant he was a bad person, he was simply falling into the trap that seems to affect a lot of birders nowadays (including me at times) i.e. if you don't see everything you've been told is present in a particular place you've somehow failed. What utter tosh!

And then there was the guy at Cley last spring who almost accused me of being personally responsible for the total lack of birds on show (I had my NWT shirt on complete with name badge). This despite the fact we had displaying lapwings, redshanks, ringed plovers and avocets all around us, newly arrived sandwich terns screeching past and skylarks twittering in the sky above. People can be quite strange at times.

Happily we had no such problems at Cley today because as far as I was aware there wasn't a rare bird within a 10 mile radius. But there were some very lovely little chaps on show that although not exactly common, certainly wouldn't merit a Twitch - bearded tits, or reedlings if you prefer (apparently more closely related to larks than tits but who really cares). These rather gorgeous little creatures had decided to stop playing hard to get for a change and parade around in full show for all to admire. And admire we did, and at pretty close range. How wonderful to be able to fully appreciate the bright orange-brown plumage of the male, subtly shading into the cleanest blue-grey head set off by the dart shaped ‘moustache’. Superb little birds. These normally half seen denizens of the reed beds delighted onlookers for most of the day in their quest for small seeds. Blazes of rich colour in an otherwise drab vista.


Further along the beach I slowly walked along the fence line periodically flushing a female stonechat from post to post. She was a wary little madam who wouldn’t let me approach closer than a four fencepost length to begin with. As we became more comfortable with one another she allowed me to get a little closer teasing me with a quick flit away as soon as I raised my camera. We flirted with one another for the next five minutes before she relented and posed for a decent pic and once satisfied that she had done her bit for art flew away haughtily. Another quite common but very beautiful bird.


And then the snow buntings. Jewels that flight black and white as they nervously move from one feeding spot to another. It was hard to get close today; the birds seemed quite edgy although there was no obvious reason for their mistrust. One more unusual, but not rare, species that graces these sometimes seemingly barren shores during the winter months.


So, all in all a good days haul, maybe not as good as the carrot cake and hot chocolate in the NWT Visitor Centre, but not bad at that.

Monday, 19 January 2015

All Abroad

I sometimes contribute to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust blog which can be found here. Simply scroll down the home page and click on the blog tab. There are some very interesting articles here providing updates on the work of the Trust and their aspirations for the shape of nature conservation in the county. Most of my bits relate to days spent volunteering at Cley, but I reproduce below an account of a trip to Ranworth in the heart of the wonderful Norfolk Broads I made a few days ago. You should go there if you can.
A Mid-Winter Visit to Ranworth

A mid-winter visit to Ranworth seldom disappoints and today it looked wonderful bathed as it was in the rich glow from the low-angle on a January sun.  First stop was to watch people feeding the ducks by the Staithe. Here the mallards are joined by a flotilla of coots, a pair of cantankerous swans and the ever present and watchful black headed gulls. These latter opportunists, visitors from the Baltic perhaps, mug the local wildfowl of their stale bread and buns, swooping and plunging with marvellous ease and sometimes plucking the morsel from the air before it makes contact with the cold water. Most were adults, some beginning to moult into their summer plumage sporting a mottling of brown head feathers amidst plumage of silver grey; one or two were 1st winter birds with smudged wing coverts and light orange beaks. All were hungry, but not for long if the steady procession of young children carrying plastic bags full of promise was anything to go by. The nutritional value of the starch and sugar on offer is debatable, but such activity sometimes represents the first, sadly maybe only, contact young people have with wildlife. If they revel in the frantic scrabbling of the ducks and hoot with laughter when one stands on the others foot in the melee and gets a peck for its trouble, then surely that can only be good? Lifelong love affairs with nature have been birthed from less.

Next a stroll along the boardwalk that leads through the NWT reserve. The wet woodland Carr was at first eerily quiet, seemingly devoid of life, but standing still for a few minutes soon changed that impression. First to show themselves were a small charm of goldfinches quietly teasing seeds from high in the alders above. Closer inspection of the tree tops revealed one or two siskins amongst them and, delight of delights, a lovely pink hued redpoll. A flight of chaffinches cascaded into the lower branches, closely followed by a buzzing party of hyper-active long tailed tits. A tree creeper scuttled up a slender birch trunk and a distant nuthatches fluty chirrup gave a hint that maybe spring isn't too far away. And then a robin, and another and in the distance a third uttered its thin warbling song. There is much to appreciate here; be patient and the wildlife won't disappoint.

Norfolk Wildlife Trusts visitor centre at the end of the boardwalk, unique in design and an aesthetic masterpiece, was closed for the winter, its anchor chains straining to hold the building steady against the choppy waters whipped up by a strengthening nor-Easter. But good views of the broad could still be had by taking advantage of the specially constructed raised platform nearby. From this elevated vantage point many wildfowl could be more easily seen. Rafts of wigeon had gathered to rest, the chestnut heads of the drakes glowing against the rippling grey water. These visitors from Iceland or Russia will spend much time feeding on the grazing marshes hereabouts, perhaps at Upton where Norfolk Wildlife Trust has made great strides to ensure the low lying floodplain is ideally suited to the needs to wintering wildfowl. Interspersed amongst the whistling wigeon were smaller numbers of teal, shoveler and mallard. Several cormorants, wings spread heraldic, dotted the far shore and a distant marsh harrier battled the swirling air currents in its quest to find an unwary meal to sustain it through another cold winter night. The wind here has nothing to obstruct its path - time to move and seek some shelter.

The walk back to the staithe first took us through the reed bed which although small is well managed for its surprising range of wild flowers and invertebrate life. Of course none of this was on offer today, but what glorious compensation was to be had by the sight of thousands of backlit seed heads dancing candle-like in the breeze. I've tried on several occasions to capture this atmospheric scene with my camera, but have never obtained a satisfactory image; it is only worth experiencing at first hand. It won't be long before NWT reserve staff come along to cut one side of this area of reed to allow important plants like milk parsley, beloved by the swallowtail butterfly, to flourish.

The visit ended with a cup of tea at the church cafe and a walk through the churchyard where a mole had been busy burrowing under the conservation patch. Turn left at the church gate and you complete the circuit. Ranworth is a small village but has a number of year round attractions. It is a well-functioning mosaic with Norfolk Wildlife Trust playing a key role in this true living landscape. Pay a visit, you will be well rewarded.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

A Reason Why

So this is my blog and you are most welcome. It's not going to be a diary of mundane day by day events (Dear Diary: got up, did bugger all and went to bed): no, the plan is to scribe on these pages my thoughts and experiences of wildlife watching as I move sloth-like through my 59th year of life. And maybe beyond. It won't be exclusively wildlife related; there will hopefully be a richer tapestry here. We'll see. Perhaps a bit of background would be in order.

I quite enjoy writing, I think it is a trait shared by many lovers of wild places and wild things. I first started putting pen to paper (a real pen (remember those) to actual paper as opposed to finger to keyboard) sometime during 1974. In those far off days of my late teens I scribbled a kind of wildlife journal in large foolscap ledger books my father had somehow procured (or more likely purloined) from the Post Office where he worked. My first entry therein was an account of time spent trudging over the marshes between Berney Arms and Reedham one breezy April day. No access to our own car or mobile phones in those days so we cadged a lift to Reedham in the early morning, spent the day getting beaten and buffeted by that April wind that blows unchallenged over the east coast marshes during spring, and arranged to be picked up at 7pm that evening trusting that my father would 1. Remember, and 2. His car would start. At that time the primary goal of my mate John and I was to find and record, for our own ends, as many bird's nests as we could. We jotted down the location and contents of all we stumbled on and kept a kind of league table of what we discovered. Not very scientific, but it kept us amused and without us realising it formed an embryonic love affair with birds, their habitats, habits and diversity.

Anyway I distinctly remember how that day ended with us both sitting on the river wall at Reedham Ferry nursing a well-earned half pint of cider, young, fit and trim yet pleasantly exhausted by our day of scrambling over gates, jumping across drainage ditches and trudging through knee high sedge beds (private property - what's that?). We sat there, my friend and me, listening in the fading light and now still evening air to lapwings 'burbling' their mating cries over the marshes on the far side of the river. Nothing else moved, nothing else mattered. It was one of those evocative moments that stay with you forever and I don't understand how a person can fail to be moved by such an experience. So I wrote it down. And even today when I read the account of that day I'm transported back in time to when a couple of long haired children of the 70s sat together on a river bank as dusk is falling listening to the wild birds call. I wouldn't change those experiences for the world, and I'm so glad I took the trouble to record it all.

In a sense I've never stopped writing about things. I kept those thick wildlife tomes going for many a year and tarted them up with the odd painting or press cutting. During my long and notably undistinguished career with various agencies of the civil service I exercised the power of the biro with gusto, filling many an in tray with meaningless, but well intentioned missives ("think that's a bit too flowery Barry"). After being booted out of Her Majesty's Government for being too old and far too dispensable, I found much, much more interesting employment with Norfolk Wildlife Trust which allowed further expression, this time full of meaning in support of the wonderful work they do. I now write for my parish magazine Sprowston News (what do you mean you've never read it? - subscribe immediately), and I still contribute to the NWT blog when I feel so moved. It's not Shakespeare, but it scratches an itch. So now a blog, inspired by a few friends who have likewise decided to relate their experiences for the world to judge their worth. I hope you will enjoy what follows; I know I'll enjoy writing it. Wonder what lies in store?