Monday, 29 June 2015

The Boys Done Great

Our slice of Broadland, a rich mosaic of reed fen and low lying sedge beds where on the slightly higher ground lily carpeted ditches crisscross the lush grazing meadows, is proving to be a magical place to spend a couple of hours. When I say 'our' slice I mean rather the area we are lucky enough to be able to wander across looking for that most majestic of Norfolk insects the swallowtail butterfly. We, my fellow volunteer Roger and I, splattered, splodged and splashed our way through the thick reed bed a couple of weeks ago, getting hopelessly lost in the uniform, chest high luxuriantly growth to no avail. No swallowtails and perhaps more importantly no sign of the larval food plant, the delicate, quite unassuming, milk parsley. On our reconnoitre (see Willing Volunteer) we did find a few wisps of its frail feathery foliage fighting for living space, but it appeared that these plants had been out-competed by the far more vigorous Phragmites australis, or common reed to you and me. We did see many dragonflies, Norfolk hawkers amongst them; we espied other butterfly species and myriad other beetles, flies and bees, but no sign of our main quarry. Somewhat disappointed we eventually located the wooden bridge over the narrow dyke that led to our sweaty but grateful emergence into the dryer common area; our quest we thought a failure. But then a surprise, a delight, an adrenalin fused moment as a newly hatched, pristine swallowtail appeared in front of us greedily supping nectar from the flower heads of spear thistles. Like a couple of football fans whose team has put the ball in the net (he's passed the ball and he's hit that one as sweet as a nut) we elatedly fist pumped the air and proceeded to watch this rare and seldom encountered insect as it flew strongly from flower to flower imbibing sugar laden treats. As delightful as this encounter was it still did not constitute evidence of breeding. Swallowtails are strong flyers and can cover many miles on their flutterings; a partial success then.

The Dense Wet Fen

The Dryer Damp Common

Sedge Warblers are Frequent

Fast forward nine days and we are once again in search of this large yellow winged, black veined beauty. Not wishing to repeat our misguided meandering of the previous visit we decided to forego a crash through the reed bed, electing instead to traverse the more accessible areas adjacent to the fen proper. Here, on patches of slightly higher ground, some gorse and shrubs take hold from the tops of which yellowhammers, whitethroats and sedge warblers proclaim territorial rights. The clear water of the drainage ditches are lined with yellow flag, and the whole vista a patchwork of colour as ragged robin, marsh cinquefoil and cotton grass flower. After two hours, maybe more, of diligent searching we found what we had come to find. At the farthest edge of the plot, in one of the wetter stands, there on a small wispy sprig of an insignificant plant were four small, insignificant off -white pinhead sized balls. Eggs. Swallowtail eggs. Proof of breeding in this most magical remnant of what is still the finest wetland area of the whole country. I can't tell you how pleased we were, and still are, about this, but to further the footballing analogy perhaps dead chuffed or over the moon John conveys the general notion. In any event we were right royally pleased.

Marsh Cinquefoil Bearing Lovely Strawberry-like Flowers

Swallowtail Racing Toward Ragged Robin

Swallowtail Egg

It may be small but what a wonderful insect will eventually result 

Now we move forward a few more days to visit a habitat north of Norwich that could not be more removed from the fens to the east of our fine and excellent city. Friday dawned and found us at dusk in search of another unusual and hard to find insect. This one required a visit to the excellently managed Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Buxton Heath, a mix of dry heather heathland and wet boggy mire surrounded by pine plantations, that when eventually felled will hopefully allow reversion to further tracts of more wildlife friendly habitat. In one of the dell areas I remember stumbling upon a small colony of glow worms a decade ago, and our quest this evening was to relocate these luminescent creatures amongst the substantial acreage. After meandering along a few false trails that seemed to always end in boggy ground we eventually found our way to the higher, dryer area and within a few minutes had excellent views of nightjars floating close by on buoyant wings, uttering their distinctive chirruping flight notes. Others churred away from perches at indeterminable distance, and very pleasing it was to know these crepuscular summer migrants are still bouncing around the dusk skies of this area situate only a few miles from the city suburbs.

Although a sliver of moon was periodically peeping from a veil of scudding grey cloud, cloud that an hour previously had emptied voluminously, the darkness enveloped us quite rapidly after 10.30pm just as we reached the area where I thought I had seen glow worms so many years ago. Upon finding our path blocked by a metal gate and having had no sign of any brightly lit rear ends of small beetles, it seemed our adventure had reached a disappointingly dull end. But then low down in the damp grass we espied a pinprick of light, could this be what we were looking for? Well happily yes it could and having opened the gate we eventually found half a dozen of these strange little critters signalling for a mate; not overwhelming numbers but nonetheless satisfying.

I do like being on the heath on a sultry summers evening as dusk falls. There is an undoubted magic as the cast of characters from the day shift slowly become quiet and retire for the night, leaving the way clear for the night shift to take over. Whilst there is still light in the western sky you can watch bats flittering along the edge of a belt of trees, catch the grunts of roding woodcock as they patrol their territories, catch the familiar duet of tawny owls and like us witness nightjars feeding and glow worms mating. Superb.

In times gone by vast areas of lowland heath encircled Norwich. So expansive were these that whole armies of peasants could hide in them during the period of Ketts rebellion. Many place names still bear evidence of past wildness: Blofield Heath, Rackheath, Mousehold Heath for example. Sadly that is pretty much the only tangible reminder we have of all those unbroken tracts of precious ling and heather. No amount of  Heath Farms or Ling Commons can compensate for the loss. But we need not despair. Although compared to past glory we now only have small remnants, we do at least have those and they are being well looked after. Also it is not beyond hope that other areas can be salvaged as and when they become available. Certainly more sympathetic and enlightened attitudes of such bodies as the Forestry Commission give grounds for optimism. Who knows maybe one day in the not too distant future we may see some of these areas joined together to give us a better sense of what it once must have looked like. Hope so.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Animal Encounters

With the soft, warm breeze from a sultry June evening wafting the subtle scents of summer over us from the open window, gently rippling the curtains as it slid refreshingly into the room, we listened to the mystical sound of David Bowie's ‘Starman’ periodically fading in and out from the radio on the windowsill. And I thought I want to dress like him; David Bowie, that mystical, carrot haired alien. So I bought a pair of red boots, knee high boots, not so much red as burning bright scarlet. They looked cool when I saw them in the catalogue, and to this day I don't understand why I failed to read the printed description fully. I really should have done because they turned out not to be the soft leather heeled jobs that would normally bedeck a shapely female leg, but motorcycle boots more suited to bedecking a hairy, beleathered biker. Blazing red and Bowiesque they may have been but they were also very heavy and rather uncomfortable. Undaunted I boldly stomped around in them smug in the knowledge that I was emulating my idol; of course I must have looked a prize pillock, but in the woolly imagination of a 16 year old besotted with the androgynous glam rocker, I was the man. Whilst I immersed myself in worshiping a rock god, my dad was praying to the real one that I would grow up, but his muttered appeals to various deities were in vain. It was my time to rebel and what I wore on Saturday nights was my business. Anyway those boots were, for a while, glued to my feet, calves and shins.

It was whilst we were out on one of our regular tramps across whatever bit of marsh we fancied trespassing across that the idea of bird watching with several pounds of leather and metal strapped to my legs began to unravel. There were sheep in the field. No problem. We knew sheep to be benign woolly creatures that gaze up at you blankly before trotting away to a safe distance, as indeed these were. But there was also a ram in amongst them and he had other ideas. I don't know whether it was the beacons adorning my lower legs that caused him to take exception to me, or whether he was simply doing his duty in guarding his girls, but he decided to charge. Now when a bull charges it is frightening, they are incredibly swift when roused and having a couple of tons of prime beef pelting towards you at 30 mph is to put it mildly stomach churning, heart pumping, adrenaline rushing and bum squeaking. I've seen it, I know. However having a male sheep, 2 feet high at the shoulder, butting you at ankle height isn't quite the same. Nonetheless we ran, or at least my mate did. I instead resorted to a kind of loping lurch and at this point realised why most athletes wear trainers and not motorcycle boots. So there I was clumping across a meadow, a 70s teen with legs looking like a pair of ungainly swan vestas with a demented ram periodically whacking me from behind. Our laughter lasted all the way home and the boots went in the bin.

We always seemed to court trouble with farm animals. Cows were a real problem and we approached fields littered with them and their pungent pats with caution, but dogs were worse. On numerous occasions we would be merrily cycling past a farm when the resident canines would suddenly pelt out of the yard and streak towards us. The little buggers would chase us along the lane nipping at our ankles as we frantically tried to peddle our way to safety. Once these gangs decided their duty discharged they would stop their assault and trot back to the farmyard no doubt sniggering and chatting to each other like something from a Disney cartoon. There they would settle down for a light doze awaiting the next unsuspecting passer-by. It probably seemed a lot worse than it actually was, but to this day I'm wary of dogs running loose along the beach at Cley or indeed anywhere that potentially brings me and them into close contact. And with just cause I think. More than once in recent years I've had little terriers take exception to me whilst they are out with their masters or mistresses along some lonely footpath. I seem to get a sixth sense about which ones are going to cause trouble and I'm not often wrong. It always seems to be small dogs that chance their arm, the larger ones, perhaps more self-assured just sniff my crap encrusted boots and move on. No, I feel comfortable with big's the little sods you have to watch.

Never trust a crustacean, especially one with claws. I learnt this essential life skill the hard way many years ago whilst showing off my wildlife handling skills to my wife to be; crabs are best left alone. I don’t know what made me pick this particular one up, a need to display macho prowess perhaps, but I obviously got it wrong. The affronted multi-limbed creature plucked from the comfort of a rock pool decided to teach me a lesson and nipped my finger. The pain was intense and no matter how much I shook my hand and danced around it wouldn’t let go. The scene must have resembled something from one of those comic seaside postcards, me jigging about getting red in the face, the girlfriend doubled up with hopeless laughter, seagulls smirking from their perch on the pier. Somehow this arthropod had managed to get its vicelike grip just beneath my fingernail, the most vulnerable spot, and crikey it hurt. Eventually I dislodged it by immersing my hand back into the pool where, deciding it could make a quick break for the safety of a large rock, it let go and scuttled away. I don’t pick them up any more.

I guess being savaged by geese, stung by bees, wasps and nettles, bitten by mosquitos, horseflies and midges is part of the lot for a person like me. Losing your shoe in a ditch full of evil smelling effluent, sinking up to your knees in thick gunky mud, toppling off gates and being startled out of your skin whenever a pheasant explodes from the undergrowth beside you is all part of the game. Clinging to a slender bough of a tree swaying in the wind 50 feet above ground, sticking your arm into holes in trees not knowing quite what you’re going to find in the dark depths, jumping across drainage dykes and being shouted at by landowners with guns - ‘git orf moi laand’ - is all part of the adventure. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


At Breydon in 1979 - Nothing much has changed....except my shape.


Saturday, 20 June 2015


Do you feel connected? I don't mean technologically with iPad, smartphone, Twitter and all things digital, but naturally connected and in touch with the wild side of life? There is a whole world out there to enjoy but somehow it seems so many of us have become disconnected, to spend our lives in some sort of sensory vacuum; a bubble providing insulation and isolation from the outside. In our wi-fi driven age we have perhaps forgot to look out of the window.

The value of taking time to stand, stare and wonder cannot be underestimated I think. This happy circumstance is brought home to me every Monday when I volunteer as a welcomer at Norwich Cathedral (I know, I'm just as amazed that they let me in). Here, between April and July, we are just as likely to be asked 'which way to your peregrines' as 'which way to the presbytery'. People are galvanised to take an interest in the phenomenon of being able to witness part of the soap opera which is the Norwich peregrines nesting cycle. Folk can watch the shenanigans of the now quite experienced breeding falcons via a live feed provided by the Hawk and Owl Trust. More importantly they can stand in the fresh air and watch these beautiful birds in the flesh through telescopes provided by this worthy conservation body. Knowledgeable volunteers are always on hand in a specially erected marquee to further enhance the experience. Click! - a connection has been made.

Recently Fledged Peregrines

These youngsters were chasing each other around the
Cathedral Close on Monday.

Adult Peregrine at Norwich Cathedral

The reason I'm keenly aware of the need to invest time and effort into raising awareness of the natural splendours of this planet is largely thanks to having worked for a couple of years on a Norfolk Wildlife Trust project aptly called NaturalConnections. It was designed to do precisely what it says on the tin, i.e. connect people with the natural world, or rather reconnect them with something they had forgotten about and lost. The essence of our work was to galvanise the inhabitants of two demographically diverse parishes within Norfolk to become actively involved with nature. To this end we held workshops in their respective village halls on wildly ranging subjects; birds, mammals, trees, plants and bats. We arranged for experts to host fungi forays, pond dipping sessions, photography workshops and moth trapping sessions. We encouraged people to record butterfly sightings and even arranged for the BBC to lend video equipment so parishioners could record what they found. And we helped teachers get their young charges involved in making nest boxes and recording what they saw on their way to and from school. It was wonderful and truly the most worthwhile occupation I've ever had. The culmination of the parishioner’s efforts, young and old, was, in one case, the production of an illustrated booklet documenting the natural history of the area as at 2010 and in the other, a series of professionally printed maps illustrating public walks around the parish. In both cases made freely available to all. The personal legacy from this is having made friends that some 5 years after the project ended still engage enthusiastically with nature and admit to the whole experience having changed their lives. Click!

The recently capped new team member at Cley, Rachael by name, is acutely aware of the need to re-establish links between us humans and nature, especially with regard to young people. There is a significant gap in the age range of people using the facilities at this site; a state echoed I'm sure across the country, with people from teens to thirties noticeably unrepresented. Gone are the days when gaggles of young men and women dossed down in the hides and the beach snug over the weekend whilst undertaking a visit to birding Mecca. In fact nowadays there are seldom any young men and women to be seen on the reserve at all. Maybe they have all become armchair nature lovers, happy to watch images of lions hunting gazelles, or orcas flushing seals off Antarctic ice flows on HD TVs, and have forgotten we have similar excitement at home. The challenge is to encourage them to step outside, tune their ears to the music of birdsong, delight in the vibrant intricacy of a butterfly wing, hold their breath when an unexpected encounter with a deer provides that magic split second eye contact, and to feel: feel the wildness. Springwatch's focus on the trials and tribulations of the stickleback Spineless Si may prove an unexpected catalyst in turning this situation around….as long as people don't only subscribe to him via social media. Click!


These little fish are abundant in the dykes at Cley and more than one
person has been caught watching them because of the exposure their
breeding exploits received on BBC's Springwatch.

It doesn’t take much; we can all enhance our lives at no cost and little effort. On Wednesday as part of young Rachael’s exciting new regime, we held an impromptu and free of charge taster session, a guided short walk around the reserve to sample all things wild. The target audience for these new ventures is essentially those who are complete nature novices, those who really can’t tell a Harnser from a handsaw or those who are simply curious to find out what this nature thing is all about. I didn’t think there was too much on show, but that was looking through the eyes of someone who sees the reserve on a regular basis. I had to step back and look instead through the eyes of others who perhaps had never participated in this kind of activity before. I’d forgotten that some people have never used a pair of binoculars, I’d forgotten that some had never seen a redshank and I failed to appreciate that to some simply sitting quietly in a bird hide watching shelduck and avocets was a totally new experience. The delight shown by one lady when she saw for herself how to identify a black-tailed godwit in flight spoke volumes. A resounding and so worthwhile Click! 

Perhaps for me though a resurgent interest in photography has allowed me to really connect. It seems to add a whole new dimension to my days out and most importantly makes me look. I’ve taken to peering into bushes hunting for insects, waiting immobile for a kingfisher to alight on a favoured perch (they never have), and seeking out orchids amongst seemingly uniform tangles of grass. There really is a never ending supply of subjects ready to be snapped. Click, click, click, click, click…

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Grumpy Old Git

What is this twitching lark all about? We’ve all heard the term and no doubt some of us have been branded as such, in which case if you’re anything like me you bite your lip, smile sweetly and through gritted teeth point out that calling me a twitcher is akin to telling me that my flies are undone; embarrassing, and making me realise why I’ve been feeling a draught for the last 2 hours.  No, twitching is a disease, a serious emotional and psychological problem that in my opinion needs at least strong medication and probably a lobotomy. If I had anything to do with it ‘twitching’a condition where mainly single men (and women) dress in military fatigues, and loiter around a bush waiting for a small, frightened, hopelessly lost bird (which somebody else had the good fortune to find), to show itself whilst all the time wishing they were somewhere else, where someone else has had the good fortune to find another equally small, frightened, hopelessly lost bird in another bush, preferably on a remote island between Scotland and the Arctic - would be classified as a medical emergency treatable initially by confiscation of pagers and ultimately by grafting on a meaningful life. As a point of interest a significant proportion of twitchers do seem to be single…… or soon will be.
‘Hang on a minute’ I hear you cry ‘you write about rare birds’. Well, no not really, at least not in the same way. Yes, I like to see unusual stuff, but that’s true of any hobby, the difference is I do not race around the country with the sole objective of ticking a bird I haven’t seen before and that I didn’t bother to find in the first place. There seems nowadays to be a whole race of folk who spend their days with their pager about their person, awaiting news of what other people, who took trouble to get off their backsides and get out that morning, have found for them.  So what am I then? A conservationist? Certainly, but we all are, or at least should be. We all live on this planet and should be very concerned with its wellbeing. A naturalist then? Guilty, although I wouldn’t pretend to be anything like an expert in anything. Aren’t we all naturalists to some degree? We all love to hear birdsong and feed our feathered neighbours during the hard days of winter; we all love to watch those wonderfully crafted TV documentaries charting the lives of big cats or marine life, and we all despair at the pitiful state to which the lust for ivory has rendered the African elephant population. Yes, we are all most decidedly naturalists. A birder? That too, and I freely admit that birds, their lives, variety, migration, incredible resilience and beautiful colouration is my main interest. But I do not see the value in screaming around the world ticking them. It has no value, it becomes a self-serving obsession and most importantly all you are doing is taking. And we all know it is much better to give than receive.

I didn’t always hold such a polarised view of this malaise. Time was when I got sucked into making trips to the coast in the hope of catching sight of some wind-blown stray, although I never tended to stray from Norfolk. But the incessant urge to see something for its own sake soon paled. Ignorance is surely bliss in this regard: if you don’t know something is there you don’t get upset about missing it. My pleasure nowadays is derived from just plodding around a chosen venue grateful for anything I see. It is all nature and it all has worth. Even more pleasure is derived from sharing those experiences either by way of taking people on guided walks or by writing about wild places and wild things. That’s not to say I don’t keep lists, life list, UK list, Norfolk list, garden list but what joy to add to those through your own efforts. Perhaps I’m getting old.

I think what has really made me adopt this ranting, crazed anti-twitching stance is this blogging caper. Since I’ve started this one I have also started looking at other peoples birding blogs out of sheer voyeurism. Many are excellent, varied and interesting and I have, with permission from the owners, linked to them from here (you will see the list on the right of the page and they are all well worth a thorough read). Others are, quite frankly, downright boring containing simply lists of things seen, i.e. found for them, and juvenile moaning about the things they have missed. All accompanied of course by the conventional expressions of their ilk, ‘gripped off’, dipped out’ etc that no mature adult should surely ever stoop to type or utter. I’ve learned recently that there are many good folk out there who really care about the natural world in all its glory. I’m proud to call some of them friends. Take my mate Darren who I’m sure would admit to once being at least a semi-twitcher (an itcher perhaps). He has seen the light and has dedicated this year to concentrating his efforts on recording the birdlife of the area in and around Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Not everybody’s idea of fun, but he is having a hoot because everything he sees has a value. Everything is effectively another piece of a jigsaw where nobody knows the whole picture, because nobody has taken the time to do it before. At the end of the year he will have amassed a series of observations that have a scientific worth. He is giving something back.

Then there is Tom, my colleague from Cley (now defected to the National Trust). He devotes much time to conservation issues volunteering not only at Cley, but patrolling Blakeney Point to safeguard breeding terns as well as leading photography and sketching sessions at Holme. He does it all for nothing, although I suspect the glamour of being able to race along the exposed sands at Blakeney at  20mph in his Polaris buggy is payment enough for the man.

There are others – look at their blogs and you will see the great work they do.

OK, time to end this possibly controversial tirade. It’s a little tongue in cheek and hopefully no one will be offended. You’ve all got better things to do with your life than listen to me prattle on…..please just make sure it isn’t twitching!

Tom and Yours Truly with the Polaris at Blakeney Point


Sunday, 14 June 2015

Rain Stopped Play.....Almost

The sun rose as a deep orange ball casting its welcome rays of golden light on the scene around me; dew laden spiders webs festooning every bush, the dead heads of myriad reed stems waving gently in the post dawn breeze, and…….no hang on, that’s not it! Let’s picture ourselves instead insulated in thick fleece waiting to undertake a swallowtail survey in the middle of the morning, in the middle of Broadland in the middle of June.  Cold, grey, lowering cloud and a chill wind powering from the north. There would be no butterflies today; any self-respecting winged insect would be tucked away in deep cover awaiting more clement conditions. There was no option but to call the whole thing off – better luck next week perhaps.
This, regrettably, has been a feature of spring with its disproportionate number of cool, cloud shrouded days. Even when the sun has poked its nose out from behind thick curtains of stratus in an attempt to warm us for a spell, it has often been thwarted by having to compete with a cruel breeze. Surprisingly the conditions do not seem to have had a tremendous effect on the general emergence of butterflies and other day-flying insects, but it does mean the number of days you can reliably find them on the wing has been limited. Whether overall numbers have been affected remains to be seen.

It wasn’t bad all week though and last Sunday I had the pleasure of helping out the Trinity Broads Partnership at an open day organised by local farmers. Our pitch, reached after a mile of driving along wet woodland tracks where beds of yellow flag iris danced merrily in the dappled June sunlight, was set alongside an artificially created irrigation pond. Or perhaps small lake would be an apt description. Here rafts of yellow lilies formed dense carpets rippling now and again by the antics of courting fish beneath. A piping kingfisher streaked, dazzling blue and orange, low over the untainted water whilst a hobby hawked dragonflies a few metres from where we stood. On more than one occasion this masked hunter came so close that we could make out every detail of its plumage; its boldly streaked underside, deep orange-red ‘trousers’ and a bright glinting eye able to see the bold darting of a dragonfly from a distance of 100 metres or more. This apex predator was to stay with us all day even when gangs of boisterous children were running screaming by the waterside.  The object of our participation was to inform the general public about the work the Partnership is undertaking in the area and to raise awareness of the fascinating wealth of plants and creatures they live beside. The kingfisher and hobby helped.

Unseen Broadland

Hobby Watching

The day after the ill-fated swallowtail episode, I did manage to complete another butterfly survey around the site of Essex and Suffolk Waterworks. An excellent site this, private and largely unmolested. Ideal habitat for many creatures seeking a quiet space to go about their business. NWT has been working with the water company to persuade them to leave areas of the open grassland here unmown. To prove this strategy pays dividends we need to find butterflies. I found three. A poor return for an hour, but this was again due to the cool conditions and I know for sure that many more do use these areas which now stand proud with drifts of ox-eye daisies, red campion and a range of grasses. Although it was too cold for much butterfly activity there were damselflies; I waded through a cloud of blue-tailed flying low amongst protective herbage. Some of these dainty, fragile short-lived hunters clustered around the edge of a large leaf, close to the ground and sheltered.

Oedemera nobilis on Ox-eye Daisy

Mating Shieldbugs

Blue-tailed Damselflies

Friday dawned to herald a momentous day for NWT with the formal opening of the Simon Aspinall Education Centre. The distinguished guest who would be performing the ceremonials was none other than Sir David Attenborough, icon, legend and inspiration for so many people worldwide. Who has not enjoyed the magnificent documentaries this man has made for TV in a career spanning over 60 years? His vision in the arena of wildlife film making has transformed the way we look at the natural world and luckily for us all, there's no sign of him stopping. So glad I was able to attend, see and listen to the great man, catch up, however briefly, with friends and ex colleagues, (happily mostly one and the same), and be part of the event. The wine was tasty.

And so to Saturday and a stint at NWTHolme Dunes leading a photographic workshop. Only a single paying customer (I don't get paid!) but that was ok by me. Despite the occasional downpour and murky atmosphere we had a very enjoyable couple of hours, me and this delightful lady, scrutinising the flower cloaked dunes and discussing various ways in which to photograph the various mosses, lichens, campions and trefoils carpeting this stretch of the North Norfolk coast. It really is quite amazing what you can find if you are scrambling around on your hands and knees, it literally adds a whole new perspective to your view of the world. And naturally when you concentrate your mind and use your eyes you can sometimes see the world afresh. We even managed to find a small group of wonderful bee orchids, unassuming plants despite their bright colours, and something I've never actually seen before. There were small creatures here too; immature grasshoppers, snails, small flies and aphids being tended by their master ants. Later the moth trap provided an opportunity for a few close up shots of interesting species, small elephant hawk moth and white ermine, whilst a rather gorgeous clouded buff, a moth of moor and heath, caused a real stir of excitement being an unusual catch hereabouts. To round off the session we sat bedraggled in one of the hides watching even more bedraggled reed warblers feeding their young in a patch of reeds close-to.

White Campion

Bee Orchid

Pine Flowers

Small Elephant Hawkmoth

White Ermine

Black-headed Gull

Reed Warbler

A busy, tiring but very fulfilling week. I must get round to those nagging painting & decorating tasks sometime before Christmas.

Monday, 8 June 2015

The Eyes Have It

It is all too easy to spend your life unknowing of the wealth of spectacularly colourful, fantastically shaped small creatures that festoon every bush, tree and shrub at this time of year. But during our summer months the countryside is alive with insects and other minature inhabitants of the undergrowth. Time spent peering into the depths will reward you with the sight of some quite fascinating and bewildering characters.

It's simply about looking. To take time to stand and stare at that clump of grass, that gnarled old tree stump, the swath of ditch side vegetation. To use your eyes, peer into the depths and see. To concentrate your senses, notice slight movements or changes in texture; the twitch of a beetles antennae, the flash of reflective light from a dragonflies wing or the stealthy movement of predatory spiders. To scrutinise every blade of grass or gently trembling leaf; seek the secret dwellers of the lush verdant growth and you will find.

I don't do this kind of thing anywhere near as often as I should, but on a sultry afternoon last Friday I spent time with some friends walking a kilometre of a ditch side track at Hickling Broad. The short walk took us the best part of two hours because we stopped and looked. We swept our eyes hither and thither and between the four of us were constantly discovering new things. We saw damselflies, some newly emerged, dull and vulnerable; others brightly coloured and mature. Large red, azure, blue tailed and variable were all there, stock still clutching some slender grass stem. But they are small frail creatures using stealth to remain hidden, but once we had got our eyes tuned we found more. We noticed larger dragonflies, four spot chasers and black-tailed skimmers that had just that morning crept up a stout reed stem to emerge from their larval case to assume adult form. They were there secreted amongst the rampant vegetation pumping life sustaining blood into their wings so they could take to the skies and perform their duties as adults. They will all too soon meet their end either as a meal for a marauding hobby or by way of sheer exhaustion from territorial skirmishes and mating duties.

Female Black-tailed Skimmer


Four-spot Chaser

Here too were flies and beetles of all shapes, sizes and forms, some adorned with ridiculously oversized antennae, multi-coloured and mute. A micro world where life giving and life taking drama is played out every second of every long summer day. There were butterflies on show with pride of place going to a small colony of wall brown, a hard to find species nowadays and one that should be cherished when encountered. From everyday inhabitants of every garden when I was young to a rare and vulnerable treasure - how can this be? A few painted ladies were also on the wing and we speculated on whether these insects were the vanguard for another mass invasion from the Continent.

Agapantha villosoviridescens

Scorpion Fly - Probably Panorpa germanica

Froghopper - Ceropis vulnerata

Beautiful Golden Y

Mint Leaf Beetle - Chrysolina menthastri

Wasp Beetle - Clytus arietis


Wall Brown

Although insects abounded there were other, larger creatures using the byway. We managed to locate a basking common lizard lying motionless in a patch of dead grass. Close scrutiny showed it to be carrying some parasitic ticks. Worlds within worlds. The paths made by deer criss-crossed the trail and the skeletal remains of a large fish told of recent feasting by an otter. Overhead marsh harriers soared, bitterns flew low over the reed bed on foraging flights to favoured feeding grounds and a lone hobby patrolled the skies for some of those newly emerged dragonflies.


Male Marsh Harrier

This lovely bird flew past us whilst we were walking earlier around the reserve


A few seconds after we left the bittern hide this lovely bird flew past



The nemesis of many a dragonfly

Common Lizard

Note the ticks just behind the foreleg

All life abounds in this most special of Broadland reserves. What a truly magical place! Visit if you can - you will not be disappointed.

Meadow At NWT Hickling Broad 

The Pathway to Stubb Mill

This is where we spent a couple of hours rooting through the undergrowth

Tuesday, 2 June 2015


It's swallowtail time! Despite the appalling weather the first brood of these classic Broadland butterflies are now on the wing. Having spent the winter as pupae secreted amongst the dense acres of last years reed chaff, these enigmatic and startlingly beautiful insects emerge in late May and early June to gracefully float around the waterlogged fens seeking nectar and a partner with whom to mate. The swallowtails we have here in Norfolk form a distinct race brittanicus which is slightly smaller and has subtle variations in wing pattern when compared against the continental race gorganus. However our pure-breds may soon have a real problem in that their cousins from across the English Channel seem to be getting a hold in south England and may soon move north to hybridise with our natives and therefore eradicate the form. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand there is no doubt that having something special living only in our region is a real boon to us all, enhancing the reputation of the Norfolk Broads as being a unique haven populated by rare creatures. Further, the need to conserve swallowtails has been a major factor in the drive to clean up the Broads, create and maintain pristine fen habitat and develop new reserves, all of which benefits not only the butterflies but a vast wealth of other wildlife. In addition swallowtails are a major tourist attraction and pull in visitors from all over the country who seek to catch a glimpse of this strong flying jewel in its only UK stronghold. But (there's always a but) on the other hand, the Norfolk population is vulnerable, primarily because the caterpillars are so fussy. They will only feed on milk parsley, an uncommon plant that is thinly distributed in wet fen habitat. Because of this the insects cannot expand their range and should we have a sea surge or some other drastic climatic event the population could be wiped out. No such restrictions apply to the Continental race which will breed anywhere and feed on all sorts of plants including carrot and wild angelica, a distinct advantage. If the continental butterflies really take hold we will most likely see them in our gardens on a regular basis and they will no doubt thrive. So what is better; a UK race of limited range, dependent on a single food plant, vulnerable and never likely to be common, or a hybridised race (which will effectively become the continental form) which will range widely, can utilise a number of food plants and will therefore become resilient and a familiar widespread sight? Not easy is it? But I don't suppose we need worry because it is really out of our hands; nature will have its way whatever we think. In matter of fact the hybridisation may already be happening. I saw swallowtail caterpillars feeding on wild angelica 5 years ago when I was managing the NWT Visitor Centre at Ranworth and those may well have had a more exotic origin either from captive bred insects or genuine colonists. Who knows?

Anyway, an afternoon trip to Strumpshaw Fen found me and a few other beaming admirers watching one of these gorgeous butterflies nectaring on the flowerbeds outside Reception. Here RSPB reserve staff have planted a swath of Dame's violet whose fragrant blooms proved irresistible to not only the newly emerged swallowtail but a range of other butterflies and bees. Apparently earlier in the day 6 swallowtails were using the area but I was quite content with this singleton since they are always a privilege to see. Other butterflies utilising this nectar source included brimstone, peacock and large white whilst a roosting dagger moth showed that the sweet liquid is also appreciated by the night shift.







Strumpshaw is crammed full of beautiful things and after having my fill of the swallowtail I strolled along the woodland trail and bumped into another one. I won't embarrass her by mentioning her name, but it was great to meet up with an old friend and have a good chat. Sadly after this delightfully sunny encounter the atmospheric conditions deteriorated appreciably. The strengthening wind and scudding cloud did little to stimulate wildlife to put its head or anything else above the parapet, so I sought refuge in Fen Hide to see if anything came close. Alone in this ageing structure, its groaning timbers and creaking joints lent a feeling of mild desolation to the vista of lowering cloud and billowing reeds. June? Sometimes hard to believe. Although bird activity above the protection of the reed bed was limited there was some activity in the more protected zone around the willow scrub. A wren loudly proclaimed his territory and periodically added a piece of grass to a nest he was building in a tangle of sedge, a lone willow warbler searched for insects higher in the same bush whilst a water rail screeched and squawked unseen and unabashed from the sanctuary of deep cover. Then, with the prospect of rain squalls approaching and the gloom descending, it was time to walk back to the car and leave this most prolific of nature reserves to its wonderful inhabitants both animal and human.


Willow Warbler