Saturday, 26 September 2015

What Is This Life, If Full Of Care, We Have No Time To Stand And Stare

In the welcome warmth of late September sun I stood stock still, alone, for 90 minutes on a path dissecting the wet meadows at Strumpshaw Fen. I was waiting. Waiting for a hobby to come close enough for me to capture something of its swift scything flight through the lens of my camera. The bird, a juvenile, appeared every so often jinking this way and that in the clear blue heavens. It was hunting dragonflies that in this summer reprise abounded, themselves darting hither and thither in their frantic quest for a mate before the chill of early autumn once more held sway and cut short their already brief role on this wetland stage. The hobby knew I was there, how could it not? A bird that can espy flying insect prey from a range of over 100 metres and home in on it with all the precision of a feathered exocet is unlikely not to have registered my presence below. But I remained still and patient.

A jay flew by crop full of acorns with another clutched firmly between its strong black mandibles. Raiding an oak on the north side of the river it flew to the marshes bordering the southern bank to stow away the plunder in instinctive anticipation of harsh times ahead. Back and forth it flew a half dozen times whilst I stood there in my unobtrusive garb and I know it too was aware. Flocks of Canada geese barked their way low over my head and a mute swan raised itself tall, lazily flapping its wide white wings and vigorously waggling its rear end before commencing a leisurely cruise along the drain. A loose flock of martins and swallows, mere ghostly specks high in the azure vastness whirled slowly east. And still the hobby swooped over the tree tops tantalisingly out of range, its bright cheek patches catching the sun as it twisted with effortless agility to snatch another morsel from the air.



These colourful crows are very evident at this time of year as they
stockpile acorns ready for winter

Canada Geese

Presently a kestrel entered the scene causing the hobby to suspend its hunting to flirt with the interloper. The pair cavorted over the marsh for a couple of minutes but it was plain they were simply mock fighting; they were too evenly matched and with an abundance of food and no territorial imperative why would they need to risk injury? A buzzard floating across the stage was another matter and both the hobby and the kestrel joining forces took exception to this much larger hook-billed character. The smaller falcons took turns to stoop at the buzzard driving it back from whence it came before once more resuming their playful sparring. Eventually the kestrel tired of the sport and with a touch more intent lunged at the younger bird and sent it packing, arrowing away to hunting grounds anew. I waited on.


Hobby Mobbing the Buzzard

As the morning slid seamlessly into afternoon drifts of cloud began to roll in from the west and the breeze gained strength, threatening the promised rain showers. I was beginning to toy with the not unwelcome thought of smooth hot chocolate and a snack in the shelter of the reception hide when the hobby glided back to its favoured position low over the trees bordering the marsh. I willed it closer and as if responding to my thoughts it began to wheel towards where I stood. Swooping even closer and plunging low towards some unseen bounty it inadvertently trespassed on the kestrels patch which appearing from nowhere once again engaged. Both birds, intent now only on each other, flew directly across my path and I snapped away hoping that the camera would not render my long vigil fruitless. But it doesn't really matter. The exhilaration of having these fine birds momentarily oblivious of me and chasing each other a few feet above my head made all the waiting worthwhile,  belittling the need to worry over a digital image. The mental image I have now as I close my eyes to relive the moment is better by far. Sometimes it pays to simply stand and stare.  

The Kestrel

The Hobby....At Last!


Monday, 21 September 2015

Of Tigers, Elephants and Old Ladys

Moths are subjects that seem to invoke strong emotion. A friend of mine hates them with a vengeance, protesting her loathing of these demonic creatures of the night with a shudder. She refuses point blank to even take a tentative peep into a moth trap despite my reasoned arguments that they are harmless and really quite fascinating. 'I'd rather give myself an enema' she will say, or something to that effect (she is a nurse). I questioned her once as to why this should be and it seems that when she was a small child a moth flew into her room one night and with its manic fluttering traumatised her to such an extent that she exhibits this extreme aversion. She loves butterflies though.

Sadly this otherwise well balanced lady is not alone in exhibiting extreme prejudice against moths; it must be the association with the mysteries of the dark hours when all things evil stalk our suburbs. I've read more than one short horror story where a moth, usually of gigantic proportions, has been the focus of the tale. In fact as I recall they all seem to involve some poor schmuck being smothered in his bed by the crazed insect, so maybe my friend's childhood experience is attuned to this primitive fear. What total crap though, I mean honestly they're harmless nectar sucking insects for goodness sake. Get a grip I say. In any event moths really do seem to get a totally unjustified bad press. Thank goodness then that we're above all of this tomfoolery and are here to celebrate the diversity of the natural world.

A few years ago one of my morning shifts working in Reception at Strumpshaw Fen coincided with the assistant warden emptying his moth trap. Having never witnessed such an unveiling before, I sauntered over intrigued as to what would be revealed. Suffice to say I was so enthralled that I spent the next hour snapping away at the vast number of multi coloured and multi shaped insects that had been captured overnight. I had simply never appreciated the sheer numbers and variety of species that could be found in one area. So began my love affair with these largely nocturnal creatures, one that endures to this day. I built my own trap and for the past 8 years or so have regularly, harmlessly ensnared moths in my garden at Sprowston as well as sometimes helping with the monitoring of moths at Mousehold Heath and running moth events for Norfolk Wildlife Trust. It is an addictive hobby simply because you just never know what may turn up. On occasion Ive been so consumed with curiosity that I've been known to pay close scrutiny to the walls of concrete toilet blocks....but luckily got off with just a warning.

The Strumpshaw Moth Trap -My induction to an absorbing pastime 

Garden Tiger - One of the moths that entranced me

I tend to leave my trap on overnight, which does necessitate some very early awakenings during summer to close it down and move it to a safe place before the local blackbirds and robins discover a free breakfast. However, the excitement of having a good relaxed rummage through the empty egg cartons later in the day with a nice cup of tea within easy grasp, is ample compensation for an interrupted slumber; the sight of a dozen large and hulking hawk moths never fails to impress. And it is truly a year round hobby; in fact several species only emerge during the colder nights of autumn and winter. Some Continental migrants, which include real beasts like the convolvulus and deaths head hawk moths, will be arriving now and through October if were lucky.

I was once asked at a public event by a grown man that should have known better why anyone should care about moths, his tone implying that surely it wouldn't matter if they didn't exist. The question momentarily dumbfounded me, not for its banality - we should surely all care about all forms of wildlife - but more for the fact I hadn't thought about their role in the natural world to any depth. Of course the answer is that they form a crucial link in the food chain and are an important source of sustenance for bats and birds; many are pollinators of plants taking over from day flying bees and butterflies; the larvae also form hosts for parasitic wasps. Additionally, moth larvae are a prime component of the diet of nestling passerines whose parents time their breeding cycle to coincide with maximum availability of these little wrigglers; take moths out of the equation and your local blue tits would disappear pretty sharpish.

Hornet Moth

An amazing example of mimicry. This species looks very like a
hornet thus ensuring predators give it a wide berth. The small
eyes, long antennae and mottled wings give it away. 

Buff Tip

An example of cryptic camouflage - the front end looks uncannily like the
broken end of a birch twig. 

Buff Tip Caterpillars at Whitlingham Recently

Leopard Moth

Another strategy to avoid predation is to play dead. This one rolled up and
collapsed in a heap when I touched it.

To cap it all they are beautiful in their own right and have such quirky names. Setaceous Hebrew  Character springs to mind as a fine example of a Victorian academics attempt to bamboozle us lesser mortals, whilst finding favour with muckers in his club. But there are others. We have the Ni Moth (the nights of Ni?) for example, then Uncertain, Anomalous and Suspected which conjures images of bespectacled gentlemen curates scratching their heads and wondering what the hell they had discovered. Merville du Jour adds a Continental flavouring and then my favourite, the Large Ranunculus, which Im sure was a condition my grandfather had. Aren't they great? Certainly a bit more arresting than their butterfly cousins: large white, small white, common blue etc. Still, I guess with nearly 900 macro moths and many more micro moths to be found in the UK our predecessors ran out of simple names and had to resort to something more flowery. In fact the common English names of many moths refer rather to their larval form rather than the adult insect. The elephant hawk moth is a good example of this anomaly whereby the finished article of largely pink and green looks as much like an elephant as does a giraffe. Stumble upon one of the wrinkled and tapering caterpillars however and you will immediately see the resemblance to an elephant's trunk. I discovered one of these quite large caterpillars shuffling across the boardwalk at Ranworth one late summer day whilst I was managing the Visitor Centre there. Rather than leave it for someone to squash, I temporarily put it on public display. For the rest of the afternoon this digestive tube entertained numerous kids and adults who had probably never seen such a thing before. Nothing like a bit of real live nature to get people hooked.


Setaceous Hebrew Character

Can you see why it is so called? Nope neither can I.

Merville du Jour

A prized autumn speciality

Large Ranunculus

Other hawk moth larvae were frequently the subject of great concern to members of the public who found them garishly occupying their favoured spot on the patio. Us folk manning the NWT Wildline regularly administered consoling words, reassuring the trembling caller that the fearsome looking protuberance was not a sting and to stand down the emergency services. To their great credit these callers were actually simply astonished to see something so alien in their environs and wanted to know what on earth it was. Perhaps a stark reminder of how scarce these things have become nowadays and/or how detached people are from the natural world around them. In any event it goes to illustrate another surprisingly attractive element of the overall lifecycle of moths.
When you consider the UK has only about 60 resident butterflies, the appeal of moths can begin to be understood. There is simply a heck of a lot more to find. Here in Norfolk something like 670 macro and over 1100 micro moths have been found and the list is being added to all the time thanks to the efforts of amateur recorders trapping in their gardens and submitting records. My own modest garden list boasts about 250 macros and there are also some micros, but truth be told their identification is a time consuming occupation and most only have Latin names which makes me go cross-eyed. If I can discover 250 moth species in my garden then so can you, and the thing is you dont even know they are there until you look.

All of this has made me look at moths in a totally different light and has truly opened up a whole new world of exploration. You dont even need a moth trap and you dont even need to wait until dark. Many moths fly during the day and many happily flock to a simple lure comprising a length of thin rope soaked liberally in red wine and sugar draped across your shrubbery (who wouldnt). Alternatively, you can simply go out into your garden at night with a torch and have a look around the flower heads of buddleia, or on fallen fruit which is irresistible to some species.

Old Lady

These large and impressive moths are easily lured to wine ropes. 


This one was attracted to a thick mixture of molasses, dark sugar and a dash
of rum liberally painted on the garden fence. Just remember not to lean against
it the next day.

Sugar Feast!

Various moths tucking into the gunk mentioned above

Large Yellow Underwing

These moths and many others are attracted to buddleia at night in much the same
way as butterflies are during the day.

Six-spot Burnets

Day flying moths that can be very numerous

Red Underwing

What a beauty - flushed from riverside vegetation at Cantley last week
If you get a chance I would get yourself along to a moth trapping event next summer, you will be genuinely surprised and fascinated by what you find. Have a look at the NWT website to keep abreast of events they run. And because they are simply stunning a few more hawk moth pics....

Lime Hawk Moth

Poplar Hawk Moth

Privet Hawk Moth


Wednesday, 9 September 2015


We all need inspiration in our lives, and can I'm sure think of a number of instances which have resulted in our meanderings being nudged along a particular track or hijacked by a particularly charismatic personality. I often think of us each being like a drop of rain water running down a window pane; we will all reach an inevitable end but have no idea of the unpredictable course of our descent, and have no conception of what we will gently merge with on the way. Chance, lottery, the throw of a dice; so our lives twist and turn and unravel in such unpredictable ways.

Such philosophising begs the question why are we all so interested in the natural world, (Im assuming you are or you wouldnt be reading this)? Why do we all find such pleasure in the sight of the first brimstone, the first scream of a swift above our houses in early May, the subtle changes that herald the transition between seasons? Like me Im sure you feel these things, smell these things, sense these things. But what turns us on to them in the first place?

Maybe it's genetic, in need only of the appropriate stimulus to set things in motion. The pivotal moment for me took place one spring when the dad of one of my school chums took us both for a walk over Mousehold Heath in Norwich. This would be sometime in the early 1960s when, had I been aware of the fact, red backed shrikes, nightjars and goodness knows what else still called the area home. No matter. On this particular sojourn the poor bloke, no doubt desperate for some diversion to entertain us kids, found the nest of a song thrush in a stand of hawthorn close to where the Homebase superstore stands today. And here the world changed for me. The man could have simply pointed to the lofty assemblage of grasses and moved us on, in which case I would not be communicating with you now. Instead, and to my heartfelt gratitude, he lifted me up so that I could see the contents of the wonderfully constructed nest. There staring back at me were 4 beautiful sky blue eggs, marked liberally around the top end with dots and lines of black. I was spellbound. I'm sure my jaw dropped, I know my heart soared. I'd never seen anything so marvellously, stunningly wonderful in my life - and I was only 8 years old. From that moment my little life took a new direction. I have no idea what the blokes name was, I can't for the life of me remember the name of his son, but boy do I owe them.

So the kindling of a young mind had been fired and, as Ive recounted elsewhere in this blog, I embarked upon a career of traipsing around the country lanes, marshes and woods of my beloved Norfolk looking for birds nests, butterflies, snakes and the like, having wonderful fun filled adventure on the way. But as you reach the teenage years interest can wane. Too many other things crowd into your life and it is all too easy to leave childhood interests behind. A higher level of inspiration is required to keep the fires burning bright. Fortunately at around the time I was experimenting with my dads razor, tentatively scraping the emerging down from my bespotted chin, nature appreciation was beginning to become an acceptable mainstream activity. The perception of someone engaged in such recreation was changing; where once anyone with binoculars or a butterfly net was considered wildly eccentric, likely dangerous or mad (possibly all three) now there was greater enlightenment and tolerance. We had a whole new generation of TV naturalists to thank for that. These articulate gentlemen invaded our living rooms via the little box in the corner, not now just the old black and white jobs (For those of you watching in black and white the blue ball is behind the green) but new resplendent colour models, albeit insipid and green-washed. Enter David Attenborough, Peter Scott, Tony Soper and the like, whilst at a local level the infectious enthusiasm of Ted Ellis and the cool calm teachings of Dick Bagnall-Oakeley. At around this time I also discovered the existence of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists and their annual Bird & Mammal Report, which galvanised me into wanting to explore further afield and catch sight of some of these more exotic sounding species. In such a way interest was retained and slowly matured into a broader appreciation of wild spaces and wild things.

I was reminded of all this quite recently when visiting Wheatfen with some friends.  Wheatfen was of course the domain of the aforementioned naturalist, writer and broadcaster Ted Ellis whose life spent on, and love of, the site raised its profile to one of international renown. Teds daily columns in the EDP were a true inspiration and I used to read these poetic accounts of his frugal existence living cheek by jowl with nature avidly. His appearances on TV on a Friday night were not to be missed as they informed us all of the wonders of local nature and what was happening around the county in places that were at that time almost inaccessible to us. The postbag element I found particularly interesting because it was a great way of learning new stuff based on everyday observations of like-minded folk. Without these innovations it is quite possible my leanings would have been tilted away from the natural world towards worthless pastimes such as girls, drink and a career, so my gratitude in being encouraged to focus on the things that really matter is deep and genuine.

When my mate passed his driving test and we were able to borrow my dads beat up Hillman we sometimes visited the riverside pubs dotted around the Yare Valley and more than once espied Mr Ellis cycling to or from Coldham Hall, knees splayed, ears protruding, red of face, and once found him ensconced in the bar holding court to all. In later years, now married and on my way to becoming an almost responsible adult, we invited him to give talks to the children of the YOC group I helped lead. On these occasions we had a packed hall and Ted, with his boundless energy, had the kids in the palm of his hand. It is a special gift to be able to enthral over 100 people and bring smiles to every face, but Ted did it effortlessly because he simply loved his subject, manifest in sparkling eyes, whirling arms and a delivery devoid of inhibitions. He enthralled us all.

Upon his passing away in the mid-1980s, our YOC group was moved to raise sufficient funds to purchase a hide that was placed on the edge of Surlingham Church Marsh, dedicated to the great man and opened by his widow Phyllis. Ive still got the book she gave us in return, a copy of Ted Elliss Countryside Reflections within which are reproduced many of his wildlife articles written throughout the course of his life. Ive reread them all again over the past couple of weeks and even now they are able to inspire my middle aged passion and make me want to get out and experience the brush of the wind through the reeds, the sweeping of clouds over wide horizons and the reflections of dragonflies winging over broadland dykes. It takes a rare talent to be able to inspire someone to engage in a lifelong interest, and we should all be most grateful for those that have affected our own lives so intimately. Where would we be without them?  

Egg Laying Emperor Dragonfly at Wheatfen  

Emerald Damselfly

Short-winged Conehead

Grey Dagger Larva


Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Summer Remnants

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 suns 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.


Speckled Wood

Plenty of these lovers of dappled shade were on the wing

Dark Bush-cricket

Fearsome 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 natures bounty.


Green Shield Bug


Scorpion Fly

Another 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 Blackcap Tucking Into Blackberries


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.


This 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.


Great White Egret


Huge Wings!

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.


Female Common Lizard


Munching an Unfortunate Spider

It may technically be autumn, but summer doesnt seem to be quite finished with us yet.