Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Tree of Life

Looking through the windows of the Garage (it's actually no longer a garage - we converted it to a lounge area years ago - but old habits die hard), I have a clear view of the remains of a cherry tree. Once the pride of the garden with a tight mass of eye smarting, white candy floss blooms in spring, it is sadly now just a pared down skeletal stump with a few twisted antlers of decaying wood. Where once hundreds of lithe young branches would whiplash in a summer breeze, its corpse now stands bare; a sorry disease stricken remnant of past glories.
I had to take a saw to this once splendid specimen some 10 years ago, regretting each stroke of the toothed blade but knowing for safety's sake that it needed to be done. I cut the branches so removed into manageable chunks and piled them in a shady spot under a hedge where they have subsequently provided a breeding, feeding and hiding place for myriad small invertebrates, amphibians and mammals whilst they rot. The remaining trunk has stood in slow decay, fulfilling a utilitarian role as a washing line prop, ever since.

It will pay us to take a closer look at this hitherto arboreal delight: the tree may be dead but it is not lifeless. An inspection of the gnarled surface will show a rich coating of lichen whose green and yellow whorls carpet the windward side of the trunk. These lichens form numerous nooks and niches which help to shelter small spiders and tiny insects. Closer inspection still shows a few mosses to be present; both these low growing encrustations form a richly textured mosaic.

Fungi are a feature in season. I'm no expert here but have recognised puffballs and bracket fungi together with smaller species which may well be honey fungus. I’ve noticed that some of these have been nibbled by mice. There are also molds and filaments of mildew in the damper spaces under loose bark. Give nature an opportunity and it will quickly be exploited. 

As you would expect birds have been well represented over the years, from sparrowhawks using the dense cover of the foliage to survey the garden for prey, to greenfinches feasting on the flesh of prolific unripe cherries. Whilst there is now no cover or fruit, the stump still plays host to several avian guests. The bole has many deep cracks which are ideal for siting a tempting stash of peanuts or sunflower seeds. With plenty of thick cover nearby the tits and finches visit all through the daylight hours quickly stealing a beakful before diving into sanctuary to devour the snack. A great spotted woodpecker appears regularly, tearing what little remaining bark there is forcefully away from the soft wood with its chisel beak. Coal tits squeeze themselves into the crevasses engineered by the woodpecker in their ceaseless quest for sustenance; beady eyes darting, stubby beak probing. In spring dunnocks employ the fingered crown for song posts, a utility shared with blackbirds, robins, wrens and the ubiquitous wood pigeons.



This male regularly used the tree as a lookout post





At least two birds raided the cache of peanuts a couple of years ago when the

acorn crop failed


Coal Tit

Later in the warm, soporific days of high summer, solitary wasps bore holes in the spongy wood there to lay eggs to further the next generation. Later still, grotesquely contorted ichneumon wasps use their needle sharp ovipositor to drill deep and inject their own eggs into the maturing grubs of the smaller insect. Life and death in a never ending cycle.

Digger Wasp

Parasitic Ichneumon Wasp


Stranger was the encounter one night with a pair of mating leopard slugs suspended on a string of thick mucus, entwined in their hermaphrodite embrace. I've never seen that behaviour before or since.


Leopard Slugs

Woodmice can sometimes be seen scurrying round the base of the tree hovering up spilt sunflower seeds dropped by the birds. These in turn once attracted a lovely rich red fox,  a vixen I think, that spent a couple of hours scraping between the roots vainly hunting the rodents. Tiring of all things mouse it sat down, curled its luxurious tail around itself and dozed in the sunshine a mere 10 metres from where we watched.


Fox Snouting for Woodmice


Fox - What a Beauty!

That one tree has seen an awful lot over the 70+ years it has stood in a modest garden in Sprowston. A vast array of wild creatures have called it home, and still do. Indeed the tree is dead, but even in death provides a cradle for life of all kinds.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Portuguese Portrait

The minibuses came to a halt, pulling into a conveniently sited recess along a road bisecting gently rolling coastal heathland. Our group of eager nature lovers disgorged as quickly as their maturing bodies would allow in order to see up close booted eagles, a pair, that we had spotted hunting low over the sandy ground. Binoculars were swiftly raised in the expectation these raptors would fly away from the press of humanity pouring from their metal boxes like toothpaste squeezed from a tube, but the eagles had another imperative; the need to 
find food outweighed their natural fear of all things human. These beautifully marked birds were on migration, moving south from breeding grounds in the north of Portugal, or maybe somewhere in Spain, to spend the winter in Africa. Now encountering the vast expanse of the Atlantic, they would have to change course and move along the southern shores of the Iberian Peninsula to find the narrower crossing point across the Gibraltar Straits. Meanwhile they were seeking sustenance to fuel their marathon southerly flight. We stood in awe as these birds glided to and fro only metres above our heads, scrutinising the ground beneath with razor vision in the quest to locate the eye baffling dart of a lizard, the inquisitive scurrying of a mouse or the clumsy lumbering of a beetle. All would be a welcome snack for a hungry hook-billed migrant.
So we watched as these birds tacked into the breeze and slowly, gracefully, quartered the scrub covered soil. At intervals the languid glides would transform into a purposeful plunge
with the bird pulling its broad wings close to its body and arrowing earthwards; a feathered
missile hurtling down towards some creature whose unwary movements had arrested attention. We were privileged…...

Just one memorable episode from a week spent with a dozen other kindred spirits in southern Portugal courtesy of Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays sampling the wildlife on offer in an Iberian autumn.
The trip did not start well with 48 hours of incessant heavy rain which caused widespread flooding in coastal towns and consequent damage to livelihoods and property. As a consequence, our first two days were spent largely dodging the storm clouds and trying to get in a bit of birding without straying too far from the sanctuary of our minibus. All hoped for better things as the week unfolded.

Floodwaters Cascading Along a Mountain Road

Awakening on the third morning of our tour to the sounds of serenading serins rather than cascading rainfall was therefore most welcome. We spent that largely dry day marauding across the eerily silent openness of the steppe lands of Castro Verde, an hour’s drive north from our base in Alte, itself positioned 20 kilometres inland from the Atlantic coast.

Steppe Country

We were favoured with privileged access to this deceptively vast landscape and through the whole day saw only one other human being in the form of a shepherd accompanied by his curiosity fueled dog. There were many more birds though. Within minutes of entering the park we espied a small party of great bustards grazing on the stunted grasses covering the thin sandy soil; such wonderful birds and a species that has galvanised local folk to treasure the special landscape that surrounds them.

Where once these locals would happily shoot the bustards for food they now safeguard them; the bustards have become a symbol of the wildlife richness of their environment.

Watching the Imperial Eagle

Wherever we stopped and stepped out into this mild November day we were surrounded by sweet, melodious trilling of calandra larks and the gentle fluting of crested larks that spend the winter months scraping a living from these spartan plains. There was no other noise, not a sound, except the occasional gentle tinkling of distant sheep bells, or the soft sighing of soft breezes. Red kites dangled on angled wings, buzzards sat atop fence posts whilst hen harriers, peregrines and kestrels ranged over the plains looking to make a meal of one of the melodious larks.
A lunch interlude at a surprisingly almost dry river course sprang the highlight of the day in the form of an immature Bonelli's eagle, feasting on the carcass of a cattle egret it must have caught some little while earlier. A few minutes later two of its kin excited us by spiraling together over a nearby wooded hillside. We could hardly believe our luck, three star birds within 10 minutes. But of course that is the advantage of a tour with local expert guides – they know where to go and what to look for. Here once again the stillness of the countryside was remarkably loud.
The odd farm vehicle would pass, but largely the only sounds were the uplifting flutings of woodlarks and the indignant rattling of Sardinian warblers. So still was the air that these songs carried for a deceptively long way, with seemingly close birds being found in someone's scope perched atop a distant bush, well beyond the normal range of perception. Such things bring home the way in which our own overcrowded lands are not just polluted by rubbish but also by noise. Nowhere in Norfolk, nay England, can you really escape the sounds of the 21st century. Even on the remotest hilltop you are just as likely to be assaulted by the screaming of jet fighters as you would be by the braying of lambs. The background drone of endless traffic blights our lives, but happily there are still places in Continental Europe where you can find true peace and quiet. What bliss.

Zitting Cisticola

What a silly name for a bird - I much prefer the previous Fan-tailed Warbler

A late afternoon return to the steppe provided a distant, but most impressive, sight of an immature imperial eagle tugging beakfuls of flesh from a dead sheep, whilst a red kite loitered above awaiting its turn at the spoils. 


Throughout the remainder of the week we explored coastal lagoons where ospreys fished and flamingos idled, cork oak woodlands where firecrests flitted and crested tits buzzed amongst the multi-hued autumnal foliage, high hilltops where hundreds of crag martins chased flies and a pair of griffon vultures lazily soared, lowland heath full of dragonflies and beetles,rolling farmland where little owls watched our passing through glaring yellow eyes, and for some a trip several miles out into the Atlantic to see skuas, petrels and shearwaters following fishing vessels. An itinerary as varied as the wildlife.   

We ended the holiday with a walk through a coastal pine belt which summed up the dichotomy that is the Algarve; on one side a tidal lagoon unspoiled and home to the plaintive calls of wading birds, on the other a meticulously manicured golfing village complete with executive residences and ornamental lakes. Much of the eastern coastal strip has been irredeemably developed in this fashion, but west of Lagos a different landscape can be found. Long may it remain unmolested.

Purple Swamphen

Mention must be made of the ethos of Honeyguide who ensure a proportion of the costs of each holiday are directed into local conservation projects. In this instance a donation was made to our guide Domingos Leitao who works for SPEA, the Portuguese BirdLife partner, to support that organization in preventing illegal trapping of songbirds in the Algarve region. Although Portugal has almost eradicated this horrendous practice, the recent economic downturn has driven some people to seek bird trapping as a means to supplement their income; the tiny carcasses of robins, warblers and finches are sold to supermarkets and restaurants who sell them on as some kind of delicacy. Domingos works with local law enforcement agencies to stamp out this activity and educate people that this is no longer acceptable. Top man!

Iberian Magpie

 Despite the very unusual and quite horrendous weather at the beginning of the week, we still managed to clock up close to 150 species of bird, several mammals including the charismatic Iberian hare, butterflies, dragonflies, beetles, and interesting flowers together with close-up views of some more exotic inhabitants such as scorpion, tarantula, chameleon and a rather large and toxic centipede.
The sight of the hunting booted eagles, the fleeting glimpses of iridescent Iberian magpies, the constant activity of wintering chiffchaffs and the silence, the intoxicating hush, are things I will remember. That and the wine.


Tarantula Defending its Young



Quite a haul from effectively only 5 days in the field. When the sun shone, as we are reliably informed it usually does, the temperature soared to the mid-20s which makes me think that’s not bad for November. A return visit for a relaxing winter break may well be on the cards sometime

Long-tailed Blue

Soon to be a British resident?