Sunday, 31 January 2016

Watch the Birdie

I spent yesterday helping the RSPB with their Big Garden Birdwatch event held in the impressive setting of Norwich Castle. What a delight to be able to contribute to such an uplifting occasion; to see so many enthusiastic volunteers, so many excited children with parents happy that the offspring were getting involved in something so worthwhile and positive.
The event, spread over the whole weekend, has been organised by the employees of Strumpshaw Fen. If you read this blog regularly you will know Strumpshaw is a place dear to my heart, so a bonus was being able to chat with friends, both staff and volunteers, who give up so much of their valuable time to make these things work and deliver. Strumpshaw is celebrating its 40th anniversary as a formal RSPB reserve so it is fitting that they were able to share this milestone with the public and show off what a fabulous place it is and showcase the exceptional wildlife that thrives there.
My morning was spent helping to build nest boxes from kits made in the workshops of Norwich Prison. Children love this hands on stuff; revelling in the freedom of being able to smash hell out of a few nails and actually create something they can take home and show grandma.  A few dads got stuck in and after one or two mishaps, (sides on back to front, roof on sideways – been there done that!), proudly presented their work of art which will soon bedeck a garden tree or garage wall and attract a pair of blue tits to call it home. Happily, despite a couple of near misses and one gentle tap from a little girls wildly misaimed strike, my thumbs remain largely in their pristine roundness - and no kids suffered any mishap. Always a relief. And a good number of happy families now have a bird home which has the potential to give them all a lot of pleasant nature watching over the coming years.

The afternoon session involved more whacking with a hammer, this time a non-lethal wooden one, showing children how woodpeckers use trees as sounding posts to mark territory whilst also explaining something of their unique ecology. It was a complete experience with them being able to adorn a woodpecker costume, hammer on a hollowed log for all their worth and learn a little bit about how fascinating nature can be. It was so heartening to see so many families keen to engage and listen. I always find that once the ice is broken people are always quite enthusiastic to tell you about their own sightings and chat about other wild things they have encountered. Deep down we all know wildlife and wild spaces are special and so worth looking after. They just need a forum to express their pleasure at seeing garden foxes, or having bullfinches in their garden, or in this case once having seen a woodpecker up close. The caring spirit is in there, it just needs to be nurtured. What better way to do it than through the eyes of your children.
There were of course many other activities on offer, all popular and all attracting lots of happy children keen to learn (we were told over 1300 people had attended during the day). I can't tell you how happy I was to be involved. After reading so much lately about the seemingly never ending tirade of depressing stories concerning wildlife and habitat destruction, to actually contribute to something so inspiring uplifted my spirits. I walked home with a spring in my step. Well done RSPB, it's not only the children that benefit from these sessions, it lifted the soul of this world weary individual as well.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Something Out of Nothing

The conversation, if such a brief exchange could be termed such, went thus.
Me: ''Morning chaps, lovely day".
One of them: "Yeah, but there's nothing about"

‘Nothing about’. What exactly does that mean? I briefly entertained the notion of nudging them gently into the river, this brace of morose humanity, or perhaps suspending them by their thumbs from the nearest willow, but elected instead to smile lamely and plod on. Birders, especially those obsessed with photographing ‘rarities’ are impossible to please. On such a fine, crisp winter’s day it was a joy to be alive; a blessing to be fit and well enough to get out and embrace the fresh air. Better surely to celebrate the fact that you still have a pulse and are occupying the right side of the grass than lament the absence of that elusive ‘something’ without which the enterprise is deemed a failure?

‘Nothing about’. What did they expect? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain? Krakatoa erupting? A harpy eagle, half eaten monkey clasped in its massive talons, gliding serenely across the glade? Apologies to John Cleese, but honestly! we encountered each other on the trail at Strumpshaw Fen, not in the heart of the Pantanal.

‘Nothing about’. Really? What about the rays of the low winter sun slanting through the backlit trees, casting long, tapering zebra patterns of light through the frosted haze? What about the sight of each twig, each leaf, each burr, catkin and withered berry being encrusted with a layer of spiky frost? Frost, slowly melting in the tepid warmth to form glistening drops of prismatic moisture; refracting rainbow shades in their miniscule thousands.


Did they notice the molehill dotted meadow coated in a dusting of white gossamer, fading with depth into the mysteriously mist enshrouded wood? Real Wind in the Willows stuff if ever there was. Were they immune to the heartening sight of gleaming ranks of ice laden reed heads sparkling like a carpet of jewels against the pure blue January sky? Or the sight of a rich chestnut fox nosing around the margins of the broad in its ceaseless quest for life sustaining nourishment?


There was too the vibrant colours, yellow, blue and azure, of cheeky blue tits scolding me with staccato trills when I interrupted their raids on a cache of seeds. The banshee screech of a water rail so close to me that I involuntarily shuddered in momentary alarm. And then the kestrel; hovering into the scant breeze with motionless head just a few metres above me, surveying the ground beneath for scurrying mice and voles. 


These things and more I witnessed and rejoiced. Nothing about? Open your eyes.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

A Bird in the Bush

Birds of prey in general but sparrowhawks in particular can invoke strong emotion with the general public. It is not uncommon for outraged citizens to write letters to the local press savaging these essential members of the food web for decimating 'their' songbirds. The fact those very same people concrete their drives, manicure their lawns, spray insecticides liberally about their prized begonias, litter the ground with slug pellets, and keep cats is overlooked. It is this illogical scramble to keep things tidy that deprives 'their' songbirds of feeding, nesting and roosting opportunities, but that inconvenient fact seems not to enter into their consciousness. No matter: despite regular tirades by Mr & Mrs Angry, the hawks, ace predators that they are, seem to be doing relatively well. And they couldn't thrive if they created a situation whereby there were insufficient songbirds upon which to prey.
Their very welcome presence in our midst was brought home to me earlier yesterday when walking home from a rare shopping expedition through stinging sleet. There is a short loke I use which gets you off the road for a couple of hundred yards and is lined either side with mature gardens. Half way along here my soggy progress was arrested by a squealing sound emanating from an ivy covered hedge. My first thought was a blackbird struggling (really struggling) to sing, or possibly two birds having some sort of ruckus. My peering into the hedge revealed nothing even though the sound was coming from directly in front of me. Puzzled and not being able to leave without at least some attempt to solve the mystery, I gently tapped the hedge with my boot, this being a well-practiced scientific method I’ve developed to help in these situations. Immediately a female sparrowhawk flushed from the other side of the hedge and perched in an adjacent apple tree eyeing me with indignant frustration: how dare I disturb it at its kill. Shortly it glided away, but I'm sure it returned pretty sharpish once I had resumed my trudge home. But for every successful kill there must be many instances whereby the hawk misses its prey, sometimes no doubt only by the width of an outer primary, but nonetheless the hawk goes hungry.

As an illustration of this point, I'm reasonably certain the bird I encountered yesterday must be the very same one I watched hunting around my own garden a couple of days ago; it's close enough to be situated within the same territory. On that occasion it whipped across my eye line, over the dividing fence and stooped towards another blackbird busying itself with a fallen apple. The flight across the lawn exposed the hawk for a few seconds and the blackbird seeing its nemesis approaching at speed, no doubt thinking the avian equivalent to ‘what the f***’, clucked loudly in alarm and launched itself into the nearest thick bush. Safe for another day. With an almost imperceptible twitch of its wings the hawk changed tack and moved swiftly away to hunt in pastures anew. And this near miss is, I think, the outcome of the majority of such assaults. So as I resumed my limp homeward (I foolishly played football Tuesday and am still suffering the consequences), hunched against the biting north wind, getting splashed by a bloke driving too fast through a puddle and cursing all things white van, I mused over various other encounters I'd witnessed over the years when the assailant was less than successful.

I can recall sitting sipping a refreshing pint in a local pub garden one fine summer’s day when a commotion in a hawthorn made me sit up and take notice. The bush played host to a party of starlings that had become rather animated, changing their pleasant background babbling into voices tinted with alarm. I sauntered over and tellingly, without any of the starlings taking flight, was very shortly peering directly into the piercing bright yellow eyes of a sparrowhawk. We glared at each other for a few seconds before the hawk, dismissing me as nothing other than an encumbrance, recommenced its calculating scrutiny of the starlings. Said starlings had settled down by now and were not at all phased by the close proximity of the predator because they knew they were long as they remained were they were (which is why they didn't fly away at my approach). Basically, after its initial fruitless crash into the bush, the hawk was now completely powerless to attack and the birds entered into a kind of standoff, daring each other to blink first. The starlings won, forcng the impotent hawk to eventually admit defeat and slink away. Sparrowhawks are, it seems, quite inept when unable to hunt in synch with their instincts.

As further illustration, I witnessed a more dramatic incident a few years ago at NWT Cley Marshes when a sparrowhawk flipped over a dyke wall and zoomed in on a small group of dunlin. All but one of the waders made their escape leaving that unfortunate member of their kin frozen in fear on the shining ooze. The Sparrowhawk was geared up to catch a bird in flight and now, faced with prospective prey crouching beneath it, seemed quite bemused. It's whirled around in a tight circle but the dunlin failed to flush. I watched amazed as the hawk hovered for a few seconds inches above the small wader, talons dangling, but failing to strike. The balance between risk and reward tipping, it gave up and flew off. After a short while the dunlin picked itself up, fluffed out its feathers and started probing the mud as though nothing had happened. It had escaped death because it was slow to react to the initial attack and unwittingly presented the predator with an unfamiliar situation. Perhaps the hawk was young and inexperienced but the incident was, never the less, very instructive.

When engaged in the hunt with all senses focused, it seems humans can themselves experience very close encounters with birds of prey. Taking the humble sparrowhawk again as an example, my family and I were once staking out a pair of little owls hoping to photograph them as they emerged from their nest site towards dusk. Sitting in the car with the window open, I caught a movement to my right. There arrowing toward me was a sparrowhawk, and when I say arrowing towards me I mean just that; the bird was streaking directly towards my face. Just as I thought it was going to enter the car (what fun that would've been) it braked, arched upwards and landed atop the vehicle. We hardly dared breathe as we listened to it scratch its way across the roof and take up position above the passenger door. A period of frantic whispered ensued:

'What do we do dad?'

'Don't know'

What's it doing dad'

'Don't know'

'How long is it going to stay there dad?'

'Don't know'

'Call yourself a birdwatcher?'

'Don't know'

Events were determined by a hapless blackbird (again) that lazily flew across in front of us singing sweet nothings to itself. The innocent melody turned to panicked alarm as the hawk rocketed after it. We watched the pair chase across the farmyard in fascination, part of me willing the blackbird to escape whilst also really wanting to see a real live kill. In the event the blackbird just made it into a bramble patch and the hawk quickly disappeared.

But perhaps the weirdest of all such pursuits I ever saw was when walking along Holme beach one very windy mid-April day. As I was trudging parallel to the shoreline I heard the tinny screech of a dunlin's alarm call. I turned to see said dunlin suspended in midair with a newly arrived hobby a few yards behind, it too frozen in space. Both birds were flapping frenetically into the strong head wind and neither was getting anywhere. Time slows when these things transpire and although the chase (if it can be termed such) seemed to last some time, in reality it couldn't have been more than a few seconds before the dunlin, being the smaller and lighter bird, began to pull away from the falcon. Sensing its hopeless position the hobby gave up the chase tacked into the wind and swept up and over the dunes in the blink of an eye. Once the game is up it is pointless to waste precious energy reserves.

So, birds of prey do not have it all their own way; their hit rate cannot be better than 1 in 5, maybe less than that. It is a very tough existence with the predator needing to be on top form all of the time if it is to survive. It would better those people that write their ill-informed letters to look at nature with more rounded vision I think; to take a little time to watch nature a tad more closely. Then they would understand that it is not a one way street. All life has its place in our fragile ecosystem, all has a value to itself and to each other, all should be appreciated for its own sake and for the skills it possesses. It never ceases to amaze me that we humans seem to regard predators as undesirables and as somehow interfering with our ordered view of the world. Coming from a species that is surely the world’s most vicious, destructive predator that is quite a bewildering standpoint. Perhaps when we look into the unyielding eyes of the hunter we see our own selves reflected. Perhaps we do not like what we see.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Jeepers Creepers! OR Whistling Down the Wind

Is there any sound more evocative of wild winter landscapes, windswept and worn, than the piercing whistling of wigeon? It is a cheery sound but always conjures images of open spaces; coastal marshes where the calls of curlew vibrate on the still air, estuarine vastness where myriad probing beaks puncture the shining muds, or as today the lush green of valley marshland caressed by a watery January sun.
But more of that later. We must first undertake my regular midweek visit to Strumpshaw Fen, on this occasion hoping to connect with a treecreeper; a species that has eluded me and my camera for far too long.
I discovered recently that the RSPB do not actually own Strumpshaw fen, in fact the land is leased. The terms of the leasing agreement allows shooting to take place on the reserve a few times during the winter months, which in some ways seems anomalous but in the overall scheme of things is a small price to pay for the pleasure of having such a fantastic resource available to all. In fact I suspect the reason the shoot takes place on the reserve for a short spell is simply to make a statement: you don't own this, we do.

My visit today coincided with one of the shoots and to avoid paying customers being peppered with lead, the path to the river was temporarily closed. That was ok with me because I only really needed to visit the wooded area at the beginning of the trail. A stealthy walk along here produced a good sprinkling of delightful and colourful familiar birds; parties of blue and great tits scolding from tangles of spindle still replete with their ghostly pale berries, chaffinches 'pinking' from blackthorn already with bright white flowers sparsely bedecking otherwise bare sprigs, gold crests flitting around in low brambles searching diligently for tiny morsels and loose groups of blackbirds and redwings feasting on the dense mass of ivy enshrouding many of the mature trees. And then after straining my eyes to look near and far, I caught sight of a small bird steadfastly hopping up a tree trunk, peering into every crack and crevice: a treecreeper at last. I watched this tiny slim-billed character work its way from trunk to trunk, bough to bough willing it within range when I eventually managed to fire off a few hurried snaps. Not easy to get a clean shot with such an energetic bird, but it was fun watching its antics and tracking it as it progressed around the wood. Partial success at least, whetting the appetite for a return visit and perhaps better images.


As a complete contrast the regular cock pheasant hopped proudly onto the tree stump where an unofficial cache of seeds and nuts is regularly deposited by photographers. He seemed oblivious to the fact dozens of his kin were at that moment being drilled with shot a few hundred yards deeper into the wood. Just as well I guess. A quote by PG Wodehouse sums it up rather well: “The fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of the gun. In any event I couldn't help but admire his breast plumage glowing as burnished bronze in the low slanting rays of our own life giving orb. Loud, proud and handsome.  To complete the cast a female kestrel glided low through the trees hunting in sparrowhawk fashion before briefly perching close by. It and another are regulars around this area no doubt drawn by the good numbers of smaller birds.


Speaking of which, the official bird feeding zone next to reception is something of a magnet for visitors nowadays. In keeping with the reserve as a whole you won't find any rarities, but keep still and patient and you will be able to admire a good selection of those more common birds at close quarters. The stars of the show over the past little while has been a pair of nuthatches that raid the peanut pile and fly to nearby ivy clad trees to stash them away. It is great fun to watch these chisel billed acrobats selecting a suitable nook within which to cram a few nuts and seeds. They really are splendid creatures when seen up close and are most dexterous in their feverish endeavour to provide a larder of fat filled treats in lieu of winters chill. An enterprising jay has also cottoned on to the free supply and has become quite bold, adding a kaleidoscope of colour when caught in full sun.


After a chat with young Sean the Autistic Naturalist, a pleasant encounter with a reserve staff member who persuaded me to help out at a forthcoming event (I can never refuse a lady) and a welcome mug of hot chocolate (and an Eccles cake - the diet is unravelling fast), it was time to repair to Buckenham marshes for an encounter with those whistling wigeon.

But where had they gone? On arrival it was clear the shooting party had driven the birds off the fields bordering the track, and it wasn't until I stood atop the river bank that they could be found seeking refuge on the Yare itself. They had clearly not yet worked up the courage to return, although over the next hour or so they did flight in dribs and drabs back to the succulent grass where they feed throughout these short, winter days. When they are engrossed in cropping the grass with their finely serrated bills, they can be approached very closely, almost to within tickling distance at times. Then the gorgeous colouring of the males can be appreciated in all its intricate finery. Cobalt blue beak, deep russet head offset by a crest of mustard yellow, pink hued breast giving way to finely vermiculated patterning on the flanks. Surely one of our finest wildfowl. In spite of the recent interruption to their feasting, numbers appear low this winter. Perhaps the mildness of the season to date has affected their normal movements with more birds choosing to linger further north. There are still plenty here to enjoy though.


A brisk walk to the drainage mill showed seven species of goose, some of highly suspect origins. The pink feet and white-fronts were wild enough and present in good numbers, but the barnacles, Egyptian, Canadas, grey lags and lone snow goose are feral, albeit of long standing. No scope, so don't know whether any bean geese were secreted amongst the throng.

With a marsh harrier silently quartering the fields in the distance, periodically sending groups of lapwing and teal skywards, I walked back to the car, another pleasing visit to the Yare Valley complete. Then as I drove slowly back towards the small train station the shadows of flocks of returning wigeon passed over the track and car bonnet like billowing tendrils of wispy smoke, their whistling penetrating my ear above the purr of the engine and through closed windows. A fitting finale to a day spent on the most magical of wetlands.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Heathland Haven

There can be few cities in the country that has an area of lowland heath contained within its boundary: in this respect our fine city of Norwich may well be unique.

Mousehold Heath is a wonderful natural resource with all of its 184 acres surrounded by busy roads, housing estates and industrial areas, yet it remains a green haven right on our doorstep; its south western edge dovetailing almost into the very heart of the city centre. It is of course only a shadow of its former self, when its windswept wilderness stretched in an unbroken swathe between Norwich and the Broads, but it still has potential to contain a small scale mosaic of diverse habitats and associated wildlife. The fact that it remains at all is testament to the foresight of previous owners who gave the remaining land to Norwich City Council to look after on behalf of the populace of our fine city. Without this covenant, whereby no one entity has ownership, it is highly likely the area would now be under concrete. The plus side of this is that the area is now safe from development (although during the 1950s and 60s various bodies had a bloody good go at nibbling away at the edges); the negative side is that its true wildlife potential cannot be realised; this would mean excluding people and dogs from certain areas to facilitate grazing whilst removing large areas of invasive birch and scraping the topsoil to foster the regeneration of heather in others – emotive subjects. So, a kind of compromise situation has been reached whereby small scale, unobtrusive, scrub clearance and scraping has taken place on selected areas whilst also linking areas of open ground to provide corridors for those species dependant on such uncluttered habitat. It’s looking much better.

Norfolk County Archive map of Mousehold Heath

Note the extent of the heathland reaching towards Salhouse.


This is the building now housing Zak's restaurant. Note the absence of trees.

The Heath in Circa 1950

Open Heathland - Difficult to find nowadays.

The wardens have carried out some wonderful work over the last few years enthusiastically aided by members of the Mousehold Heath Defenders, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers and various others who recognise the need to value the site and treat it with respect. Thanks to the efforts of these mainly local people, it is still possible to see common lizards, slow worms, green, purple and white letter hairstreaks, woodpeckers, foxes, owls and deer within walking distance of our homes in crowded suburbs. To stroll through part of the wooded area out onto the heathland ablaze with bright yellow gorse in spring and purple heather in summer is a heart-lifting experience, and as any local knows the views from St James’s Hill over the spires and towers of Norwich are simply stunning. A wildflower meadow has been created, ponds are looked after and used by frogs that amazingly cling on despite disturbance by dozens of dogs, bat and owl boxes have been placed in suitable trees and there is a programme of wildlife themed events throughout the year. Excellent work chaps.

View of  Norwich from St James's Hill

Although the red-backed shrikes, nightjars and skylarks have long disappeared, birdlife is still of interest. A recent walk through the area known as long valley resulted in very close views of a pair of goldcrests busily investigating the underside of every leaf in a tangle of low brambles, a treecreeper hopping up the trunk of a birch like a tiny clockwork toy and a small party of mixed great and blue tits acrobatically suspending themselves from thin sprigs of hawthorn. Robins provided pleasant musical accompaniment everywhere we walked whilst long-tailed tits buzzed through the canopy. Jays, mistle thrushes and great spotted woodpeckers are regular sights during the winter months when sometimes small flocks of siskins take advantage of the myriad seeds of alder. On the more open areas kestrels eek a living and sparrowhawks can be found bathing in rainwater collected in a shallow depression. These dry, sandy, seemingly barren undulating plots come into their own in spring when willow warblers, blackcaps and the occasional whitethroat take up residence, filling the air with their sweet song, common lizards scurry through the heather and green hairstreaks decorate the coconut scented blooms of gorse.

Of course when we were kids Mousehold was our playground; bird’s nesting, tree climbing, den making became regular activities. We were the unwelcome invasion, the inevitable product, of building massive council estates on surrounding land. Small wonder the shrikes, nightjars and skylarks moved away. In fact even then in the mid-60s the wanton destruction of precious habitat was apparent, because ironically the very rough grassland we roamed over was in fact the greened-up spoil dumped there from the adjacent development. Smothering the heath in several feet of crap was obviously a legal activity then. That area is now the pitch and putt course.

The history and legal status of the site may be complex, but what is simple to understand is that unless future generations learn to cherish the area it will degrade and eventually become a dense tangle of scrub and thorn. The remaining heath will become overgrown with birch scrub and all flowers, that essential source of nectar, will be shaded out.  It would be a shame to let this happen because lowland heath is such a fantastic habitat and even Mousehold in its present state supports some unusual and fascinating creatures, the diversity of which is only slowly being realised. Thankfully, and in no small part, due to European Directives on habitat preservation, we live in more environmentally enlightened times and with luck and access to appropriate funds the restoration work can continue and Mousehold will continue to provide a badly needed haven for our wildlife and for the citizens of our fine and beautiful city for generations to come.

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