A Week in June

Such a busy time of year. So much activity, so many things to see. Let's lightly tread through the highlights of the last week or so and see if we can find something of interest.

Saturday 4th June - Norwich Forum. Norfolk Wildlife Trust is celebrating its 90th anniversary and as part of the celebrations took over Norwich Forum for a fortnight. Who could have foreseen how far the organisation would evolve over the nine decades it has existed; it has come such a very long way from when Dr Sidney Long decided to form a trust to purchase an area of land just east of Cley village to put aside for nature conservation. Yet here we are reaping the benefits of an exceptionally successful nature conservation body, working for the benefit of Norfolk's  wild places and the wild creatures that inhabit them. But it is more than that because people are an integral part of the plan. Wildlife needs people and people need wildlife; mutual exclusivity is not an option: co-existence is vital. What a well-run event it was and congratulations are in order to all involved. From storytelling sessions to magnetic pond dipping, from badge making to live artists at work; there was something for everyone. And of course the underpinning message was to cherish the wildlife. Always cherish the wildlife. My minor role was billed as a simple meet and greet volunteer for the day but turned into something a little more substantial courtesy of a young lady (Anna) from BBC Radio Norfolk who sidled up and asked whether I would be prepared to say a few words about the event. Being a modest sort and prone to sudden panic I declined and instead pointed her in the direction of the day supervisor who luckily came into view in the nick of time. They toddled off for a chat and I stepped back into my comfort zone - but not for long. Only a few minutes passed before the said young lady complete with microphone, headset and tablet appeared by my side once again to ambush me. But it was fine, in fact I rather enjoyed it because the subject matter was wildlife gardening related to a set of leaflets I had helped produce when gainfully employed by NWT. With those leaflets in front of me as a prompt and no audience to worry about we giggled our way through 5 minutes or so and she seemed quite happy. If you're interested you can listen to my waffle here. I'm on at about 1:30.

After basking in the glory of this unlooked for stardom, the rest of the day passed without incident. NWT really have done a good job with promoting themselves and local wildlife conservation this year. It is well worth a peek at their website for details of the multitude of others events they are organising during the remainder of 2016. Get yourself along to one or two if you can, or maybe you should think about becoming a member or volunteering. Who knows it could be you who next gets a crack at fame.

Sunday 5th June - Breckland. Amidst the swelter of early June, we spent the day on the borders of Norfolk and Suffolk: Breckland, a unique UK area of dry sandy heathland sandwiched between large stands of coniferous woodland and clear fell. In some ways it is hard to believe that this region was sacrificed in the early 20th century to make way for miles and miles of regimented, lifeless conifers, and that later whole villages were closed down and their inhabitants relocated to allow the MoD to blast away at the rabbits. A substantial tract of Breckland is still out of bounds and used as a military training ground, but the conifer plantations are gradually becoming better for wildlife with more mixed planting and selective felling. There is also a drive to recreate a lot more grassy heathland which is testament to the more enlightened attitudes of these times. Ironically, but happily, the MoD land was never converted to woodland and some of the best examples of traditional Brecks habitat with their special birds, invertebrates and flora survive amongst the heavy boots and tank tracks.

NWT Weeting Heath has always been a productive place to spend a little time, and until recently a little time is all that you really could spend there, for once the stone curlews had (or had not) been seen it was time to pack away the scope and move on. Not anymore. Now there is an excellent woodland trail that takes you along rides adjacent to the northern heath where butterflies dance over strips of unmown grass liberally scattered with wildflowers. The stone curlews on the main heath seem to have had a tough time of it this year and it is quite noticeable how the drastic reduction in the rabbit population has resulted in very tall grass covering much of the area. The cold, inclement weather we have experienced of late has not helped. However another pair are well through their incubation of a clutch on the northern side and we heard their piercing calls echoing across today's sun baked heathland as we progressed. Heartening too was the sighting of a turtle dove, the first I've personally seen in the UK for two years. A singing garden warbler was also nice to find.

Small Copper

Brown Argus

Onwards to RSPB Lakenheath Fen. It was hot, dry and airless here, but dragonflies don't mind that. We spent most of our time admiring some red-eyed damselflies, scarce and four spotted chasers at close quarters. Yes birder folk, it's getting to that time of year when our feathered friends take second spot and make way for the flying insects. Expect more over the following couple of months.

Red-eyed Damselflies

Birds are still around though and a female bittern on a feeding flight was a bonus. More interesting was the sight of a pair of ravens circling high over the reserve: a sight unthinkable a few years ago. Something tells me these impressive corvids will soon be a regular feature of the eastern counties.

Monday 6th June - Norwich Peregrines. A real soap opera this. My last volunteer day before we left for our trip to Hungary (more on that soon), saw an interloping female appearing, referred to as GA because of the ring she carries. She effectively ousted the territorial female, the mother to the chicks, who disappeared and has not been near the site since. GA is a brute of a bird and the resident female didn't really stand much of a chance. The resident male, far from being put out by the appearance of another gal, seemed quite content to flirt with her for an extended period during that day neglecting his small downy chicks. However he did provide them with a feed towards the end of the afternoon giving some relief to us volunteers who feared the worst.

Scroll forward two weeks and as is now common knowledge, this male has managed to continue feeding the young and has brought them to the stage of fledging. What a star.

I didn't quite know what to expect when I turned up today but it soon became clear that the chief concern was the uncertainty regarding the reaction of GA to the chicks when they fledge. They will then potentially represent a direct threat to her and she may attack. Or she may accept them. For the present all seems well; the male bird brought in a couple of pigeons for the chicks whilst GA gleefully dismembered another whilst perched on the top of the spire. The most encouraging aspect of the Hawk & Owl Trust's endeavours here is the wonderful and enthusiastic engagement that takes place with the good citizens of Norwich. It is quite startling how the populace has taken the antics of these birds to heart with many following the fortunes of the birds very closely thanks to the live web feed. Young and old, male and female, folk of every hue and social standing pop in to say hello, admire the birds through the telescopes and chat about what's going on. A greater success story you would be hard pressed to find. What will next week bring? Who knows, except whatever happens many thousands of people will follow every twist and turn. I'm rather glad to be a part of it.

GA Approaching the Spire

Tuesday 7th June - The Pub. The Rising Sun at Coltishall in fact, which apart from being in a pleasant location is surprisingly good for wildlife watching. Sitting patiently next to the river we were soon able to delight in the sight of both pied and grey wagtails collecting mayflies and other aquatic insects with which to feed their offspring. The grey wagtails were particularly attractive and certainly live up to their name, wagging their long tails incessantly as they tripped atop lily pads chasing their winged prey. Swallows are setting up home in some of the outbuildings of the adjacent dwelling, busily collecting mud for their nests from an area of exposed riverbank opposite where we sat. Swifts and house Martins visited occasionally to drink from the relatively unpolluted waters of this upper reach of the Bure, diving down at speed to scoop up a beakful before bulleting skywards once more. The river itself has a good population of fish and we could see roach and perch gliding sedately through the abundant plant growth coating the river bed. In fact the plants here grow so well that it is necessary for the Broads Authority to cut them periodically to maintain a navigable channel. The cutter was out today, and although a bit noisy did provide some conveniently accessible plant cuttings for the local mallards and swans. There are lots of birds using the wet meadows opposite as feeding sites, herons, hirundines, warblers and corvids, whilst in the distance buzzards soared. One of these raptors, unfortunately too far away to see sufficiently clearly, had an extremely pale underside and had the general structure and colouring of a booted eagle. If I'd have been in Spain that's exactly what I would have written it off as. Yes, an afternoon quaffing cool white wine by the river on a lovely June afternoon is just why I took early retirement. It won't last forever, but while I can I'm going to enjoy it to the hilt.

Wednesday 8th June - RSPB Strumpshaw Fen. There are so many good things about this wonderful bird reserve; the lovely member of staff that greeted me as she and I arrived simultaneously (always good to see you Lee), my mate Sean who pointed out where the bee orchids and twayblade were growing, the ambience of the place where today people were expectantly awaiting the appearance of swallowtails, and sometimes there is a real surprise.

Today that took the form of George McGavin, eminent entomologist, TV presenter and conservation evangelist. He was here with a television crew filming a piece for BBC's The One Show, hoping to obtain live footage of the newly emerged swallowtails that often visit the Dame's violet plants outside Reception. Such a charming fellow too; no problems with posing for photographs and happy to chat amiably about his work and his love of wild things. The swallowtails were not playing ball though.

Me and George

Bee Orchid


We completed a leisurely circuit of the reserve, my delightfully funny and mischievous mate and me, having great fun trying to photograph dragonflies in flight along the sheltered fen trail. We also eventually caught up with a swallowtail near Dr Martin George's house, but I just didn't have the heart to join the scrum of photographers pursuing the poor insect across the meadow. Is that really fair? No thought for the habitat which became trampled and certainly no regard for the butterfly.

Female Banded Demoiselle

Norfolk Hawker in Flight

We bumped into the film crew again along the fen boardwalk where George McGavin recounted a tale of when in Papua New Guinea he taught the local kids to make bird calls by blowing on a blade of grass cupped in their hands. Later that day the local chief knocked on his door and banished him from the island. He didn't take kindly to the kids of the tribe blowing raspberries all over the place.

Saturday 11th June - At Home. Our jungle is looking the part now with rampant growth choking the paths, tripping me up as I saunter around looking for any obliging little bug posing for a photograph. The more I look the more I am fascinated with the variety of small creatures to which I can put no name. It's nevertheless good fun rummaging through the undergrowth, the macro lens adding a new dimension to the activity because I can now make a decent record of what I find. My ignorance concerning the tiny insects supporting our ecosystems knows no bounds. Plenty to learn then, but we have time you and I. Yes, we have time.

Harlequin Ladybirds Mating

Female Swollen-thighed Beetle

(Oedemera nobilis  - I think)

An Ichneumon Wasp (Pimpla turionellae?)

Bee or Fly?

Speckled Bush Cricket Nymph


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