Monday, 12 February 2018

15. WWT Welney Wetland Centre

It was a bright, cold day as we set out to visit WWT Welney Wetland Centre. Owned by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and one of their smallest reserves, this was the first time we had visited this site. It’s a location I’ve wanted to visit for a long time and it did not disappoint with four ‘life species’ today. I had imagined that all of the wildfowl would be far away and difficult to spot, and although this was the case for a few species, on the whole I was wrong.

We started our visit in the main observatory looking out over the main lagoon. Instantly, we had excellent views of whooper swans (life species number one) right next to the glass, the foreground to a huge raft of pochard. There were also a few tufted ducks thrown in for good measure. However, as we had been informed that the swan feed would be at midday, we set out for the half mile walk to furthest hide, aiming to return in time.

Whooper swan
Pintail (group in centre)
Due to flooding, the pathway to ‘Reedbed hide’ was closed, so we walked instead to ‘Friends hide’ in the opposite direction. Here, we watched flocks of pochard, wigeon and a few pintail (life species number two) be put up by a low flying marsh harrier searching for easy pickings. The small quartet of swans in the distance, whose beaks were indistinguishable through binoculars, turned out to be Bewick’s swans (life species number three) when shown to us through a scope by a fellow bird watcher.

It seemed like all the birders and other visitors on site descended upon the main observatory for the swan feed. We watched as two of the three species, mute and whooper, came in close for their supplementary feed. Escaping early to beat the lunch time rush, we watched reed buntings and gold finches from the cafĂ©, then went straight back out to explore the hides we missed earlier: ‘Lyle’ and ‘Nelson-Lyle’. Here we had good views of the adorable whistling wigeon and a dainty pair of teal, alongside the significantly larger and tricoloured shelduck.

Reed bunting
Tree sparrows (mostly)
Eventually, we made our way back to the Visitor Centre to partake in the pre-booked hare walk. Whilst we were waiting, we looked out over the fields and wetlands and a solitary tree. This tree soon became a ‘bird tree’, full of tree sparrows (life species number four), with their chestnut heads and dirty cheeks.

Following our guide across muddy fields, we were treated to a number of hares bolting at high speeds (top speeds of 45 mph according to the mammal society). A male kestrel quartered, flocks of fieldfare chuckling lifted when we approached too close and a snipe shot up with its jinking flight.

The day didn’t end there, however, as we set out for home, we passed fields full of hundreds of swans. It would seem these ‘wild swans’ are an almost definite spot from in and around WWT Welney.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

14. UEA Broads & River Yare

I often think that we don’t explore this area enough. Within walking distance of our house, we really should take advantage of this wildlife rich area more often. Awake early on a Sunday morning, we took advantage of the (seemingly) bright and brisk weather, and went for a muddy stomp around the UEA broad, a body of water created by quarrying for university building material in the 1970s, working our way back into Eaton along the River Yare.

We started in the woodland ‘behind’ the broad, past the ‘rabbit enclosure’ (a small conservation area used for ecological research) and over the bridge to meet the oncoming onslaught of cold rain and hail. The three great crested grebes, gulls and cormorants seemed a lot less bothered by this sudden downpour than we were. As the sunshine broke back through, we met the boardwalk that borders the River Yare. As we turned, we watched a wren bathe in a shallow pool to the tune of a singing robin. Two kingfishers whistled past us, flashes of orange and blue, one giving chase to the other. Stopping and waiting to see if they would return, we could hear blue and great tits in the trees, watching them nibble at pinky-purple catkins overhanging the mirror of water. My knowledge of tree species is shamefully poor, but I think these may have been alder…

Continuing until the boardwalk became the very muddy path to continue following the river, we were suddenly aware of two bright yellow birds watching us; a pair of siskin, the first I have seen in this area, chatting to each other and quickly flitting out of view. We slipped and slid our way along the river bank, encountering a mute swan using the current to its advantage and putting our slow progress to shame. Eventually, we caught up with her whilst she spruced up her already pristine coat of snowy feathers.

There is an area of land, where, last year, a number of trees were felled, chopped and left as dead wood. Here, a wren played hide and seek with us, searching its way into every nook and cranny in the tangled mess of wood. Here, we also found an excellent ‘bird tree’, with a host of woodland bird species. Watching blue tits and listening to the ‘teacher teacher’ of a great tit, I was suddenly aware of a small brown bird working its way up the bark, a tree creeper. Just when I thought I had spotted another, I realised from the high pitched call and (through the bins) a fiery head, that a goldcrest had joined the fray. This was quickly followed by a pair of nuthatch and a small team of long tailed tits all foraging in the branches.

For whatever reason, that particular tree seemed a great place for all of these woodland birds and I have marked it on my mental map to return to throughout the year.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

13. RSPB Surlingham Church Marshes

After purchasing Best Birdwatching Sites: Norfolk by Neil Glenn, we were inspired to explore even more new wildlife sites this year. Today, we met a friend (and her dog – they are allowed on this reserve on a lead) to try the circular walk at RSPB Surlingham Church Marshes. A balmy 15 °C for January, sunshine and a light wind apparently provided some good conditions for birds of prey.

We began the muddy journey from the church, encountering my first cluster of snowdrops this year by the cottages. Continuing on, reaching the River Yare, two Egyptian geese sized us up from the adjacent field, whilst a kestrel hovered over some unseen prey. A pair of great crested grebe began their elaborate courtship display as we watched from the bank, behind the viewing screen. Head ducking, gift exchanging and rising up out of the water at each other, this pair certainly had spring on their minds. As we were watching this spectacle, a large raptor appeared overhead; a red kite was flying lazily low, its yellow eyes keen on the ground.

The mud made it difficult to walk, but, inspired by our sightings so far, we slogged on, eventually reaching open reed bed. A couple of cormorants darted across the sky, then my eye was caught by another large raptor; this time a marsh harrier. Quartering the reeds, it repeatedly pulled up to check below, but did not seem to spot anything worth its interest.

Heading back through the small woodland, a few common woodland birds: chaffinch, blue tit, great tit and a robin to sing us out.

Monday, 1 January 2018

12. RSPB Buckenham Marshes

A soggy start to New Years Eve I thought may have doused our plans for wildlife watching. Happily, I was wrong, and once the day had brightened, we headed out to RSPB Buckenham Marshes.

At first, all seemed quiet, with just a few dabbling mute swans and moorhens picking at the wind swept grass. But, as we ventured further, the unmistakable sound of whistling wigeon and the contented honks of conversational greylags reached our ears.

High above, a marsh harrier flapped lazily, not in the mood for hunting. Below, on the marsh, a desert of lapwings showed off their chunky wings, setting off small murmurations of starlings. Each unsettled the other, building tension. At the other end, all was calm with some sleepy wigeon and resting swans, but, as we turned, the sky was full of drama; there were too many things to grab at our attention.

To our left and right, were the incoming formations of greylag geese ready to join their kin on the marsh for the evening. Ahead, were the dark specks of what looked like inverted snow, but were actually a mixed flock of corvids making their way in for their roosting spectacular. To our left was what was building to be a huge starling murumuration; moving as one dark and mysterious superorganism against the sky.

The numbers of rooks and jackdaws swelled as they coalesced in a huge mushroom shaped stand of trees, weighing down it's uppermost branches with their dark forms. Others aggregated on telephone wires before joining the host tree, each new set of arrivals aggravating those already there. When some unknown critical mass was reached, all took off as one, visibly darkening the sky as they headed for the roost site.

What an unforgettable way to end 2017!

Thursday, 7 September 2017

11. RSPB Titchwell Marsh

As our walk at RSPB Snettisham was so early, we decided to continue round the coast to RSPB Titchwell Marsh. Two RSPB reserves in one day – perfect!

A weasel greeted us at this reserve; as soon as we began along the West bank path, it darted across. After that, it really was waders galore at Titchwell: ruff, lapwing, black tailed godwit, redshank, avocets… the list could go on, were all abundant in the freshwater marsh, visible from the path and the Island hide. All foraging in the various ways that their unique bills allow or dozing in the afternoon sunshine. A friendly fellow-birder pointed out a pair of marsh harriers quartering over the surrounding land. However, the beach is where I spotted some of my favourite waders.

I’ve always had a soft spot for oystercatchers and a small group of these black, white and orange jokers made sure we were fully entertained – chasing each other and calling, beaks vertically down and backs reared. Among this chaos, other oystercatchers foraged sensibly and a trio of cute little sanderling dozed (or tried to). Turnstones did what their name suggests, picking their way around the other birds. Godwits with their oversized bills probed the sand, as did the even larger and more curious curlew, who’s haunting call was the leading voice to the backing vocals of the sea. Further out, a lesser black-backed gull bobbed on the small waves.


Returning along the same path, then taking the Fen trail led us to some signs of autumn. Looking out from Fen hide, a raft of wigeon floated along, with the occasional whistle. September feels too early for these winter migrants to appear, but I guess they have to start some time.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

10. RSPB Snettisham

Bright and hazy early morning sunshine warming the still lazy dragonflies and glinting off the electric blue dash of a Kingfisher’s back is how our morning at RSPB Snettisham started. I hadn’t been up this early since the start of the summer and hearing bird song from those oh-so-silent day time summer songsters was wonderful.

The access trail leading from the car park to the beach was full of blackberries. A migrant hawker dragonfly, just warm enough to fly, but not so much that it escaped us, alighted on a bramble to soak up the strengthening rays. Beautiful wildflowers littered the edges, with the dainty harebells showing off the most. Flashes off colour darted before our eyes; speckled wood, tortoiseshell and small white butterflies painted the scene. Wrens and other small birds were calling from the vegetation, but few wanted to be seen.

Eventually reaching the beach trail, we were met with views of the mudflats that stretched almost to the horizon. At first glance, they appeared to just contain huge flocks of black headed gulls, but on closer examination, were also full of small brown blobs with legs and beaks. Dunlin were foraging in a large group, while the odd curlew, redshank and little egret danced around the small pools.

The beach trail was full of small birds; they clearly favoured a branch that great tits, long tailed tits and whitethroats were squabbling over in a small hawthorn. This led us to the loop trail and the rotary hide, looking out onto one of the pits. Here, were huge aggregations of greylag geese, cormorants and black tailed godwits, all on their own little islands. Common terns preened on posts and brought fish across from the wash. The occasional carrion crow, unlucky enough to pester them, was mobbed by terns and gulls.

Back out on the loop, flocks of starlings descended into the pits and terns flew overhead, noisily bringing in their silver catches. Something caused a stir among the gulls out on the mudflats, causing them all to take flight, circle and land. House martins and swallows swooped and dived, feasting off the abundant insect life above the water. Common darters, showing off in their red-orange garb, teased us by landing in front of our feet, taking to the air at the last second.

A beautiful morning for a beautiful walk, but next time, we’ll get our dates right for the Snettisham spectacular!

Sunday, 27 August 2017

9. Ted Ellis Nature Reserve, Surlingham

A russet brown coat glistening in the sunshine and tail aloft with the fire of summer, an apparition guided our way along the path to the nature reserve entrance. Our first visit to this reserve, and what better way to start the journey than with a stoat sighting. The Ted Ellis Trust was founded to preserve Wheatfen which, as the visitors guide states, “is one of the few remaining areas of the once extensive Yare Valley swamp” and is a SSSI. It’s not quite like any of the other reserves we have visited, with a mixture of habitats and a diverse array of insect life, and, I would imagine, bird life at any other time of year.

I don’t expect to see or hear many birds in August and walks can seem eerily quiet at times. The summer silence was broken today by the half-call of a cetti’s warbler, the explosion of a woodpigeon from a tree, or the gentle dabbling of a family of mute swans. A pair of buzzards circled silently and lazily over the summer-bleached fenland. The only other sounds were those of rodents rustling in the undergrowth, the buzz of bees or the flit of dragonfly wings as they deftly avoided a face-on collision.

Dragonflies and butterflies were the stars of the show today. Speckled woods darted through the woodland, unusually fast and direct flights for a member of the Lepidoptera. Peacocks sunned themselves along the board walk and a single brimstone nectared on the beautiful purple flower spikes bordering the water. Many members of the Odonata order were on the wing today, taking advantage of the blazing sunshine and warmth to show off their aerial acrobatics to the full. Brown hawkers patrolled their territories, often flying low along the paths in front of us. Southern hawkers, dressed in their bright disco colours alighted on leaves momentarily before resuming their hunting. Common and ruddy darters basked in the sunshine, or couple up in-copu. Willow emeralds were in a similarly amorous mood, with more in tandem pairs than singletons (this adds to my list of dragonfly species spotted this year, bringing the current total up to 15). They were everywhere along the latter parts of the walk.

Ruddy darter
Common darters
Common darters
Willow emerald damselflies
Willow emerald damselflies

We tried to explore as much of the reserve as possible and ended it with a dash through Surlingham Wood to avoid the mosquitoes (not altogether successfully). A beautiful reserve that we will definitely be visiting again.