Wednesday, 5 April 2017

7. Sculthorpe Moor

A gloriously bright day, feeling truly like spring, with chiff chaffs calling from every bush and tree, or at least that’s how it felt. Their humble song, announcing their name, whilst mostly staying hidden amongst twigs, new leaves and catkins, accompanied us on our walk from reception to the reserve entrance. A viewing panel overlooking long feeders was our first stop. Drawing back the shutters, we were greeted by a male bullfinch in full colour, his deep red feathers shining out like a jewel from the feeding station.

M. bullfinch
F. reed bunting

Following the boardwalk, through the woodland and over ‘watervole bridge’, although we saw no water voles, a pair of marsh tits alighted in a low tree, their completely black caps contrasting with the brightness of the day. When we arrived at the woodland hide, at first, all was quiet, with little to be seen or heard. A pair of muntjac deer skulked along the shadows, occasionally dashing through sunlit patches, dining on new shoots and leaves. Chaffinches, both male and female, began to descend, balancing on feeder perches and gathering on the floor below. A female reed bunting joined in, flitting from tree to ground and back again, her yellow and chocolate brown stripes seemingly out of place in the woodland. A pair of green finches dined, serenaded by the fluting and slightly scratchy song of a male black cap.

Leaving the woodland hide and continuing on the boardwalk towards fen hide, a commotion began above us. A pair of very agitated great tits shouting at a pair of nuthatches paying too much attention to a particular nest box; they continued their harsh calls until well after the nuthatches had flown. Perhaps a war over a as yet unoccupied box? Or the nuthatches trying to invade?

Fen hide was bathed in sharp sunlight, reflecting prettily off the ripples made by the little grebes, mallards and coots. The little grebes had a small nest right in front of the hide, almost invisible until they shifted vegetation, exposing a clutch of eggs, then carefully covering them over again before heading back out to forage. A pair of doves and a selection of male reed buntings had ownership of one bird table, whilst the other was swarming with more reed buntings and bramblings, with the occasional visit by a long tailed tit, bullfinch or nuthatch.

M. reed bunting
Little grebe

The newest hide at the reserve is the tower hide, built so as to be level with the canopy. Here, we had amazing views of the small birds brave enough to alight on platforms close to the hide windows. Today, a brambling was one of them, as well as an acrobatic long tailed tit, who would steal a morsel of food, hang from a twig with one claw whilst gripping the morsel in the other and feeding from it. A red poll, less brave, but no less attractive, sat on a niger seed feeder slightly further away.

Red poll
Long tailed tit
Peacock butterfly

We continued, walking along the boardwalk bathed in sunlight, towards the scrape hides, where, unfortunately, there was nothing to be seen, but a green woodpecker could be heard yaffling from nearby. The warm day had tempted out a few different butterflies; an orange-tip gliding along the path edges and peacock butterflies basking on the boardwalk or chasing each other in spirals.

A day to herald the arrival of spring.

Monday, 13 March 2017

6. Strumpshaw Fen

A bright day with the hazy Sun peering through stratus cloud; blackthorn blossoms sweetened the air and heightened the senses, spring seems to have begun. Bees delicately visited the pink-white flowers and the song of small birds came from every tree.

We made a bee-line for tower hide, spotting greylag and Canada geese lining up along the banks of the lagoons on the way. Cetti’s warblers exploded in song, buried somewhere deep along the edges of the path. Tufted duck, pochard, mute swans and great crested grebes dabbled and drifted on the pools of water. Tower hide boasted mixed rafts of shoveler and teal, with the occasional shelduck and gadwall. A heron hunted in the distant pools. A majestic marsh harrier perched in a scrubby tree, surveying the view over the reedbed. Taking to the sky on broad, fingered wings, looking straight into the hide, or so it seemed, then skimming the roof and away.

Rather than risk the sticky mud that can frequent the trail at this time of year, we turned back and made our way towards fen hide. At first, little moved, except a dabbling coot. Then, thanks to some other visitors who pointed out the ‘ping’ call coming from the reeds, my first ever photograph of a wild bearded tit – a pair presented themselves to the onlookers from the hide, the male showing off his beautiful markings from the tip of a reed momentarily before flitting away and beckoning his mate to follow. 

Monday, 20 February 2017

5. Lakenheath Fen

Reed bunting
A pale sky, blanket cloud filtering the Sun’s light as it tried to break through. The songs of robins, blue tits and great tits serenaded visitors as they tumbled out of their cars and into the reserve. Chatting to one of the volunteers in the visitors centre, we were told that bearded tits were showing well around the reserve, as were marsh harriers. With optimism, we set out to see what we could find. The staccato shouts of wrens coming from the sides of the visitor trails guided our way towards New Fen Viewpoint. A serenely calm pool awaited us, the surface disturbed only by two coots dabbling and diving, a few mallards and gadwalls and a great crested grebe proudly showing its red mohican above a white cheek. A trail through the reed bed, adjacent to the main path revealed more wrens. Cetti’s warblers began their appealing song whilst remaining deep within the vegetation. The whistling calls of a coil of wigeon passed overhead. Canada geese and mute swans graced the neighbouring pools and a great spotted woodpecker could be heard drumming in the surrounding trees.

Stonchat (m)
Despite listening keenly for bearded tits on our way to Mere hide, we were not in luck. The pool at the hide was just as calm as the previous viewpoint, this time with a coot, a moorhen and four mallards disturbing the placid water. A pair of wrens burst from the reeds, chasing each other along a corridor through the vegetation. Never before today had I really believed that the wren is the UK’s most numerous breeding bird. Almost as if they were respecting the silence, a flock of lapwings flew over the hide as we made our exit, their chunky square wings silhouetted against the brightening sky. At the hide and on the trail leading away were empty platforms offering grit to the invisible bearded tits.

On the trail to joist fen viewpoint, instead of bearded tits, we found a reed bunting picking grit from the path, flying only a few metres ahead each time we approached before eventually veering off into the safety of reeds and trees.

Great white egret
A footpath parallel to the reserve boundary, following the River Little Ouse gave an elevated view over the reserve and surrounding countryside. A pair of stonechats flitted between tall grasses and reed heads, almost bouncing up and down as they transferred from one stem to another. A kestrel hung in the sky, hovering, and then, missing its meal, rested in the woodland trees. The lakes beyond the river, looking away from the reserve boasted jewels of colour: shoveler, teal, lapwings, little egrets. The largest was the tall, yellow-billed great white egret, towering above the little egrets, despite being further away. Broken oyster shells littered the sides of the path. Back in the reserve, a whole gang of long tailed tits decorated the heads of tall reed stems and a single leafless tree amidst the rustling golden stalks. They jingled through like early blossoms drifting from the tree.

Re-entering the reserve trail, blue tits and great tits littered the feeders by the visitor’s centre and a kestrel perched on a tree in the car park. A pair of roe deer bade us farewell at the reserve entrance.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

4. Pensthorpe Natural Park

A brisk Valentine ’s Day walk in the dappled afternoon sunshine around Pensthorpe Natural Park gave us some unexpected sightings. Meandering through the wave garden, the bright white stars of snowdrops illuminating the leaf litter and bark chippings, heralding the beginning of early spring. A little egret similarly lighting up the opposite bank as we passed, balancing the great crested grebe on water, on our way to the wader scrape hides. Here, an oystercatcher pulled worms mercilessly from the bank, whilst rafts of teal dabbled and dived. A small coil of wigeon pulled at the grasses and a desert of lapwings pee-witted to each other, standing ankle deep in the water. A smattering of other ducks; shelduck, mallard and shoveler, brightened the scene. We crossed the River Wensum, startling a moorhen and a pair of teal, making our way up towards the wildflower meadow and woodland. Across the meadow, we saw our first bird of prey: a male kestrel quartering and alighting in a slender tree. A trio of redpoll landed unwittingly in a tree nearby.

Delving into the woodland, we were met by the evening songs of birds; blue tit, great tit, finches and others, alongside the disappearing white rump of a roe deer. The woodland hide had some unusual invaders amongst its usual visitors of tits and finches. Two male mandarin ducks waited below the bird feeders for seeds to drop. A muntjac deer joined the fray briefly before blending back into the surrounding trees. Leaving the hide, we were met by several roe deer hiding behind low branches, and a young deer, less shy than the others, eyeballing us from the safety of the trees. A buzzard mewed overhead.

Making our way back to the visitors centre, tufted ducks showed off their contrasting colours on the lake and were joined by a goosander, it’s streamlined shape standing out against the stockier forms of the ducks. A quartet of displaying oystercatchers heralded our way out of the park.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

3. Marston Marsh

Walking along the railway line near Keswick Mill, the air was filled with the plaintive song of the robin. In every direction, in every tree, there seemed to be another red breasted songster, advertising its presence to its competitors. The odd black bird chimed in, not wanting to be overlooked. The more we walked, getting further from the golf course and closer to the marsh and the surrounding stands of trees, the more variety in bird song we heard. A green finch calling its ‘tzveeee’ song from the other side of the railway line, blue tits chattering and seemingly shouting at us and each other, and long tailed tits ‘see-see-seeing’ companionably. Their stocky bodies and long tails stark against the bare twigs of the trees, making it very obvious where the old name of ‘barrel bird’ came from.

Once we were out on the open marsh and field, we strolled along the ‘path’ clinging closely to the River Yare. A little egret perched, preening its long white feathers, framed by the branches of the tree on which it sat, enjoying the sun as it broke through the cloud. The golden rays of winter sunlight brought the colours back to the landscape, picking out the green of the grasses, the gold of the reeds, the fawn of the trees and the yellow of the lichen encrusting them. There also seemed to be an audible difference in the level of birdsong. A song thrush began its beautifully repetitive song and a green woodpecker yaffled across the marsh, but stayed well hidden. Jay’s showed off their blue and orange flashes, reflecting strongly those wavelengths of the sun’s light. A collection of quiet birds, which may have been tree sparrows (they moved too quickly to get a clear look, but their heads looked wrong for house sparrows) and a charm of goldfinches heralded our way out of the reserve and back in Eaton. However, a parting gift was a crowd of redwings foraging in the grounds of the scout activity centre. Sometimes, you find good sightings in unexpected places!

Sunday, 22 January 2017

2. Lower Wood, Ashwellthorpe

The Sun’s rays scattered by ice covered glass and grass turned into cake 
frosting; white, hard and crunchy under foot, it was a frosty winter’s morning in Norfolk. Parking at the medieval church in the village, birds could be heard calling from the suburban trees, surrounding fields and woodland. The short walk to the reserve was pleasant, a small distance along the road, then a public footpath along the perimeter of a field. The mixture of open landscape and woodland was a contrast that seemed popular with local birds of prey. A pair of buzzards took flight, greeting us upon entering the woodland over a small bridge. No sooner had we entered the woodland, and we were surrounded by smaller woodland birds calling and scattering, as well as a few chattering grey squirrels and a roe deer, before it caught sight of us. The tiny goldcrest imperceptibly moving from twig to twig and a treecreeper, somewhat more confiding, winding its way up the bark of trees nearby. 

Following the NWT arrows took us around the edge of this small reserve, with robins, blue- and great tits traversing the walkways ahead of us. Great spotted woodpeckers could be heard calling, but did not make themselves known by sight. A kestrel silently glided, carving the skyscape with long tail and arrow like wings, landing gracefully in the bare canopy. The coppiced trees provide ample cover for small birds with their almost impenetrable vertical swords of thin branches, closely packed. Larger trees twisted their gnarled trunks skyward, their asymmetry pleasing to the eye. Every tree, it seemed, filled with the calls and songs of woodland birds. As we completed the trail, a treecreeper was again at the entrance to bid us farewell.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

1. Whitlingham Country Park

On the coldest weekend of the winter so far, when tidal surges had caused parts Great Yarmouth and other coastal areas to be evacuated and many reserves were partially underwater, we tried our first new area of 2017: Whitlingham Country Park.

The forecast had been for snow and sleet most of the day, but, thankfully, the sun shone brightly in a crisp, blue sky all afternoon. We arrived at the park for the final hour of daylight, hoping the cold snap had brought out foraging birds, including winter visitors. Walking briskly to fend off the cold, we took the circular walk around Great Broad. A pair of Egyptian geese plucked at the grass and called softly to each other as we passed. Great rafts of tufted ducks, accompanied by gadwall, pochard, coot and the odd great crested grebe drifted with purpose, diving below the water. Canada and greylag geese, patrolled the margins of the broad, accompanied by several pairs of mute swans.

As the Sun sank further, there was something delicious about the way the light illuminated the water’s surface, putting a spotlight on the wildfowl that danced both below and above the pool of watery winter sunlight; the reeds the fairy lights to guide visitors along the water’s edge. Silhouettes of long tailed tits flitted restlessly in the leafless tall trees, calling to other members of the gang as they flew. Blue tits, as high as they could be, their yellow breasts highlighted by the last rays of Sun. A grey heron glided along the bank, broad wings outstretched. A flock of green finches performed over the broad, settling into a naked tree, decorating its branches. Cormorants adorned yet other trees, settling far apart. A wonderful end to a wintry day.