Thursday, 17 August 2017

Dragonflies 2017

I've always had a bit of an obsession with dragonflies. Their speed and agility, their gracefulness and curiosity has always fascinated me. But, it is has only been over the past couple of years that I have truly started to learn to identify them. I've seen more diversity of species this year than I think I ever have before, and I haven't had the time to write blogs about all the reserves I've been to. So, here is a photographic summary of the species I've got fairly good photos of this year. I've included a written list at the bottom of other species I have seen this year, but not managed to photograph well.

I am still learning to identify them, so if you think I have made a mistake, please let me know. Thanks to @BDSdragonflies for their help in identifying species knew to me.

May / June 2017, RSPB Strumpshaw Fen:

Large red damselfly
Common blue damselfly
Blue tailed damselfly

Banded demoiselle
Broad bodied chaser
Scarce chaser
Hairy dragonfly

Black tailed skimmer

August 2017, Upton Broad:

Ruddy darter
Emerald damselfy

August 2017, Home:

Migrant hawker

Other species I've seen this year:
Common darter
Brown hawker
Southern hawker

That makes 14 different species I have knowingly seen and identified this year. Let's hope there's more to come!

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

8. Upton Broad and Marshes

We finally made it to another new Norfolk Reserve today: NWT Upton Broad and Marshes, apparently well known to host a great number and diversity of my favourite insect, the dragonfly. It is August and the high season for many dragonfly species on the wing, and this quiet reserve did not disappoint.

We decided to stick to the shorter NWT Nature Trail rather than tackle the full public walk around Upton Broad. We saw only two other people, but hundreds of dragonflies. On entering the fen, a cloud of dragonflies materialised; mainly common darters, but with a few larger species like brown and southern hawkers too. All moving with such speed and agility, I couldn't help but call this research study to mind as they prowled the reed bed for other insect prey. A black tailed skimmer briefly joined the fray before we reached the alder carr woodland.

Entering the woodland, there were fewer dragonflies, but there were a couple of particularly inquisitive southern hawkers who repeatedly 'buzzed' us - hovering with precision right in front of us. Such a colourful and beautiful species. Equally colourful and graceful butterflies alighted often to sun themselves on the board walks, flowers and reeds as we explored - small tortoiseshells, green-veined whites, peacocks and gatekeepers.

An emerald damselfly and a few ruddy darters met us as we emerged from the woodland and reentered the fen. I still find it tricky to tell this species apart from the common darter, but these individuals seemed distinctly more red.

I look forward to visiting this reserve again, although perhaps at a cooler time of day to offer better photographic opportunities!

Monday, 1 May 2017

Cairngorms National Park

I’ve always wanted to visit Scotland and, this April, we made it to the Cairngorms. We stayed in Aviemore and travelled out for days to different areas and reserves to try to see as much wildlife as we could. Here’s a summary of what we did, where we went and what we saw.

Monday 10th April

Our first day in the Cairngorm National Park took us to Glenmore Forest Park for a lovely walk thought the pine forest and to the summit of Meall a’ Bhuachaille. It was a beautiful day, sunshine breaking through the cloud and trees, with a few showers. Coming from Norfolk, the landscape was so different; it was almost hard to believe we were still in the UK. Snow-capped mountains in every direction and a green loch before walking along a narrow pass through the forest. The pine forest seemed the perfect habitat for coal tits and chaffinches, who were very confiding. So many coal tits, we almost missed the crested tit that alighted in branches close to the path.

That evening, I had booked us into a hide for a dusk watch on the Rothiemurchus Estate through Speyside Wildlife to try to see pine martins and badgers. Unfortunately, the pine martins didn’t come out to play, but a group of four badgers did – we got lovely views of them as they came right up to the windows. The wood mice stealing peanuts were really charming too, sneaking out, freezing as they picked up a morsel of food, the disappearing under the rocks just as fast as they appeared.


Tuesday 11th April

Watching gorgeous ospreys from the Osprey Visitor Centre at RSPB Loch Garten is how our day began. The massive nesting platform, drenched in sunlight, stark against the hazy mountains behind. Male and female change overs were frequent, with one egg in the nest so far. There were reports of another intruding male the day before where the egg had been jolted, but not damaged. Siskins and chaffinches, as well as wood mice and voles, frequented the feeders close to the centre. A great spotted woodpecker flashed its colours in the surrounding trees. From here, we took the ‘Big Pines’ and ‘Two Lochs trail’, in the hope of seeing crested tits and red squirrels. The latter we had only seen so far darting across roads. Although we didn’t see either of these species, coal tits seemed to be a lot more common here than in Norfolk and we seemed to be followed by flocks of siskins prizing open pine cones and calling ‘finching’ contacts to each other. Reaching the viewpoint at Loch Mallachie, gazing out to the small island offshore, we saw a large, red, finch-like bird: a male crossbill perusing the surroundings from a bare tree branch. The bird life through the forest was constant – treecreepers, goldcrests, redpoll, coal tits, robins, chaffinches, siskins… wherever we were, there were birds calling, courting, combating and mostly rather confiding.

Wednesday 12th April

Another RSPB reserve was on the cards today: RSPB Insh Marshes. Curlews have become and rarer and rarer sight at home for me, but here, they were present in abundance. Their long slender curved bills and desolate calls, reminiscent of cold winter days at the beach, identifying them despite their well camouflaged plumage. Huge flocks of greylag geese swarmed over the mound that can be seen from the circular lookout hide. We walked the Invertromie and the Tromie Meadow trails, spotting lapwings, a mistle thrush, buzzards, siskins and many grey herons, some of which were mobbed by lapwings and gulls. One of the most amazing sights was the abundance of hair-like lichens hanging like cobwebs from trees, drenching them from top to bottom. A very quiet reserve in terms of human traffic, but with a sense of calm and undisturbed habitats.

As we still hadn’t ‘properly’ seen a red squirrel, our lovely hosts in our guest house suggested we visit a café called the ‘The Potting Shed’ where they feed them. The café was small, set in a huge well managed garden, and was partly set up like a hide with a bench and huge windows to look out over the feeding stations. There were plenty of birds to look at, but there were shouts of excitement when a red squirrel came down to feed. A great way to watch wildlife – in a warm café with good cake and hot chocolate!

Thursday 13th April

We couldn’t come to the Cairngorms National Park without visiting Cairngorm. We’d also had tips from various sources that the Cairngorm car park was a great place for spotting mountain hares, ptarmigan and red grouse. Within minute of us being there, we saw a white / brown streak scale the side of a slope: our first mountain hare! A beautiful creature, similar but distinct from our other lagomorphs. Despite being such a distance away, it seemed larger and more robust than the brown hare. It was somewhere between its summer and winter coat; mainly brown with a white nose, ears, underside and legs. It still had those irresistible black ear tips though. Our next sighting, completely by chance (and when bumping into others from the RSPB Norwich Group!), was of ring ouzel. We then took to the walk to Ptarmigan station, coming across some confiding snow buntings near the path. The ptarmigan were not in evidence, so we decided to walk to the summit, and were pelted by horizontal snow. When we began the descent and were just past Ptarmigan station, one of the birds in question flew overhead, and we spent the rest of the walk inspecting bird-shaped rocks for more of them.

The Sottish highlands were a magical experience and I would love to return to look for more wildlife! Here are some more details about where we stayed and visited:

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.