Saturday, 31 January 2015

Jan 31st Whitlingham Broad

Whitlingham Broad
Today, I am with my mum for a walk around Whitlingham Broad. People were already here doing many leisure activities from model boats to rowing. Many others were using the path that takes you all the way round the broad. We were going to do the same, but not before we use the cafe for a spot of lunch (nice cakes being served here if you must know).

Mute Swan
We decided to go left (clockwise) round the broad, starting from the cafe's car park. We walk past a few people using model sailing boats, while a few mute swans, coots, gulls, mallards, greylag and canada geese share the same shore as them, hoping that they throw some food out for them. Just around the corner, is the rowing club building that looks like a set of those storage things that 'Thunderbird 2' dispatches containing various machines inside. Obviously, there are only canoes and other things stored inside them, not 'Thunderbird 4'.

Egyptian Goose
Past this building, the path gets sandwiched between the broad and the River Wensum. There are wildlife zones on this side of the broad, parts of the lake which the wildfowl have to themselves. There is a blind for us birdwatchers to use to get close with good views of these birds. Most of the birds here today were black-headed gulls and tufted ducks with a few gadwall, a couple of great crested grebes, Egyptian geese and cormorants sitting on the posts marking out these zones out across the water.

Male Tufted Duck
Tufted Ducks
Tufted ducks seemed to be more numerous than mallards here today. These are diving ducks unlike mallards which are dabblers (a duck that only sticks it's head under to feed with it's bottom up on the surface). Males are black and white with a tuft on the head. Females are dark brown without that tuft. Both have yellow eyes. These ducks are shy birds compared to mallards, which is probably why there are many of them in these zones where it is quiet and away from the main path.

Continuing our walk, I spot a clump of green in a tree on the otherside of the river. This was mistletoe, a semi-parasitic plant which is well known as a plant to kiss under at Christmas time. It relies on birds to feed on the white berries. The seeds go through the bird's gut and it comes out via the other end as a sticky mess. It is so sticky, that the bird has to wipe it's rear end onto a branch of another tree to remove it. The plant grows and roots itself to the tree. An interesting plant and so far, this single clump is the only place I have found mistletoe near the Norwich area.

The rest of this lap around the broad was pretty quiet and quite muddy. I did see another great crested grebe, still in it's winter plumage with signs of it's crest beginning to emerge for the breeding season, and a cormorant was fishing out on the open water. The last section of our walk takes us through a small wooded area to the car park. Here, we get a few feet away to a tiny goldcrest. I try to get a shot of it, but goldcrests never stay still for long. Any top tips for photographing goldcrests, anyone?

Finally, at the car park, I watch many black-headed gulls line up in a row along the rooftop of the cafe. If you don't know your gulls, black-headed gulls are small gulls with dark red bills and legs, black wingtips and, at this time of year, a black spot behind the eye.

Black-headed Gulls


Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Jan 28th Strumpshaw Fen

It was a breezy start this morning as I made my way to Fen Hide via the woods. Though it felt wintery, there were early signs of spring on the woodland floor. Snowdrops are now in flower in patches across this wooded area. Easily recognisable by those three petals as white as snow, drooping from a green stem with long, thin leaves at its base. This is usually the first woodland flower to emerge. We don't get massive displays of snowdrop at Strumpshaw, only small patches. How amazing would it be if the woodland floor looked like it was blanketed in false snow?

Spring might be around the corner, but for now it was definetly winter and there were a few signs to remind you that it was winter. First of all, was of course the weather. For now it was windy, but there was worse to come. Another sign was a redwing in the woods. This small thrush with a red patch under the wing and a white stripe above the eye, is a winter visitor from Scandinavia. I tried to get a better shot of it without the branches in the way, but as I was about to take the shot, it flew away!

Chinese Water Deer
At Fen Hide, I was worried that the roof was going to come off, as the wind was rattling against the wooden hide. Trying to ignore this, I put my mind on the Chinese water deer walking through the open areas between the reedbeds that were cut last year. Looking at the size of the tusks, these were females (they have tiny tusks compared to males). On the way back to start my shift, I spook up a green woodpecker which shot out of it's hidden corner like a bullet of yellow-green.

A White Mallard
I got to Reception Hide and the heavens opened! It was a heavy downpour sweeping like a curtain of water caught in the wind. It soon stopped to reveal a fly-by of a kingfisher and a bittern. Marsh harriers appeared to be playing in the breeze, not that the crows were happy with that as they chased after them. There was a white mallard out with the flock of pure wild birds and a large 'raft' of coots were quite flighty as they constantly ran across the surface of the water or fighting amongst each other with those lobed feet of theirs.

But it was the weather that dominated my shift. By midday, it got stormy. The rain hammered down so hard. And the wind had also picked up and was forcing the body of water to look like the sea. Waves with white horses formed. We battered down the hatches as if we were out at sea! Amazingly, the locks on these glass window hatches held on as the wind tried to force them open. It is rarely a dull day at Strumpshaw!

"Wow, this wind sure is strong!!!"

Monday, 26 January 2015

Jan 26th Norwich

I am at Norwich Station, but I'm not here for a train. I am here for another wildlife spectacle that I have only discovered on Saturday as Dad and I was returning home from a terrible game at Carrow Road (terrible if you are a Norwich fan like me). While walking past the station, we saw the last part of this event in question. Today, I wanted to see it from the beginning.

Pied Wagtail
I arrived at 3:30pm to wait at a London plane tree next to a public entrance to the station. The evidence is clear that what I'm looking for was using this tree during the night with small white droppings on the ground under it. An hour passes and the light begins to fade, when finally the bird I'm after appears. A lone pied wagtail flew over me and the tree and was heading to the Riverside multi-story car park. At this point, Dad joins me to watch hundreds of wagtails gather on the roof of the car park. Then we notice more birds behind us on the Norwich Station building.

The wagtails on the car park roof suddenly erupts and were flying towards the London plane tree with others joining it. We hurried over there only to find they weren't on the tree but on the roof of a couple of pizza resturants over the road. The sight was starting to attract a few locals and we exchanged on what we knew about this secret gathering. It appears they do come to this tree when it gets quite dark. And about 5pm, they began to arrive onto the tree from the roof. A handful to start with, but soon there were a few hundred huddling together within the branches.

Why are they here? I think it is because the tree is next to a lamp light on a brick stack. This is probably providing vital heat for a small bird at this time of year. The other reason why they gather in large numbers is because they communicate to each other. You can hear these black, white and grey, tail wagging birds calling in unison. "Chesick, chesick, chesick", the tree was full of noise. Eventually, the noise grew to silence and the event was over. The wagtails had gone to sleep. Another of Norwich's secret wildlife spectacles was finally revealed to me. It may not be a starling murmuration, but it was just as good.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Jan 24th & 25th Big Garden Birdwatch Special

Day 1

This Saturday morning, I opened the curtains to my bedroom window to find a buzzard soaring outside, mobbed by two crows. It was low enough to see it's wing markings. This was a surprising bird to see here in a built up urban area and this close to my flat. What a sight to wake up to! And on a special weekend too. This weekend is the Big Garden Bird Watch Weekend, a survey organized by the RSPB to find out how many birds are in your garden.

Anyone can take part and you don't have to have a garden. As I live in a flat, I don't have a garden, but I do have a local park I can do the survey in. I'm at Waterloo Park this morning for an hours walk. I'm not willing to sit in the cold for an hour, so I'm walking around the park instead. I'm sticking to the rules that I made, though. I'm not counting flying birds or birds outside the park's boundaries and to keep it so I'm not counting the same bird twice, I'm counting a total of birds of each species at a single moment (for example, I see one blue tit, I can't count another until I see two together and so on).

Within my hour (from 9:15-10:15am), I recorded; 3 robins, 4 blue tits, 5 blackbirds, 3 great tits, 3 chaffinches, 3 long-tailed tits, 2 collard doves, 2 dunnocks, 1 greenfinch, 2 goldfinches, 1 carrion crow and 1 coal tit. The most numerous, though, and unsurprisingly, is the woodpigeon with seven. My personal favourites from this hour were 2 goldcrests in the spruces. There were actually more tits, woodpigeons, etc, but as I was counting the maximum total at one time, I couldn't count them all. I couldn't include the 5 greylags that flew over the park either and the starlings and house sparrows were just beyond the boundaries, so it is a no to them too. But what I can say is that this park is reasonably healthy in bird life compared to last year's survey which lacked half the species I recorded this year.

Day 2

I am not finished with the Big Garden Bird Watch quite yet. Even though I have done the survey for myself, I am now in demand amongst my family to help with theirs. First up, I'm at my parent's house. Watching their garden from their consevatory, I began the hour from 10:05am. The feeder area attracted within the hour; 1 robin, 2 dunnocks, 2 blue tits and a single blackbird with a white leucistic spot on it's neck. The dunnocks were pretty photogenic, posing on a fence beam or on top of a hedge singing or feeding on the fat balls. There were woodpigeons in the tree nextdoor, but they would not come down to our garden throughout the hour.

Male Blackcap
Best of the lot in my survey of my parents garden, though, was a male and female blackcap. It was the first time I have ever tallied blackcaps in the Big Garden Bird Watch from all the years I have took part in it. They were a real surprise. Blackcaps are normally summer visitors that feed on insects and migrate south to Africa, but in recent years, birds from Germany and Austria come to overwinter here in the UK. They are also partial to fruit and seeds, so they can survive in our mild winters. Wintering blackcaps often rely on our gardens and our feeders, so I shouldn't really be surprised at all. Males have the black caps and females have orange ones. Keep an eye out for these birds in your garden this winter.

After completing the survey for my mum, we head over to my Aunt Barbara's house to help her out. Barbara has only done the survey twice in her garden (thats two years) and we have little success with it here. The first year, we saw nothing at all, while last year was a little better with 2 starlings. This year was even better with 2 robins and 2 woodpigeons. I have to say this, though, there were more birds in the area. Within the hour, I saw greenfinches, jackdaws, carrion crows, collard doves and heard starlings and dunnocks. The problem though is that they were all nextdoor and teased me by being tantalizingly close to the boundaries of Barbara's garden or flying low over it. Sometimes nature likes to rub it in!

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Jan 22nd Holkham Pines to Gun Hill

Today, I am in North Norfolk with my dad for a long walk from Holkham Pines to Gun Hill and back. This takes me through a costal pine forest, across the dunes, past a salt marsh and an estuary and finally looping back with a long stroll on the beach. It will be exhausting but it will provide great scenery and wildlife.

Brent Geese
Before setting off, my wildlife search begins at the car park. The car park at Holkham Pines is sandwiched between two large partially flooded fields, wintering grounds for enormous flocks of brent and pink-footed geese and wigeon. The geese, for now, were constantly flying by us in several massive flocks, calling away. The wigeon were more approachable, grazing near the fence. I also found lapwings, black-tailed godwits, a kestrel and a marsh harrier in this area too.

Little Grebe
The walk amongst the pine trees of Holkham Pines was alive with goldcrests and long-tailed tits. I was more excited with what was on the site's pond though. Three little grebes were diving underwater for food and with it was a handsome male goldeneye. A goldeneye is a diving duck that fishes out invertebrates living deep under the surface. A few of these ducks come down to overwinter in Norfolk each year and I have found them on this pond before a few years ago, so this pond is quite reliable for such a stunning bird. The site also has two hides overlooking the grazing fields. From them, my goose count went up to four species with additions of graylag and Egyptian geese. I also spot a couple of buzzards with one of them being a pale morph bird (that means it had a blond head and chest).

Rays of sunlight over the saltmarsh
We eventually left Holkham Pines and were now walking the dunes to Gun Hill (a mound next to an estuary). This was an environment that was like walking on a lunar scene that was covered in lichen, small shrubs, marram grass and potted with rabbit holes. It was a tiring part of the walk with its slopes and trip hazards (thanks rabbits!), but the scenery alongside the dunes was changing from a field (from which we saw a pair of marsh harriers and a muntjac deer) to a saltmarsh that provided us with shelduck, redshank and a flock of linnets. We had lunch on the dunes, watching rays of sunlight hitting the water of the saltmarsh just right with a soundtrack of redshanks yodeling. A beautiful moment! We also watched hundreds of brent geese taking flight in the distance, filling the sky.

Now for the moment of madness when Dad realises he didn't put enough money in the car park's meter. That meant he had to leave me to walk all the way back to put more money in before the meter ran out! Good job he is a fitter person than me! I, however, was left to loop back via the beach at a more casual pace. This gave me a chance for a bit of beach combing and here are a few things that I found...

Ray Eggcases

Shore Crab Carapace with Barnacles

Common Otter Shell
Oyster covered in something

Dog Whelk Eggcase and cockle
Common Whelk

Apart from beach combing, I also did a bit of exploring around some saltwater pools on the beach. Here I found common gulls and a curlew probing the mud with its long curved bill. The mud's surface along the shore of the pools was covered in wader prints and the squiggly casts of lugworms.

Wader Prints

Lugworm Cast

Snow Bunting
At the halfway point along my walk back, I came across a piece of the Arctic in this part of North Norfolk. I was caught by surprise when I saw 3-4 snow buntings. I nearly didn't see them until they did a short flight up in front of me. They didn't go far though, as I sneaked closer for a few shots. These are small white bellied birds with orange bills and were feeding on the vegetation along the edge of the dunes. This hardy finch-sized bird is a winter visitor to our coastline from the Arctic Circle where it breeds in the summer. I had a few minutes to admire them before a dog came and scared them off.

Pink-footed Geese
Back at the car park, after reuniting with Dad, the pink-footed geese were starting to come in to roost as the sun was setting. A few were already on one of the fields, but the majority were still in the air. We watched them fly in the distance like a cloud of birds searching for a place to land. They tested each spot by spiralling down to land, appearing as a zig-zag from our point of view, but seemed unhappy with each spot and went back up again. It was great way to end our walk on. I am tired and my body aches, but it was definately worth it.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Jan 21st Strumpshaw Fen

I was walking in the woods before my shift began this morning and it was alive with the sound of rapping on wood. This was the sound of great spotted woodpeckers drumming on tree branches. I was surrounded by 3-4 of them defending their territories. Then I saw woodpecker versus woodpecker action as one attacked a neighbour and chasing it off with aggressive calls through the canopy. I saw a few more of these battles between the woodpeckers during my walk. Nuthatches also included their loud calls to this chorus of aggression. Was this a battlefield?

Frank the Pheasant
While engrossed with the woodpeckers, I heard a rustling sound next to me. I turned round and there was a very friendly cock pheasant slowly coming up to my feet. Apparently, this was 'Frank' (named by the other volunteers not me) and you can recognise him by his single long tail feather. He seems to follow me like an obedient dog as I made my way through the woods. As I left the woods for the Fen Hide, Frank stayed behind, but on my return, he followed me once more. What a character!

A Frozen Scene at Fen Hide

The scene at Fen Hide was a sheet of ice and was devoid of life. The story was the same at Reception Hide. I did, however, manage to get a shot of a long-tailed tit as I left Fen Hide and a male sparrowhawk posed on a bare branch close to Reception Hide for a few OK shots (the light was poor today), while marsh harriers soared over reedbeds as usual (including a green wing tagged female). And as I was about to leave for home, who would I happen to meet for one final time today but Frank.

A Frozen Scene at Reception Hide

Long-tailed Tit

Marsh Harrier

Male Sparrowhawk

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Jan 16th Norwich

I am in Norwich today, on the top of St Stephan's Street for something special. No, not for a bargain in the January sales but for a wildlife spectacle that people would normally flock to nature reserves to see. Recently, I was tipped off that there was a starling murmuration in the city. My parents were working nearby the high street, when they saw this amazing event. They told me about it and here I am. I don't think many people know about it and, before tonight, that includes me. I've seen murmrations at Strumpshaw, but never here in such an urban location before.

I arrived at the roundabout on the top of St Stephan's Street about 2:45pm to get myself in position and to find where the best place to view the event when it happened. At this time, I could hear a small amount of starling noise amongst the busy traffic. A handful of starlings were already here gathering in some trees nearby. This small group was the foundation to what was coming.

Around 3:45 - 4pm, this tiny group took to the air and started making small shapes in the sky. From behind me, more small flocks of starling joined them. As time went by, the tiny murmuration of 10-15 birds grew and grew in size. It became from a small ball to an enormous swirling mass that created increasingly elaborated shapes above the roundabout and the high street. It was mesmerizing. They would create knots, twists and balls that constantly shrank and expanded in size in an almost hypnotic display.

A couple of people were watching this with me, but everyone else were oblivious and just kept walking without taking a glance upwards. I had questions thrown at me by one elderly woman like why are they doing this and how do they not crash into each other? It is difficult for me to answer these questions as there are still things we don't know. Most people (me included) would say that they do this to confuse predators. Who knows, there could be one of the Cathedral peregrines watching nearby. They could also do this as a mean to communicate to each other. They have to watch and listen to their neighbours very closely so they don't crash into each other after all. Each individual makes a split second decision on which of the many birds surrounding it to follow and that is how the shapes are created (thats my theory any way).

Coming into roost
As darkness began to settle in, the murmuration of several thousands of starlings was coming to a close. They swirled over the taller buildings within the rows of shops and got lower and lower, until eventually they poured onto them like a thin column of rain. Most of them were at the centre of the rooftop out of sight, but the ones overflowing the edge and side of the building were visible like a row of football supporters in their seats. And with that, the event was over. Watching something as amazing as this in a busy urban setting, and for it to be Norwich of all places, it has to be up there as one of the most unexpected things I had ever witnessed. It kind of makes it a bit special really.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Jan 13th Strumpshaw Fen

A Flooded View From Reception Hide
For one week only, I am doing a Tuesday morning. I couldn't do this Wednesday due to an appointent so I switched days just for this week.
It was a bit flooded this week at Strumpshaw. The high tides on Sunday from the River Yare had made almost every path underwater. Today, most of the paths are open once again, though very muddy. The view from Reception Hide is proof of this high tide with the broad being quite deep.

At the start of the morning, I had mallards, coots, a pair of gadwall and a greylag to watch. As the light was bright this morning, they were great subjects to photograph. The light brought out the great detail on the gadwall drake's plumage, the green sheen on a mallard drake's head and the 'teeth' between the mandibles of a greylag's orange bill.

Marsh harriers were about in good numbers. About 4 - 5 were in the air at once. One is a well known individual to the reserve as it is a female with a white belly. The white patch is a leucistic marking (a genetic mutation similar to albinism where the whole or part of an animal is white but has no pink eyes) and is quite visible. She has no name, so I will let you decide what I should call her. I also had a kestrel in the distance, a nuthatch and marsh tits on the feeders.

The biggest highlight of the day, though, goes to my first bittern of the new year. I was fortunate enough to spot it leaving a reedbed in the distance towards the river. It came closer and closer, until it landed in the nearest reedbed to us by the left channel. After some time passed, it eventually hopped across the channel to the reedbed on the otherside and vanished on the side facing us. Even more time passed until I saw a strange obscured shape in those reeds. It had come out to the edge where it is more visible. It was there for 15-20 minutes and beyond when I left for my train home. At that time, I got the reserve's scope out to show the arriving visitors and most of the site's volunteers that were here today.

The bittern at one point, made itself look bigger by stretching its neck and bill upwards to look like tall reeds. It then also shrank into a small ball to preen itself. The bittern isn't just a master of camourflage but also a master contortionist too. Adding to this, it can also hold it's own weight on a single stem of reed. Bitterns are fascinating creatures, but few get this kind of privileged views of one and for this length of time too. Maybe I should do Tuesdays more often?