Sunday, 1 May 2016

May 1st Strumpshaw Fen

The Moon
The first Sunday of May marks International Dawn Chorus Day. Last year, Dad and I experienced an urban dawn chorus around Norwich in the rain. This year, in honour of the reserve's 40th anniversary year, we are experiencing it at Strumpshaw Fen. A dawn chorus here should be great as it has a mixture of habitats ranging from reedbeds to woodland, each with its own cast of songsters. We arrived at the reserve at 4:15am this morning. It was still dark and half of the moon was shining bright. A low-lying, thick fog covered much of the landscape of Strumpshaw. It was so thick that it was hard to make out anything during first couple of hours we were here.

View over Reception Hide at 4:20am

Moon, fog and daylight over the meadow trail
In the light of the moon and hidden in a landscape of fog of the first hour of our visit, the chorus had already begun. Bitterns were booming and cuckoos were calling in the distance, possibly the undisputed stars of this year's chorus. While warblers, robins, wrens, etc, were the most numerous in this dawn chorus' cast, it was the cuckoos and bitterns that made it feel more special. Their voices carried far and wide throughout the morning like two heavyweights in a shouting contest. During this early stage, it was unsurprising that a tawny owl added its voice to the chorus for a few short bursts before the sky became lighter.

Blackbird in the dark
Moon reflection, frost and fog
Sedge and reed warblers churred and whistled amongst the reedbeds as we made our way to Fen Hide. The night sky was now beginning to fade, but the bitterns were booming louder and louder somewhere within the fog like a true foghorn. As we neared Tower Hide, the sound was at its best. We could feel it beating through us. They were closeby, but with so much fog, we couldn't see where. Unfortunately, my camera can't seem to pick up such low frequrencies of a booming bittern, so you just have to imagine how it sounds (unless you have incredible hearing and can hear it in these videos). The cuckoos were also sounding close, just somewhere across the river. Again, the fog made it impossible to see beyond it. Shapes of birds darted in front of us as more voices were added to the chorus. Willow warblers, blackcaps, song thrushes, blue tits, chiffchaffs, greylags, common terns, the list was building by the minute.

View from Fen Hide
View from Tower Hide

Mute Swan

Black-headed Gull
Tufted Ducks in the fog

Walking back from Tower Hide around 5:50am, the sun had started to peek above the fog with an amber glow. Though the fog still gained ground over the river, it was starting to burn away elsewhere on the reserve. Frost was being revealed across the landscape as the fog began to disappear. As we walked towards the pumphouse, we heard another sound to add to our ever growing chorus list. This time, it wasn't a bird but a mammal. Chinese water deer were barking from Buckenham's direction. The noise that they were making was incredible and very loud. I have heard from volunteers who have slept in the cottage on the reserve that they often get kept awake by these deer. This is the first time I have heard them bark and I can see what they mean.

Pumphouse covered in fog

Fog over the river

Brown Hare (21)
While walking along the river to the pumphouse, I noticed something on the path in front of us hidden in the fog. I could see a pair of long ears pointing upwards in the gloom, the unmistakable ears of a hare! I rubbed my eyes in disbelieve and looked through my binoculars again. It was gone! A little further up and we found it again, this time on the meadow. This was my chance, it was now or never! Fog or no fog, I was getting my photograph of it no matter what. At long last I have found my hare, taking my challenge total to 21. Then, we found another one! This time running away with its backside facing us. So there you have it, if you want to see a hare at Strumpshaw, get here at the crack of dawn!

The dawn chorus just got better and better with whitethroats singing at the pumphouse and goldcrests, treecreepers and other woodland birds along the woodland trail. The frosty bright early morning light made the bluebells look more beautiful than ever with shadows of tree trunks being draped over them.


Cuckoo (22)
The fog was almost at an end by around 6:30am and the cuckoos were getting more and more vocal. They sounded as if they were closer than they were before. I couldn't resist. I had to go back to the river and find one. I followed the sound to the sluice gates. The cuckoo was calling in one of the trees somewhere just across the other side of the river. After a bit of scanning, I managed to find him. Only the grey males call their names loud and proud like this. He is only here for a couple of months as he attempts to attract a female and hold a territory at the same time. The females are brown and will stay here a little longer as she locates nests of warblers to lay an egg in. The young cuckoo then hatches and takes over the nest, dumping the warbler's eggs out of it. The warbler foster parents are fooled and forced into feeding the imposter chick which grows enormously, outgrowing the size of the nest.

I love cuckoos, but sadly they are declining rapidly. So far, Strumpshaw is a stronghold for them, but with so many disappearing in many parts of the country, I fear that one day they will vanish from this place too. At least for now, and I hope for many years to come, Strumpshaw is a great place to see them. The river is the best place to find them, just listen out for the male calling and try and track him down audibly. In the video below, you should hear him calling (as well as my dad thinking I was taking a photo of him).

View outside Reception Hide around 7am
What a special dawn chorus it has been. As I was heading back to the car, a great spotted woodpecker called nearby. 'Jep!' It flew from the tree in the courtyard and into the trees behind the cottage. A marsh harrier was sitting in a dead tree in front of the tree line outside Reception Hide and the cuckoos and bitterns gave us one final verse as if to say goodbye before we left. Dad enjoyed it as much as I did. The booming bitterns, the cuckoos, the hares. Everything about this morning made me feel proud about Strumpshaw and what makes it a great place to visit. Let's hope it stays that way for another forty years and more. It was a shame the barn owl did not show up this morning though.
Marsh Harrier

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