Tuesday, 31 December 2013


The winter months provide a good opportunity to catch up with one of our less familiar species of wildfowl, namely the pochard. A male pochard is one of our smartest looking ducks, with his bold blocks of black and grey body plumage and deep chestnut coloured head and neck. The female, as is the case with most ducks, is less showy but her rather understated plumage still carries an echo of the male’s more flamboyant tones.

Many of the pochard wintering within the county will have arrived from overseas, birds that have joined individuals from our own rather small breeding population. Interestingly, this is a species of duck whose British breeding population only really became established after the mid-1800s. Before this time the pochard was largely restricted within England to the Breckland meres. Today the core breeding populations are centred on the Thames estuary, the coastal fringe of Essex and the Norfolk Broads.

It is during the autumn months that we start to see increasing numbers of pochard gathering at favoured sites, typically reservoirs, where they come together to undertake their annual moult. Numbers at these sites may remain high into the winter but concentrations also gather at other sites, including Titchwell, Welney and Pentney Gravel Pits. Smaller numbers can be found at Whitlingham Country Park and on many of the Broads. Pochard are mainly vegetarian in their diet and feed on stoneworts and other aquatic plants and their seeds. Such feeding habits seem to favour an association with shallower waters, which means that birds may have to move on if the weather turns cold and the waters begin to freeze over.

Weather may also be contributing to a change in the numbers of pochard wintering here. In particular, the run of mild winters may have led to some of our visiting pochard ‘short-stopping’ and chosing to remain on Continental waterbodies rather than push further west to our shores and our traditionally milder climate. The changing wintering numbers bring the pochard story almost full circle; it was, after all, a westwards expansion in the pochard’s breeding range that brought this elegant duck to our shores over 150 years ago, illustrating how things can change over time.

Monday, 30 December 2013

A mild end to the year

December has been rather mild overall and there have been times when, working outside, I have been most comfortable in a t-shirt. The mild weather has had an effect on our wildlife too, with a wider range of bird song evident and a distinct shortage of birds coming to visit the garden feeders. Judging by the moth wings scattered on the floor of the passageway at the side of our house, a brown long-eared bat has been equally active over recent weeks.

Coming off the back of a colder spell early in the month, the warm damp air that pushed up from the Azores mid-month seems to have tricked some birds into thinking that spring was on its way. In addition to the characteristic winter song of robin, which adds a melancholy air to the winter months, blackbird, mistle thrush, dunnock and woodpigeon were all to be heard in song from the garden. With the exception of dunnock, these are species that often make their first nesting attempt very early in the year and I would not be surprised to learn of individuals sat on eggs during the first half of January. Even a pair of mute swans on the river were reinforcing their pair bond with display behaviour more usually seen in spring.

That the garden feeders have been so quiet is not just a reflection of the mild conditions, which reduce the energetic stresses faced by small birds, but also the size of the autumn seed and berry crop. The 2013 crop of woodland and hedgerow fruits and seeds has been so abundant that it continues to last well into the winter months. No doubt the lack of a heavy frost has also played its part, since this often see the berries drop to the ground, where they then become accessible to small mammals and other wildlife. While the garden is quiet, the local woods are still busy with birds and mobile flocks of tits and finches can be found feeding among the trees. Siskin and lesser redpoll have been favouring the riverside alders; should the weather turn cold early in the New Year then I would expect the garden feeding station to become a hive of activity.

Saturday, 7 December 2013


In the half-light of these short winter mornings, as the night grudgingly releases her grip to the dawn, there is a palpable sense of otherworldliness. Maybe it is because my eyes struggle to pick out shapes in the gloom, prompting the familiar landscape around me to appear increasingly unfamiliar. Trees now present as silhouettes take on new forms, some of which carry an underlying hint of menace; is that someone stood by the edge of the path watching me or part of the gnarled trunk of a riverside alder?

The ducks on the river, still huddled within the shadows, seem unsettled. They have more reason than me to be afraid of the darkness, since their river hides the slashing jaws of pike and otter. Moorhens that have been feeding on the path move off at my approach, heads down, tail up and flicking white badges of alarm. I am aware of other noises along the river bank, sounds that hint at foraging rats and blackbirds turning over the leaf litter. The rats themselves are silent but the blackbirds chook and chink with alarm.

I have timed my walk so that I can squeeze in a decent circuit before I have to head into the office. Setting off in the dark, I know that it will be fully light by the time that I return home and that there will be enough light for the more difficult section of the river, where the muddy bank and raised roots can trip the unwary.

Just downstream from an ancient crossing place I chance across two little grebes, the first of the winter on the river. They are diving for food, quite close in to the bank and within a patch of water that has caught just enough of the morning’s light to silhouette the grebes. These buoyant little birds are great fun and immediately they dispel any remaining sense of otherworldliness. Aware of my presence both birds dive, emerging a few seconds later further out from the bank. They dive again and then I lose sight of them in the shadow of the far bank. Ripples that echo out from subsequent dives tell me that the grebes are still here, even if I cannot see them. It is time to move on.

Friday, 6 December 2013

The overlooked alder

At this time of the year the riverside alders begin to attract growing numbers of siskins and lesser redpolls. The birds are attracted to the trees because of the seeds contained within the alder’s small and rather delicate cones. Small parties of finches can be heard twittering in the tree-tops, the birds balancing with an acrobat’s dexterity as they attempt to extract the seeds.

The waterlogged soils that border one of my favourite stretches of the river are dominated by alder; this is, after all, a tree that can tolerate conditions too wet for potential rivals. Alder is often the first tree to colonise areas of fen or bog. Being a successful colonist of such habitats frames the alder as a conservation problem, invading land that managers may wish to retain in an ‘early-successional’ state rather than see develop into woodland.

I have always liked the alder. Its nature seems to reflect the damp and riverine conditions in which it finds itself living; the leaves paddle-shaped and the bark roughly hewn with vertical channels that give the appearance of having been cut by water. In contrast to my own feelings for this native tree there seems to be a wider lack of interest in the alder. It receives the barest of references in The Trees that made Britain and even Flora Britannica (my bible for plant lore) affords it just three short paragraphs. You might, therefore, consider the alder a tree of little value but it has a longer-term history of wider value. Alder timber does not rot under water, prompting its use in canal and riverside pilings, and it has been grown for charcoal in support of the gunpowder industry. Today it continues to be used for wooden tool handles and, occasionally, as a lure for woodworm (which prefer it over other woods).

My love of alder is, if I am honest, a recent thing – a tree discovered when I moved to the valley of the Little Ouse more than a decade ago – but I am glad to have made its acquaintance. While it may not have registered so strongly with a wider human audience, at least I share an appreciation of the alder with the humble woodworm and the siskins and redpolls .

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Looking for a date

The other evening I spotted a rather handsome spider making its way across the tiled wall behind the kitchen sink. It was one of the Tegenaria spiders, a group of several rather similar looking species and the bĂȘte noir of arachnophobes everywhere. These are the large ‘house’ spiders that you often encounter in the autumn as they run across the living room floor or become ‘trapped’ in a bath or sink.

Several of the species can only be reliably identified through careful scrutiny under a microscope and identification is additionally complicated by a degree of hybridisation between species, something that is rampant in some parts of the UK. This individual was a male, rather small in size and with the legs spanning just a couple of inches. Under a hand lens I could see the delicate legs, the subtle markings that chequer-boarded its abdomen and the modified palps, which form the male’s sexual organs.

This male was presumably wandering around looking for a female, the larger of the two sexes. Once he found a mate he would live with her for several weeks before eventually succumbing to old age. After death his body would feed the female and provide additional nourishment ahead of her producing a clutch of eggs. Female Tegenaria spiders are often overlooked because they spend most of their time within their webs. The silk used in these is not sticky; each web is long-lasting and may be used by a succession of spiders over time as the original occupants die and are replaced. Individual females may live for several years.

Although several Tegenaria species show a strong association with domestic and business properties they can also be found in other habitats, living amongst rocks, stones or fallen timber. The association with buildings is an interesting one. The conditions found in our homes do not necessarily lend themselves to spiders or other invertebrates, being dry and lacking in potential prey. Fortunately, house spiders can cope with the dry conditions and they can also go for long periods without sustenance. It is worth noting that they rarely bite and, apart from the webs that they make, you could say they make welcome and unobtrusive house guests.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Another heron set to colonise?

There was no mistaking the large white bird which we had accidentally flushed upon our arrival. The size of a grey heron and with dark legs and feet trailing out behind a striking white body, this was a great white egret, its identity confirmed by the pale bill clearly evident as it flew purposefully away, just forty or so feet above our heads. It was the sort of bird to make you catch your breath, an unexpected sighting of a bird full of character. The egret flew strongly before banking gently to drift down to a pool that lay towards the other end of the site. It seemed likely that we would see this bird again and, just a few hours later, we were rewarded by another sighting, this time of the egret standing erect at the water’s edge just a few metres from the huddled form of a resting grey heron.

The great white egret is no longer the scarce vagrant that it once was. Over recent decades it has colonised western Europe, its breeding population in the Netherlands now numbering in excess of 150 breeding pairs. As well as an increasing number of spring records, associated with individuals overshooting their intended destinations during spring migration, there have been increased numbers wintering in the UK and, most recently, our first confirmed breeding attempts in the form of the two pairs which raised four young in Somerset.

Over the last five years I have seen three different individuals around the brecks and there is a real sense that this large member of the heron family could be the ‘next’ little egret, going from scarce visitor to relatively common resident. Such changes hint at a shifting climate as more southerly species expand their breeding ranges towards the north. What with recent records of breeding purple heron, spoonbill, glossy ibis and cattle egret, it appears that our heron community is about to get all the more interesting.

For the present things remain on the cusp and the sight of any one of these birds still provides that shiver of excitement, something that has faded somewhat in the case of the little egret that has now become such a familiar sight around the Norfolk coast and deep inland.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Nature as food

Despite the quantities of beef, chicken and lamb consumed by this nation’s inhabitants I still detect some squeamishness around the subject of eating nature. Traditional quarry species, like rabbit and hare, don’t evoke much response but mention eating something else and the reaction can be rather different.

It’s an interesting subject and one that raises questions about how we view animals and define food. This was brought home to me the other weekend through a conversation I had with Donald S. Murray; the ‘S.’ is important because Donald was raised in the small community of Ness on the Isle of Lewis, a community with a long tradition of eating nature. Donald has written and spoken widely on the men of Lewis who, every year, take a harvest of fully-grown gannet chicks from Sulasgeir, a remote rock that lies far out into the Atlantic. The young gannets are known as ‘guga’ and 2,000 are harvested annually by a team of 10 men. They are butchered on the island, the feathers plucked, then the skins singed with fire to remove the stubble before being quartered, salted and pickled for the table.

Donald’s description of the meat, in terms of its texture, taste and smell, left me wondering how anyone could stomach it, but it did serve to underline how important this oily bounty was to the remote communities living on our western fringes. Such was its value that the men of these communities braved difficult seas and treacherous rocky outcrops to harvest the guga. That the hunt has continued has led some to question its validity, arguing that the tradition – for that is what it now is – has little place in a world of freezers, supermarkets and microwave meals. But I’d argue differently. Here is a community in touch with its food, a community actually involved in the harvesting and with some of its men folk risking their lives in the process. The gannet chicks may have had a short life but it has been a natural one; the guga hunters look after the colony, removing plastic rubbish collected by the birds, and maintain a sustainable harvest. The gannets are unquestionably ‘nature’ and the better for it. Maybe it is how we view domesticated stock that is the more unpalatable question?

Monday, 2 December 2013

An explosion of teal

The teal are nervous, occasionally spooking themselves into an explosion of wings for no obvious reason. There are well in excess of three hundred of them here, gathered on this disused gravel pit in a loose extended flock. Most of the birds are towards the back of the pit, where the backdrop of reeds hints at shallower water; a smudge of grey forms on the darker pool. In with them are a few tufted duck, a single gadwall and a solitary male shoveler. It is great to see them here in such numbers.

We are stood well back, shielded somewhat by more reeds. As we scan the flock – there is the outside chance of a vagrant green-winged teal from North America – it becomes apparent that the birds are unsettled. Groups of a dozen or so birds take to the wing in alarm and then splash down again, triggering others to respond in a similar fashion. The effect reminds me of a small child striking the surface of a puddle with a stick to generate splash after splash. Every now and then whole flock takes to the air with a great rush of noise, wheeling above us in the air before dropping back onto the water.

Many of these teal will be winter visitors, arriving from Scandinavia, the Baltic States and western Siberia to join our largely resident breeding population. The numbers wintering within the UK are of international significance and many thousands may gather on the north Norfolk coast, around the Wash or across the Broads each winter. The flock before us is certainly one of the largest counts to have been made at this particular site, located deep within the Norfolk brecks.

The teal is our smallest native duck and also one of the most attractive. Breeding plumage males sport a chestnut head, with deep green sides that are bordered with pale yellow. They are neat little birds, agile in flight and apt to form densely packed flocks. Small parties may be encountered on sheltered pools and quieter stretches of river, the birds readily flushed if disturbed. I usually only see teal in these numbers on the coastal grazing marshes so to have a flock of this size so close to home is a welcome sight.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Autumn river

The river has become a different beast over recent weeks, the water levels higher than they have been for many months and the greens of summer growth now edged with brown, as water plants retrench ahead of the approaching winter. The riverside path has become slippery with fallen leaves; those from the many limes, paper thin in character, have been transformed into a delicate layer of yellows and translucent greens. Upon this layer are scattered the more robust leaves of willow which, with their silver white undersides, take on the appearance of a shoal of fish, flung up from the river and scattered in death.

The air itself smells damp and heavy with scent. The earthy smells of fruiting fungi rouse the nostrils and hint at decay. Nature is busy, breaking down the growth of summer and secreting it away in a largely unseen cycle of renewal. It seems to have been a good year for fungi and an abundance of fruiting bodies adorn the stumps of trees, cut down in case they fell unplanned at a later time. Not everyone has appreciated the fungi; several of the path-side clumps carry the impression of of a boot or shoe, too big to be that of an overenthusiastic child.

Elsewhere, other, less-obvious, fungi can be seen. Small fruiting bodies emerge from the leaf litter or grow on the litter itself. Others adorn the trunks of trees, a dozen or more feet off the ground and safely out of reach of ignorant boots. While it might feel as if nature is winding down, it is clear that there is plenty going on, even here where the river winds nonchalantly through the town. Shrubs and bushes are still festooned with berries and the trees heavy with seed. Returning blackbirds and migrant thrushes will have had plenty to feed on this autumn, so it is little wonder that garden feeders have been so quiet.

The changing of the clocks, coupled with the shortening hours of daylight, have restricted my riverside walks. While I am forced to take a less pleasant route to and from work, I know that life along the river will continue and that it will still be there, renewed come spring.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Rabbit down, deer up

Contrary to what you might imagine, our understanding of the changing fortunes of Britain’s mammal populations is far from complete. In fact, it turns out that we have very little knowledge of just what has been happening to many familiar mammal species over the last two decades. This lack of information contrasts with what we know about birds, primarily because mammals tend to be more secretive than birds and, therefore, that much more difficult to monitor at the population level. Additionally, many of our mammal species are nocturnal in habits or occupy habitats that make them hard to observe.

The information that we do have tends to come from periodic national surveys, but these are usually expensive to run and so only tend to take place once every few decades. Annual monitoring, which can be key to understanding how and why populations change, is limited to just a handful of species, a number of which are actually monitored by birdwatchers participating in national surveys, like the weekly BTO Garden Birdwatch or the annual BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey. These birdwatchers have been kind enough to take on some additional recording of other taxa. Such surveys have underlined the decline in hedgehog populations nationally and, more recently, have flagged up a worrying decline in our rabbit population, which fell by 48% over the period 1995 to 2012. It has also been possible to detect regional declines in some of the more widespread species. For example, the fox population in England fell by 27% over the same period.

Some species have increased in number, with one group – the deer – showing a particularly pronounced increase in their populations. Living in Norfolk, we will all be familiar with the increasing numbers and distribution of muntjac, an introduced species that became established here after escaping from private collections. Nationally, its numbers have increased by a staggering 191% since 1995. Less dramatic, but still significant, increases have been charted for red deer (up 71%), fallow deer (up 89%) and roe deer (up 60%). Such increases have already had an impact on habitats and the other species that use them, underlining the importance of collecting reliable information on a regular basis to support conservation action.

Thursday, 7 November 2013


There is something quietly powerful about a hunting sparrowhawk. The compact body and short broad wings provide the strength and agility needed by this woodland predator. While it may lack the raw speed seen in the hobby, the sparrowhawk is still an effective hunter, more often than not taking its prey by surprise. Pursuits are usually made at low level, the bird twisting and turning to emerge close to where feeding birds are likely to be gathered. Individual sparrowhawks appear quick to learn the sites where favoured prey gather and birds may target roosting starlings and waders or the finches attracted to garden feeding stations.

Sparrowhawks can often be seen drifting over an area at height, perhaps hoping to pick out feeding opportunities, but at other times they show their adaptability by hunting on foot, something which may surprise observers fortunate enough to witness such behaviour. I once witnessed a sparrowhawk working the base of a hedgerow in such a manner but I couldn’t work out what it was after. It may have been a mouse or vole, or perhaps a wren or dunnock, that it was attempting to flush from cover. I have also received a few reports over the years from observers who have witnessed hunting sparrowhawks attempting to flush small birds from the thick bushes in which they have sought shelter. The hawk may fly at the bush, attempt to push its way inside or circle the bush to seek a better angle of attack. Persistence doesn’t always pay off, however, and it seems that the smaller birds often trust the security provided by thick cover and simply sit tight until the sparrowhawk gets bored and leaves to pursue feeding opportunities elsewhere.

As with many other predators, sparrowhawks may spend time loafing, perhaps dozing on a favoured perch or sitting quietly in the sun. When they do, it provides an opportunity to take in the structure and plumage of these birds, to pick out the piercing eye, the surprisingly long legs and the curving talons that so often deliver the coup-de-grace to an unfortunate victim. Hawks are part of the natural system and, while a kill can be hard to witness, these remain one of our most of striking birds.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The small white heron

Walking my regular riverside route to work the other morning, I fell into conversation with a lady who sometimes brought her dogs down to the river. Our conversation flowed through half-a-dozen or more different natural history subjects before turning to the ‘small white heron’ that she had seen here on occasion over recent weeks. Believing it to be a young grey heron because of its size, my companion commented that she hadn’t realised that young herons were white. My response of ‘they’re not; it’s a little egret that you’ve been seeing’ surprised her and underlined how often we make assumptions about what we see based on previous experience. This lady had not heard of little egrets and assumed that any heron-like bird would be a grey heron; after all, that was the one found in all but the most recently published books on Britain’s birds.

To some extent this underlines just how rapidly the little egret has colonised the country. Little egrets were once rare vagrants to Britain, with most arriving in the spring as birds that had overshot their Continental breeding grounds during migration. Then, in 1989, there was an unprecedented influx, followed over subsequent years by records of pairs breeding alongside grey herons at heronries dotted along the south coast. The population quickly expanded – both in size and distribution – with increasing numbers of little egrets seen in Norfolk and the establishment of regular roost sites at Holkham and Titchwell. The first Norfolk breeding attempts took place in summer 2002 and by 2007 (the time of the Norfolk Bird Atlas) in excess of 100 breeding pairs were breeding within the county.

Much of the little egret expansion was focussed on the coast and it has only been over the last couple of years that we have seen increasing numbers of birds well inland. The sight of one on the local river, typically during winter, used to signal a red-letter day but now you almost expect to see one, particularly as more birds now gather on Thetford’s Nunnery Lakes Reserve. Now that my companion knows about the little egret I suspect that more of those who walk the river will come to appreciate this small white heron.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

A season of mellow fruitfulness

The low autumn sun still retains brightness enough to brush the tops of the birches with brilliant light, splitting the trees into two horizontal bands; the upper band of vivid gold and yellow positively burns against the dull brown of shadow below and the rich Payne’s grey of sky above. The rain has been through, a passing shower moving at speed and leaving behind it a fresh fall of leaves to float on shallow puddles or stick to the glistening path. It is a beautiful scene, truly autumnal in nature and reminiscent of the paintings that filled my Ladybird book of Autumn as a child.

Much of the autumn landscape has changed since those paintings provided my first views of the wider landscape. I suspect that were I to view them again now they would present themselves as nostalgia, glimpses of an England now lost. Gone are the teams of horses and the burning stubbles; gone too are the vast flocks of finches and buntings that would have taken the grain that the harvester was unable to collect. Something of that landscape remains however: the autumn harvest still continues, the hedgerows still hang heavy with berries – particularly so this year – and the dark, clouded skies still bring with them autumnal storms.

The autumn landscape is often beautiful, the light more subtle than the harsh glare of summer and the air carrying with it ripe scents that tease the senses. There is a real feeling of change at this time of the year and of industry, evidence that the rural landscape is alive and lived in. Tractors ferry crops from the fields, lorries heavy with beet trundle to the towering sugar beet factories and tables at the local farmers’ market are weighed down with local produce.

Arriving thrushes and finches suggest a transition. These are winter visitors, arriving from Scandinavia and beyond to tuck into autumn’s bounty and delight birdwatchers. As the days shorten, so the richness of autumn will slip away, the landscape shedding its autumnal tones to reveal those of winter. It is a time of year to be out and about, making the most of the last warming rays and the harvest that underlines autumn’s bounty.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Four birds in a bush

There is little cover within these dunes but that which is present affords shelter to newly arrived birds, some of which will be exhausted after the long sea crossing that has delivered them to our shores. I am sitting quietly on a shallow, spreading incline at the base of a large dune. Just a few feet away is a rather scrappy bush, small in size and somewhat ‘gappy’ in nature. Four small birds can be seen and heard, fluttering about within the foliage to take tiny, half-hidden insects and spiders.

It was the ‘hueeting’ call of a chiffchaff that had attracted me to this particular bush. More far carrying than the rather plaintive, needy-sounding, contact calls of the Goldcrests also present, it was this call that caught my ear as I dropped down over the dunes into this quieter backwater, away from the shushing sea and ever present on-shore breeze.

All four birds seemed undisturbed by my quiet approach and within a few minutes all were again feeding from my side of the bush. Telescope stowed away, the tripod now held my camera and the soft click of the shutter dutifully logged a record of the moment and these delightful little birds. The bush and these birds became my focus; the great dunes with all their autumn arrivals, birdwatchers included, narrowed down to this single point. It is hard to say now how much time elapsed but there must have been rich feeding opportunities for the birds, as not one was tempted to move to other bushes just yards away.

Sometimes the birds were two-dimensional, silhouetted through the bush against the dunes behind, dunes brushed with the gold of a late afternoon sun. In other moments they searched for food on the outer branches, emerging in front of me and close enough to touch. Periodically one would fix me with its gaze, intense eyes like tiny beads of shiny jet that had been washed and polished by the action of sea and sand. Eventually one bird flitted across the gap to the neighbouring bush, its contact calls more intense and prompting the other two crests to follow. I took a lead from the crests and rather stiffly regained my feet to continue my walk.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

A sense of place

Although I have been living in Norfolk for more than 20 years, I still feel a comforting rush of familiarity whenever I return to the Wealden landscape of my youth. It is a strange feeling, delivering an air of homecoming security and the sense that I have never really been away. It is the woodland in particular that helps to shape this response; this part of the Surrey-Sussex-Hampshire borderlands is the most wooded part of lowland Britain, cloaked with hazel, beech and other deciduous trees. These trees were the backdrop to my childhood. They were the architecture to youthful adventures, providing the dens and sticks for our games and hosting the wildlife and fungi that so fascinated my first nature rambles.

I often wonder if my attachment to this small corner of England goes beyond the simple nurturing it provided to my early years. A dabble of curiosity a few years ago led to the creation of a family tree and revealed that generations of my family had lived, worked and died within just a few miles of each other, here in this tucked away corner of the county. Knowing this strengthens my connection with the landscape, making it all the more personal and giving support to the possibly fanciful notion that this landscape is in my blood. The sense of historical depth adds to the feeling that this is my landscape and that I have been as much part of its creation as it has of mine.

There is no doubt that I am not alone in having such feelings and many readers will carry with them a sense of place that will never leave them. The increasing mobility of our lifestyles suggests that succeeding generations will have less of a connection with particular places. The links across generations will be the first to be lost and, with more people now living urban lives, there is a real risk of a disconnection between the landscapes that make up England and its inhabitants.

While there has never been a single ‘England’, the individual ‘Englands’ of succeeding generations have been an important part of our social fabric, delivering a sense of community and place. To lose them would be a terrible thing.

Friday, 11 October 2013


The sun is somewhat against us this morning; low in the sky, its strengthening rays silhouette many of the birds that are feeding or roosting in this large coastal lagoon. Even so, it is a pleasure to be out and to feel the late summer warmth cut through the thinning mist. Over the next couple of hours the sun will continue on its journey and distant waders and gulls should prove less challenging to identify.

Close in, just a few metres from where we are stood, a small party of dunlin feed in the shallows. In with them are a couple of curlew sandpipers, more elegant and refined than their dumpy counterparts probing the mud. A water rail squeals from the reeds and, not long after, puts in the briefest of appearances. This are one of my favourite birds, full of character and bubbling with personality. A few duck are drifting across the deeper parts of the lagoon, a mix of teal, wigeon and shoveler, while many more doze, heads tucked in, on the small islets that poke above the silken surface.

A change of position and we are better placed to tackle the straggling flock of waders and gulls that extends part way across the lagoon. A dozen avocet are easily spotted, among the large number of godwits – both black-tailed and bar-tailed. While some of the godwits snooze, others stretch and preen. Scattered in with these leggy birds are some smaller waders – mostly knot but with a few ringed plover present. Behind these a run of spotted redshanks is revealed; about time, as we had been hearing their calls for much of the morning. A flock of golden plover arrives, providing a nice comparison with the grey plover – many still in breeding plumage – scattered on one of the quieter parts of the lagoon.

Further away, where the forms of feeding birds are still difficult to resolve in the light, three spoonbills stand in the shallows. These fantastic birds provide a taste of the exotic. Newly established as a breeding species, they are now a common sight here on the north Norfolk coast. It is a wonderful scene and one worthy of such an early start to the day.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Black flies

The other week, sat outside in the dusk of a late summer barbecue, I received a painful bite on my arm that left a truly impressive bruise lasting for many days. It was a sharp reminder (literally) that we provide feeding opportunities for certain insects, many of them small and easily overlooked.

Perhaps the most familiar of these insects are the biting midges, a large family of flies of which just a few – all belonging to the genus Culicoides – bite humans. It is in the north and west of Britain that the impact of midges is most strongly felt, and I remember countless childhood holidays where evening activities were curtailed by the presence of midges. It is the female midges which bite, the small amount of blood taken to aid the development of their eggs. One reason why midges can prove so troublesome is that a feeding midge releases a pheromone, alerting other individuals to the location of a potential meal.

Elsewhere in Britain it is other biting flies that have developed a formidable reputation. The blackfly Simulium posticatum makes a particular nuisance of itself along the River Stour in Dorset, earning itself the local name of Blandford fly and occasionally prompting coverage in the national papers. Blackfly larvae, and those of the various midges, are aquatic and this means that you tend to encounter more of the biting adults in areas close to rivers, lakes and other water features. Some species are associated with fast flowing stretches, others with still or stagnant water.

Some of these biting insects act as vectors for particular diseases. Although not so much of a problem for us here in Britain, elsewhere in the world they can be associated with diseases that are quite serious, including river-blindness and the transmission of certain blood parasites. It is not just humans that are bitten and these flies target many other warm-blooded creatures. Work on owls has, for example, highlighted a high prevalence of blood parasites transmitted by these flies. Owls whose territories contain more waterbodies suffer more bites and carry more parasites, highlighting complex interactions between parasites, hosts and vectors. Of course, knowing this probably provides little consolation if you, like me, have been nursing a sore arm for the last couple of weeks.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Pirates harass coastal travellers

Autumn is a time of movement for many birds, with summer breeders departing our shores and the first winter visitors beginning to arrive. It is a great time to be up on the Norfolk coast, particularly if the weather conditions are favourable. This morning the conditions weren’t quite so favourable, at least for delivering a fall of migrants. It was clear and bright, the early mist burning off quickly and helped by a gentle breeze out of the west. What the conditions did deliver, however, was a comfortable morning of seawatching from the beach at Titchwell.

Seawatching at this time of the year can be rather rewarding, especially for a beginner. What remains of summer’s warmth, coupled with good light and a calm sea, means that you tend to get decent views of the passing birds and avoid the challenge of picking out dull shapes in poor light, while the telescope shakes in the biting wind. What you don’t get are the numbers and rarities that an autumn storm can deliver.

This morning saw good numbers of gannets, with many juveniles in various stages of moult, their smoky black plumage a contrast to the crisp white of the adults. The sea also supported a dozen or so great crested grebes, the occasional individual of which could be seen in flight, and the odd red-throated diver was also noted passing low and fast. Small flocks of waders, typically knot, godwit and ringed plover, flashed overhead or flicked low above the sea and a single razorbill drifted slowly west.

Also evident was a steady passage of sandwich terns. On more than one occasion the terns attracted the interest of a passing Arctic skua. These large birds are the pirates of the sea, taking much of their food from other birds by harassing them in flight. Arctic skuas leave their breeding sites in late summer (some pairs breed in the north of Scotland and on Orkney and Shetland), heading south and often moving through our coastal waters before moving towards wintering grounds that lie off South Africa and Argentina. They seem to shadow migrating terns, presumably to steal food from them, and the presence of a good tern passage often suggests one of these pirates will not be far behind.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Better times for House Sparrows

The end of summer always sees a peak in the number of house sparrows visiting my garden, as the young from this year’s breeding attempts join the local flock at my feeding station. Judging by the numbers of young birds present over recent weeks, I suspect that it has been a good breeding season despite the slow start to the year.

More widely, there is also evidence that house sparrows may be doing rather better than they have for a while. The weekly observations made by the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch volunteers (www.bto.org/gbw), for example, suggest that the long-running declines in the house sparrow’s fortunes have levelled off. Of course, any improvement needs to be viewed in the context of several decades of decline – house sparrow populations have fallen from 12 million breeding pairs in the 1970s to just under 6 million breeding pairs now.

The reasons for the longer-term decline are unclear, at least within the urbanised landscapes where the bulk of the breeding population is to be found. Loss of nest sites and feeding opportunities are likely to be the main drivers behind the decline but other factors, such as increased levels of competition, predation and pollution, may have also played their part. Although adult house sparrows feed on seeds, they require invertebrate food for their chicks and this resource is likely to have suffered as gardens have become more tidy, with greater use of pesticides and the preference for exotic plants and shrubs over native ones. Interestingly, a study carried out in urban Bristol showed that house sparrows fared better in areas of lower quality housing than they did in more middle class housing – a reflection, perhaps, of the different levels of house and garden maintenance that come from inequalities in household income.

Just as the reasons behind the decline have yet to be unravelled, it is unclear why things might have improved over recent years. Is the message about wildlife-friendly gardening now hitting home, or could it be that house sparrows now face less competition from a greenfinch population hit by the 2006 outbreak of disease? More work will be needed to find out but, for my part, I am delighted to have my sparrows back.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Small whites on the move

It wasn’t the sort of sight that leapt out at you, a series of small white shapes fluttering across the salt-marsh, but with a bit of studied thought it became clear that we were witnessing an ‘event’. The white shapes were small white butterflies and the unending procession of individuals, moving from west to east across the marsh, implied that these were not simple random wanderings; these flights were a population on the move, an autumn migration on a grand scale.

The small white is well known for its powers of dispersal. It is a wanderer, whose loose and open populations are to be found across virtually the whole of Britain and Ireland. The second brood, which tends to emerge in late June or early July, is much larger than the first, which may suggest that its numbers are boosted by the arrival of immigrants from the Continent. Later in the year comes the suggestion of a return movement, the butterflies moving south and east as autumn begins her tenancy of our countryside.

There has been some debate around the extent of migratory movements made by this species. That large numbers may arrive here from the Continent has been well documented. Writing in 1846, the Reverend Morris (a renowned lepidopterist) reported a case where a cloud of small white butterflies passed over a continental steamer and obscured the sun. Upon making landfall in England the great cloud of butterflies broke up and dispersed inland. Evidence for autumn movements is less striking but many lepidopterists will tell you that it does indeed occur. Work elsewhere in Europe, looking at the movements made by other species of butterfly, has revealed that complex migratory movements do take place, the different stages of the movements occurring within the different generations of the butterflies.

Whatever the underlying reason, it was clear to us that a great many dozens of these insects crossed out path that morning, all heading in the same direction and all flying into the prevailing wind. The total number of individuals involved must have been staggering, so great the area of coastal salt and grazing marsh over which they were passing. Some could even be seen passing offshore as we scanned for seabirds.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

A shifting of our baselines

Read the writings of different generations of naturalists and you will soon discover that each generation has its own perspective on the wildlife and landscapes with which it has grown up. As each generation ages so it begins to look back at the landscapes of more youthful days, highlighting what has been lost and how formerly rich plant and animal communities have become diminished.

What is most interesting about this is how each generation sees things as being ‘better’ for the generation that came before. My generation witnessed the surge of agricultural intensification that came in the 1970s, my father saw the changes that followed the Second World War and his father grew up with an agricultural landscape that depended on horses rather than horse-power. Taking this back over more generations through literature and nature writing, you’ll find John Clare and many others writing about the terrible changes happening to their countryside, a countryside that we would view with envy for its biological richness.

The name given to these different viewpoints is shifting baseline syndrome. This syndrome has its basis in the relatively short duration of our lives and in our inability to appreciate changes happening over longer periods of time. If you are born into a landscape from which red-backed shrikes, wrynecks, beavers or even wolves have been lost then you have no sense that they were ever there and you accept their absence. You might notice and complain about the loss of spotted flycatchers or turtle doves but, once they are gone, the generation that comes after you will fail to register their absence.

Shifting baseline syndrome manifests another problem for conservationists, in that our attempts to re-establish lost species or habitats become blinkered. Habitats that we champion as ‘wild’ today (think of our uplands) are very different from how they would have been if we had not come along in the first place. Our activities, such as the removal of most of our mammalian ‘mega-fauna’ by our ancestors, have had profound impacts on the ecological processes that shape our landscape and its communities. If we are to ‘rewild’ and restore lost habitats then we first need to understand what was really here and why.