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.