Wednesday, 31 December 2014

My 2014 - Review Of The Year

As 2014 comes to an end, there is no better time to revisit my best moments of the year. It has been a blast and I hope 2015 delivers the same.

2014 started with the hangover of last year. No, I'm not talking about drinking too much, I'm talking about the start of the recovery work from December 2013's surge. I visited NWT Cley Marshes and the place was in a state. Reedbed sections were dumped onto paths and the public hide near the beach was washed away. Even Strumpshaw was effected as salt water was forced down the River Yare and overflowed into the freshwater broads. Luckly, most of it was removed by draining using the sluices.

My article in local paper

January wasn't all bad for me though. Not only did I see my first ever glossy ibis near the village of Cley, I was also interviewed by local paper, The Eastern Daily Press (EDP for short) and had a double-paged spread about my wildlife diaries, the bird guide of Afghanistan for my soldier brother and the work I do for Strumpshaw and Mousehold Heath.

This February, I walked amongst thousands of snowdrops at Hoveton House which was like seeing snow in the woods. A waxwing was busy gorging on apples at Ber Street in Norwich for a couple of weeks. But my main highlight for February was at Mayday Farm near Thetford. I was looking for goshawks displaying from the viewing area, but only managed to hear one (which is good enough to me). Instead of goshawks, I managed to finally see my bogey bird. I had been trying to see crossbills for years but failed, so I was really happy when I saw a flock of them here when I wasn't looking for them.
I got my first bridge camera for my birthday and I tried it out everywhere in March. My previous camera conveniently died on me a day before my birthday at Minsmere, where I watched great crested grebes dancing and got close to red deer (my last photo with my old camera). At Lynford Aboretum, I saw a hawfinch and my first firecrest. It was too fast to get it's picture, but I still enjoyed listening to it singing and seeing its fiery-coloured crest all the same.
Grasshopper Warbler
APRIL                                                                                                      April was the start of the butterfly surveys at Mousehold Heath. Also this month, Strumpshaw was being productive with migrant birds. On April 16th, I had a male and female garganey in front of Reception Hide early that morning along with a little gull that hung around for the rest of the day. On April 23rd, I was lucky enough to not only see a grasshopper warbler but to also get it's photo taken. And at the same time, I found a glow-worm looking for a place to hide for the day.

For Dawn Chorus Day, I listened to a variety of bird song at Whitlingham Broad with a stunning sunrise as a backdrop. The birds I heard here included; cuckoo, common sandpiper, green woodpecker and a host of warblers and common woodland and wetland birds. At Strumpshaw on May 14th, I was walking back along the river, when 3 cranes called and flew past me low at my level down the river! They then landed at Fen Hide, where I saw them again. This was the first time I had seen them here and it made me really pleased. Maybe they will eventually breed here next year? Lets hope so! Also that month, I made a visit to Choseley Barns and Titchwell Marshes where I saw my first dotterel and wall butterfly, corn bunting, turtle dove, red-crested pochards and little terns.

In June, I came across Norfolk hawker dragonflies at Mousehold Heath for the first time. This was unusual as there's hardly any water at this site and the city is close by too. On June 9th, I made a visit to Minsmere during the last week BBC Springwatch was there. As well as sand martins, kittiewakes, a hummingbird hawkmoth and the green woodpecker chick still in it's nest hole, I managed to spot a busy Martin Hughes-Games in a jeep driving past me. Strumpshaw was busy due to many visitors arriving for the annual swallowtail season. It was a pic of a swallowtail that won me an online monthly photo competition for June and a place in the website SpotterJotter's calander.

I was on holiday with my parents in July up at Northumberland. It proved to be a great week with highlights including plenty of eider mothers with ducklings, goosanders, my first ever red grouse (another bogey bird found this year) and a trip to the Farne Islands to see puffins, shags and have Arctic terns poop on me (one was a direct hit on my right eye piece lens on my binoculars!). On July 22nd, I came runner up for the Individual Award at the Norfolk Community Awards for my volunteer work and overcoming with my autism in the process.

August was a quiet month for me. I did however had good views of clouded yellow butterflies while on an exhaustingly long walk from Breydon to Berney Arms and back.

Pilot Whale
Two-tailed Pasha
Two-tailed Pasha on camera lens
This year, September was my biggest and busiest month. I took part on a bird marathon for charity, counting as many bird species during the entire month. This count included the Wader Spectacular at Snettisham in which my dad and I took my mum to see thousands of knot, 4 spoonbills and other waders fly over our heads on her birthday. I also had a guided birding holiday in Southern Spain and Gibraltar which I had booked before I decided to take part in the bird marathon. Thankfully, I was allowed to include any sightings I had over there. I got to see a lot with thanks to my two guides including; 2 species of eagle and vulture (including huge griffon vultures flying low above my head), black and white storks, honey buzzards, Kentish plovers, a Montagu's harrier, serin, a blue rock thrush, slender-billed gulls, greater flamingos, Northern bald ibises on a golf course, a squacco heron and a bee-eater. On top of that, I saw fiddler crabs, a praying mantis, moorish geckos by the pool, pilot whales on a whale cruise (with one seen under the glass hull), Barbary macaques on Gibraltar Rock and two-tailed pasha butterflies with one landing on one of our group member's camera lens. I ended up winning the marathon with 158 bird species.

Fallow Deer
I am happy to report that Mousehold has 6 new species of fungi discovered while on a fungi walk with a group led by expert Dr Tony Leech. Orange peel fungus was one of these new findings and it was growing at the new pond that was built last year. At Strumpshaw, the banks of the River Yare burst again due to the previous night's storm. I watched the measuring post at Reception Hide go from the 6 mark when I arrived to being submerged when I left. At Holkham Hall, I witnessed this year's fallow deer rut. Deer weren't the only thing fighting that month, as back at Strumpshaw, two mute swans tried to drown one another in an epic fight that took 10-20 minutes. Fortunately, both swans survived.

Grey Seals
My first goldeneye (a female) at Strumpshaw was about on November 5th. The annual seal pupping season started at Horsey Gap and a family of otters (mum and 2 cubs) were showing nicely at Strumpshaw on November 19th.

Whooper Swan
As well as the rook roost at Buckenham, the other highlight was seeing the swan feed at WWT Welney with hundreds of whooper swans and other waterfowl coming in for their evening meal.

This concludes my great year. 2014 has been full of surprises and new and exciting wildlife experiences. What have I got planned for 2015? Well, I'm still looking for my first badgers and who knows, maybe I will eventually fulfill my dream of swimming with wild fish and marine life. You will have to find out next year. Happy New Year everyone!

Monday, 29 December 2014

Dec 29th Waterloo Park, Norwich


 This is the last week of the year. So today, I decided to take a walk in my local park at dusk. I don't usually walk around it at this time of day due to fear of being locked in. Waterloo Park is a small urban park on the outskirts of the city centre of Norwich and apart from dog walkers and families, you just don't know what you will find here.

Starlings are still a common sight in my part of Norwich and sometimes I find where they roost some nights along Angel Road, but not tonight. Only a small flock is around this evening, gathering on trees, TV aerials and chimneys. They chatter, wheeze and whistle in the dim light before moving on out of the park.

 As light began to fade, bird noise and activity was more apparent than when I arrived at 3pm. Robins were singing and making 'tick tick tick' calls. Dunnocks were making single 'peep' calls while bouncing around the lower branches of shrubs. Blackbirds made chuckling alarm calls and wrens sounded like old football rattles. A goldcrest was just visible in a pine tree and pigeons flew from the perches with wings clapping loudly.

The sounds gradually became silent and the sky merged with pinks, blues and oranges. Clouds were just mere thin whisps of pink sandwiched between the dimming light blue glow of the sky and the dark silhoutte outline. Only the brightness of half the moon shone brighter. Skeins of gulls flew eastwards above me as well as a plane heading to Norwich Airport and were the only dark shapes I can see in the air. Street lamps in the park were like orange spheres amongst the dark leaf-less fingers of the trees and the surrounding dark blocks of houses and other buildings.

I left the park before it got too dark, but it seemed like it was almost night and everything has gone quiet. Only a few people were still walking in the near darkness of the park when I left. The winter sky produces some of the best colour displays around and it is different every morning and evening. I just can't help but to admire it. The urban setting just provides that homely backdrop to the bright colours around me.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Dec 24th Strumpshaw Fen

It is Christmas Eve and my last week at Strumpshaw Fen for 2014. My last day started well before it began. While I was walking to the Fen, I heard a rustling noise from the long grass on the roadside verge to my right. A startled Chinese water deer had come out of hiding a few feet from me. It did not run, however, it just stood there and stared at me. I stared back at it's tusked teddy bear-like face for a few minutes until it walked away slowly onto the field.

That wasn't the only Chinese water deer I saw this morning. I found one on the Meadow Trail field, two at Fen Hide and one more at Reception Hide. That makes five in total, a record for me. These small deer are active at this time of year as it is their rutting season. Though they don't form large herds or even have antlers like larger species do. Instead, the males will find and follow a lone female or a small group of females and fight other males away with their tusks until she is ready to mate. Imagine fighting with knives in your mouth and you get the picture of how brutal the damage can be. I have seen males with torn ears and a fur coat that looks moth eaten in the past, but fights can also lead to death. Their teddy-like features may look cute but don't mess with those tusks!

At Reception Hide, a bittern landed into the far reedbed behind the reedy islands. It perched half way up on some reed stems and was showing itself out in full view twice. You could see it posturing its head up high a few times and also was preening itself before vanishing into the reeds as if it was part of it.

 Marsh harriers were very active today. At Fen Hide, I came across two females with green tags on both wings. This indicates that these birds were from Sculthorpe Moor, tagged by The Hawk and Owl Trust in North Norfolk. I couldn't read the numbers on these tags I'm afraid as they were distant. At one point today, I watched 6 harriers in the air together all at once, while being mobbed by the local crows at the same time. It was like a dog fight between harrier and crow worthy of being named as 'The Battle of Strumpshaw!' Elsewhere today; nuthatches in the wood, marsh tits on the feeders (as usual), a breif kingfisher flyby, a snipe and mallard sex (which involves head bobbing courtship with bills touching the water and followed by a game of  'follow the female' before eventual mating).

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Dec 21st Buckenham

I took my Aunt Barbara to see one of the great wildlife spectacles in Britain. We have come to Buckenham to see the biggest rook roost in the country. On average, there can be a possible 30-40,000 birds coming in to roost here in winter. We got ourselves in position along with a small group of people on the margin of a field, all here to witness this great event.

Rooks are large corvids (meaning a member of the crow family) with a large grey bill, overhanging feathers on the legs like a pair of baggy trousers and a diamond-edged tail. These birds are joined by jackdaws, a smaller corvid with a grey neck and eye.

As dusk arrived, hundreds of these corvids are already feeding on the stubble on the field we were watching. Then out of nowhere, thousands upon thousands of rooks and jackdaws swarmed in from behind us to join them. They swirled in the sky like a living tornado against the sunset that turned blood red in the background. The field turned into a sea of black corvids and the nearby telephone wires sank with their weight.

My drawing of the Rook Roost
It got darker and darker. The corvids seeked towards the light of the diminishing sun and swept across the field to avoid the encroaching darkness. They couldn't of course escape the darkness for long and this meant they had one place to go. But before they could fly over our heads and into the trees that the rooks of Buckenham have roosted in for centuaries, even more corvids (maybe a couple of thousand more), from nowhere, came in behind us. Half of them joined the birds on the field, while others flew into roost in the trees by Buckenham church. This triggered the others to fly past us to join them.

The sound of 30-40,000 birds cawing from these trees is like the sound of waves crashing against the shore. Its a remarkable experience. You will never look at a rook in the same way again once you've witness this event.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Dec 18th Mousehold Heath, Norwich

Red-green Carpet
Mousehold Heath is my favourite local patch. It is like a nature reserve and a city park combined. A landscape filled with woodland trees and open heathland just a stones throw away from the city centre of Norwich. I help out the site's warden, Will Stewart, with butterfly and bird surveys during the spring and summer. I also come along to some of his group walks to provide my knowledge on the local wildlife. Today, I had joined Will, a naturalist called Peter and a small group of locals for a winter walk around Mousehold. Peter is a keen moth enthusiast and he usually brings some moths to show us. He didn't disappoint us. He brought along a few  in hibernation that he caught in October. The best one was a Red-green Carpet.

The site is devided by a main road and split in two halves. We began our walk on a side that has a resturant called 'Zak's' on it. It was pretty muddy in places but that didn't put us off from looking for life in the woods. We came to a clearing that has the new pond that was built a couple of years ago. Circling above us here was a female sparrowhawk soaring high above the trees. It looks like a flying 'capital T' with those broad wings spread out and long tail trailing.

Woodpigeon Nest

Grey Squirrel Drey
As the trees are bare during winter months, strange objects that would normally be hidden beneath the leaf canopy are now visible into plain sight. They look like bundles of leaves and sticks stuffed between branches. Well technically speaking that is what they are. These weird objects were built by something. Here are three examples of what I found. First, a pile of sticks which appears neatly sitting on a few branches (though a bit sloppy around the edges) is a woodpigeon nest. A bundle of leaves stuffed  between a base of a branch and the trunk is a squirrel's winter drey, where it can shelter when it gets freezingly cold. And finally, an odd blob of sticks hanging from the thin branches of a birch tree, that is a fungal growth called a Witch's Broom. It is a parasite to the tree that creates this scruffy stick-like structure which is known as a gall.

Witch's Broom

If you thought those things were peculiar, then finding a flying butterfly in December will blow your mind. We came across a red admiral floating around seemingly confused as we made our way back for lunch. What was it doing flying around at this time of year I hear you ask? My hunch is because it was an unusually warm winter's day and the butterfly must have woken up from hibernation thinking it was spring. You often find red admirals hiding away in sheds until winter is over, so this one must have hidden for winter in a tree. That is what I believe anyway.

Slime Mould
Not far from where we found the red admiral, I found myself staring at a log covered in yellow mucus. Did someone sneezed? No. Welcome to the wonderful world of slime moulds, where weird gets weirder. Slime moulds are not animals, plants nor fungi, it is an organism type of its own. They are colourful oddities that act like the creature from the movie 'The Blob', slowly moving and devouring anything in its path. Well, thats half correct. It moves through damp soil or through damp wood on the hunt for bacteria to feast on. It then expands across the area, in this case a log, to form a network of vein and blob-like film of slime. If you find one yourself, come back to it day after day and you will discover that it has moved since you last saw it, though very, very slowly.
View of Norwich from St James' Hill
After lunch, we walked across the road to the other half of the site. Our walk took us to St James' Hill, a view point overlooking the city of Norwich and the site where Norwich Prison sits behind it. A flock of black-headed gulls circled above us with a few common gulls within their ranks. But it was the spire of Norwich Cathedral we were more interested in. Using Peter's telescope, we had a peregrine falcon in our sights sitting near the very top of the spire. Peregrines only moved back to breed in Norwich since 2011 for the first time in 100 years. I can't wait to see how they get on in 2015.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Dec 17th Strumpshaw Fen

Every Wednesday morning, I volunteer at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen. I have been doing this since 2011. And for the last three winters I know what to expect. Every December I have volunteered during my time at the reserve has been relatively quiet with the odd surprise instore. These surprises are usually something like an otter or a kingfisher or a bittern or even the odd female hen harrier. What I don't expect in December is to encounter more than one of these surprises. This is what has happend to me today.

Most Wednesday mornings I walk to Strumpshaw from Brundall train station. This means I walk past cultivated fields. Today, as I was making my way to 'Strumpy' I noticed a hare run across the stubble  of one of these fields. It is always a nice surprise to see a hare. But this was the start of these nice surprises.

View from Fen Hide
View from Reception Hide
 If you have never been to Strumpshaw, there are three hides; Reception Hide, Fen Hide and Tower Hide. This morning, after seeing the hare, I made a visit to Fen Hide before having to join my colleague for the morning to open up Reception Hide at 10am.

At first there was nothing at Fen Hide to begin with and I was thinking that I wasn't going to see anything. But eventually a Chinese water deer came out to feed within the gaps of the reedbeds behind the pool of water. This is a small deer introduced from China with tusks and a love for watery habitats. After he vanished behind a section of reedbed, a bittern was flying close towards the hide before making a u-turn and dive into another section of reedbed to my right.

Watching out of Reception Hide this morning was quiet, similar to what the Fen Hide was to begin with. There were coot and teal with the odd marsh harrier soaring around now and then, but time still seemed to drag on within the first hour. Just as I expected for wildlife watching in December.

I was at this point needing to go for the toilet. So I decided, as there was not much about, to visit the toilet block outside and had just stepped out the door when my colleague popped her head out of the door calling two things... "Sean! Otter!"
Outside was a dog otter hunting. But this was a short sighting as he vanished behind the reedy islands on the far right. We couldn't find him again, so toilet trip attempt number two was in action. On my successful return, my colleague called me over again. He was back and this time closer to the hide!
Our dog otter was searching the area of tiny reedbed islands near the front of Reception Hide. He was still in hunting mode, diving like a porpoise. The head goes under first. Then after looking like a brown hump, the back follows. And finally, the tail flicks upwards before sinking down into the deep. The movement is sleek and fast, effortlessly. You can follow a line of bubbles until it resurfaces again. Back down he goes again, and again, and again. Eventually, he comes up with a big fish, possibly a roach. He was eating it while in the water, munching it with sharp teeth. Once he finished eating, he continued hunting for more.

The otter left us again but reappeared several minutes later for one last brief moment as he went down the far left channel which took him towards Fen Hide. Between appearances, a bittern flew from my far right into the far reedbed, perching on a reed stem until it too vanished from view, melting away into the far reedbed. It came out from hiding near the end of my shift and flew further left before plummiting into another section of reedbed. Other highlights today; sparrowhawk, jay and marsh tit.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Dec 15th Waterloo Park, Norwich

It is just about a week until Christmas and today I have decided to visit my local park in search for a festive bird... the robin.  Robins are very common birds, so my search was not very long. They are not perticularly shy birds and tend to pose for my camera for a few moments at a time.
 Robins are a classic Christmas card icon in the UK. That orange-red breast, that rounded body shape and cheerful-looking appearance sitting on a frosty branch. How can you not feel festive after seeing that?

But of course, to the bird itself, all this means something different. The red breast is a threat to other robins in its territory. They fight each other a lot, sometimes to the death. Not so cheerful now are they?

 As it is winter, you will notice in these photos that these robins look plump. Actually, this is just fluffy insulation not fat. Its just trapped air within the feathers making it quite cosy.

The song is a soft and whispery, mellow tune which both males and females sing to defend territories. Just listening to them singing, I notice they are everywhere in this park. It is like a secret turf war under our noses. And they will defend their patch even throughout the night under the light of a streetlamp.

But despite all this, robins are still loved by many. Which leads to one question, how did robins get on Christmas cards in the first place? Well, we have the Victorians to thank for that. During the Victorian era postmen wore red uniforms and were known as 'Robins'. Postmen are a cheerful lot and are responsible to delivering the cards in the first place. So I'm guessing that is the connection and the reason why a robin is on a Christmas card.

Robins are a perfect bird for beginners starting the bird watching hobby. You just need a garden  to find them. But as I don't own a garden, that does not mean I can't meet a robin as you can find them almost anywhere that you go. A true festive favourite that is with us all year round, not just for Christmas.