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Tuesday, 30 July 2013

North Norfolk: On the hunt for Seals

Bad bird-watching at its best. We know Norfolk is an incredible place for wildlife. But, we had no expectations. Just a rough plan, and an intent to enjoy whatever we see and do. We even forgot to take binoculars. The only species we had specifically mentioned prior to leaving on our two nights of marshmellows and sleeping bags were the grey and harbour seals of Blakeney.  

We set up camp in the late afternoon of Monday. After kindly being offered to use someones mallet to hammer our tent pegs into the solid ground. Then for the bbq. Clearly in distress once again, another gentleman came to our rescue with a pair of tongs. Reassuring us that some people can actually be quite nice and thoughtful. Love thy neighbour and all that. And as a special thank you, Paul decided to burn some plastics, which smelled absolutely vile for Tim and I sat in the car upwind of the bbq, let alone the poor ladies face the smoke was piling into downwind in the tent next to ours. 

Looking up at the sun, two rainbows of light shone from each side. Sundogs are basically rainbows formed when light refracts through ice crystals in the sky, and on rare occasions forming a complete halo around the sun. 

If you liked the sundogs, check out my sun halo in a previous blog whilst on Cap Finistere.

After food, we headed off in the cooling climate of the evening to RSPB Titchwell. A fantastic reserve of mixed marshes, wetland and lagoons. First bird on our little list... robin! Followed by numerous sightings of tiny froglets emerging from the pools around the walkways. In for a real treat, we spotted three fluffy, grey birds foraging in the first lagoon. Upon closer inspection, they turned out to be avocet chicks ! The second time I have seen avocet in the wild, and the first I have seen chicks. Needless to say, our thighs were thoroughly rubbed...



Another beautiful avocet!

We continued to explore the reserve. Beyond the grassy banks of the reserve the sun began to set. Little egret waded in the shallows of the lagoons, Canadian geese, lapwing and bar tailed godwits on the islands.

Sun behind the grass

Shelducks wading in pairs, little gulls soaring around the site, knots in tiny flocks before they go to roost.



 Strolling towards the beach, a large white bird, with a huge bill flew out from the reeds and above us.


The spoonbill flew across the sky, and faded into the distance. We carried on to the beach, crossing the dunes where we were greeted with endless sands and a sun setting beyond the wind turbines on the horizon of the North Sea.

Skyline over the North Sea

Setting sun

The ball of flames vanishes into the misty depths just above the horizon. As it disappeared, the sun left us with a dusty scattering of pastels across the clouds. 

North Sea

Searching for Seals
Day 1

Up early, before the sun baked us inside our tent. We headed straight for Blakeney. On our way there, we pulled over to watch a barn owl as it quartered in the early sun, catching and carrying a rodent presumably back to their nest. Spectacular. Having not planned properly, we made the mistake of attempting to walk the spit from the wrong side. With no access to the actual coast, we circumnavigated the marshes, walking through the rich and diverse grassland. Hundreds of butterflies and bees thriving in this wonderful habitat.

Small tortoiseshell

Meadow Brown
I am no bee expert, but a quick look through my guides, and this beautiful bee that really stood out for us, turns out to most likely be a yellow headed variety of the fairly common Red-tailed bumblebee.

Bombus lapidarius?

Small Skipper
The dried muddy banks cracked under our feet
The light and agile kestrel flew across the marsh, hovering occasionally before taking rest on the perch opposite. Then, from beyond the hedgerows, a much heavier bodied and deep winged bird of prey came soaring across the marshes.

Marsh Harrier
Having made it to the hottest part of the day, walking along a road back into Blakeney, we decided to stop at Holkham Hall on the way back after lunch. We rescued a few ringlets that had been hit by cars on the main road. Poor little blighters!

Holkham Hall

The afternoon was spent enjoying the shade provided by the woodland around Holkham Hall. Speckled wood fluttered amongst the nettles.

Speckled Wood
A toad, crossing the pathway, spotted us and immediately stretched out its legs, puffed up its belly and took this peculiar threatening stance.

Common Toad

Common Toad
It was nice to see some ringlets mating in the grasses, carrying out their true purpose of their imago phase.

Ringlet mating
And then a spooked herd of fallow deer dashed through the undergrowth, followed by a few fawns. The woodland hosted a whole load of new insects we had not seen in the previous marshland habitat.

Fallow Fawn

Large Skipper 
Peacock Caterpillar


We made some errors in terms of planning the seal search, but we managed a great wildlife haul. We saw things we had never seen. Heard things we had never heard. Felt things we had never felt... Maybe day 2 would prove more successful... Now for beer, and marshmellows!

Search for Seals
Day Two

Being our last day, we had to shower, eat, pack up and sign out of the campsite before we set off. Inevitably, it was a lot later than planned, and had already begun to prove to be the hottest day of the year so far. Perfect for a short (ish) stroll along a hot pebbly beach and through baron dunes to find the seals. A stoat ran out into the road on the way to Blakeney, chasing something, catching it, turning and running back into the hedgerow. Incredible sighting first thing!
The walk to find the seals turned out to be between 10 and 12 kilometres. Paul was not impressed!

The terns balancing with their spindly wings in the wind, and long pointed bill aiming down, frequently made dives into schools of fish at the surface of the water. Eventually, we made it to the end of the spit. Seeing a seal trip boat turn up, unload people and not even have a seal in sight, was a massive heart break. But as you may have already noticed from the photo below... we saw seals on the long, intensely hot, sweaty walk back to the car park...

Grey Seal

Harbour Seal

Harbour Seal

What beautiful mammals! With not a single building, and rarely a person, in sight, it was shocking to find a Frankie and Bennies balloon strewn across the beach. Balloons. Please do not get me started on balloons. Especially helium filled balloons in the hands of the irresponsible. Because they tend not to stay in their hands for very long. The threats to wildlife, and in particular marine life, are devastating. We burst this balloon, and binned it.

As a last special treat, the sky was filled with little terns. Beautiful.

As unsuccessful and poorly planned our trip seemed in terms of watching seals, the wildlife we saw, sounds we heard were incredible. We saw the seals, which was awesome, but we used the seals as an excuse to explore and discover new wild experiences. It is amazing what happens when you just take a little extra time to open your senses to the natural world we were born into. Next time you need a few pints of milk or a newspaper, take a walk to your local shop, go via a park and count the birds you see. Listen to the sounds they make, spot differences. Forget about driving your kid 10 minutes up the road to the primary school in the same village, get up fifteen minutes earlier, leave your car and walk. Make a bit of time to enjoy the hustling and bustling lives of the animals and plants we share the world with. And please do not buy helium balloons. Or at least, make sure they do not end up released into the wild. I am pretty sure my childhood would not have been hindered by their absence. In fact, they did not bother me much anyway.

Oh, and my sister found this incredibly small caterpillar in her bed... Any ideas ?? I am going to take a guess at some kind of moth species...

Thanks for reading, I know it was a long one! Hope you enjoyed reading/looking at photos, and a special thank you to everyone who takes the time to comment, it is much appreciated :) . Til' next time ya'll! Expect lots of butterflies! 

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Some Insanely Cool Insects: Glow-worms, Sawflies and Hawkmoths

Keeping out of the sweltering midday sun has become necessary to prevent myself from melting into a pool of sweat. But this great weather does mean that the evenings and early mornings are perfect for getting out and about, and spotting all of the insects that are basking in the glory of the sun's warmth. 

Blackbird chicks have dominated the top of the garden, with their cute dumpy appearance, short stubby tail and wide yellow mouths. I could hear the chirping of a chick underneath the hedgerow, so had a little rummage to see if I could spot the youngster. There, peering out of the undergrowth, the blackbird chick sat impatiently waiting for its mother to bring food to her. 

Peering through the undergrowth

Later that day, the chick had moved up to the top of the garden and bounced between cover to get fed. 

Sneaking behind the bricks

Great job by the mother!

But now, onto some of the insect highlights over the past week or so. Clinging to the silver-birch at the top of the garden, sawfly larvae hung in defense like the strongest of gymnasts.

Not strictly an insect, but this beautiful garden treat definitely falls into the creepy crawly category. A, what I believe to be, garden orb weaver spider (correct me if I am wrong - the markings on the abdomen look slightly different!). 

In wait of prey...

Working late has its advantages. Working late in a zoo built on the side of the downs helps too. A twinkle in the grass, at first I thought it was glass reflecting the torchlight. But upon closer inspection, the sparkling object revealed itself to be the glowing rear of a female glow-worm. My first glow-worm, and I was thrilled to see such a spectacular display of bioluminescence. Of course, this glow attracts the males which are glow-less but can fly. 

Some mighty fine glowing! 

Magic! Waiting for the flying male to mate with

The very next morning, I arrived back after a tour of the zoo, and was greeted by the cafe staff with a coffee mug with holes punched into the lid. Inside was an exotic moth, bright pink and black stripes across its abdomen, with a wing length almost the size of my palm. This was in fact a privet hawk moth, a species I have never seen before, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed getting to admire in such close proximity. Phenomenal antennae!


Released back into the wild

After my recent mini-garden survey in my previous post, I just can not help but look at the plants in the grasses. Whilst Rachael and I enjoyed tea and scones at the picturesque site of Houghton Mill in Cambridgeshire, I could not help but notice at least three grass species, directly underneath our feet! Not everyone shared my enthusiasm mind...

Some grass...

One particular advantage of having one of these more modern smart phones, is that their cameras are fairly decent, and are extremely portable. Because of this, I managed to photo the glow-worm, hawk moth, and casually snap bits and bobs quickly and easily without the need for the actual camera. Below, one of many fox-glove that have sprung up amongst the woodland around Ashridge...

Foxglove of Ashridge

Back home, and walking with Ellie, in the cool, warm evening sun. The air was warm, the tough grasses prickly against my calves. The sun dipped towards the horizon behind the woodland beyond the fields. The wheat glowed gold with the tint of the setting sun. 

Langford Fields

Between the trees
What a wonderful and sunny way to end a blog whilst I sit in my shorts baking hot in the midst of this heat wave that has swept the country! Thank ya'll for taking the time to read and/or gorp at some dodgy photos - expect a North Norfolk special in the next post!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Mini Garden Survey: Perfect lawns are for prats!

The sun was shining and a faint breeze in the air. I put my feet up onto the garden bench, leaned back in my chair and watched as the swifts screamed, twisted and turned like boomerangs, emerging from the bright blue of the sky, altering their course as they catch insects mid-flight.

As I looked down, I noticed that  there were plenty of things going on in the grass. Which gave me an idea... I wondered how many plants and insects were in a simple lawn that had not been mowed for a week. I chose a small area, right in the middle of the lawn, and had a little rummage in a patch about a metre by a metre. It was quite a casual survey, only taking ten minutes or so, but I guess one that could easily be repeated in future, and maybe in more detail!

The Results! 

First, I set about identifying the plants in the patch. Forgive me for any errors in identification, my botanical skills have lots of room for improvement! Some photos have been taken with my camera phone through a field hand lens, which worked quite well despite the odd bit of vignetting on the right hand side of the photos.

Daisy Bellis perennis
Dandelion Species Taraxacum sp.
White Clover Trifolium repens

Lesser Trefoil? Trifolium dubicum
Selfheal? Prunella vulgaris

And that is not forgetting the grass species in the lawn, of which I could distinguish at least two, but did not ID to species level.

There were a few insects that paid the patch a visit or two. Including two species of ant, bumblebees, honey bee and an insect that came so briefly I could not get a good look and photo to ID properly.

Yellow Ant Lasius flavus
Red-tailed Bumblebee Bombus lapidarius
Honey Bee Apis mellifera
Bumblebee species?
I have no idea! 

 So what have I learnt from my micro-study? Even small patches of lawn can be species rich and be host to a fairly diverse amount of wildlife. Also, my plant and insect ID could do with some practice! A more in depth study of the patch and a longer observation could give better results. What about species in the soil? What about a transect across the lawn?

I was shocked to find that a lot of the plant species identified are quite often referred to as weeds (of course, there is no such thing!). Which I find is a bit of a tragedy. Anyone that does not want a splash of daisies and clover across their lawn, with frequent visits from the wonderful bees and insects that choose to feed from these, is insane. I curse those with immaculate, carpet-esque lawns, devoid of life.

Also, check out Notes on Natures recent fascinating post about the plants that grow in his lawn when left for a few weeks Its a great blog, with some very interesting reads!

On a slightly different note, meet Casper. The over-groomed, semi-bald African Grey. Unfortunately she needed a new home, and we were lucky enough to be able to provide her with one. :)


I hope you enjoyed reading about my mini survey, the next blog will include a walk to Warren Villas (amazing!) and a blackbird chick... Thank ya'll!