Monday 26 October 2020

Thorpe St Andrew, 26 October 2020 – Honeyguide’s third local guided walk.

Thorpe St Andrew was, perhaps, a surprising choice for a guided walk, but it proved popular – fully booked and enjoyed. Billed as ‘hidden’ Thorpe St Andrew it was essentially a walk around the Thorpe St Andrew Conservation Area set up to protect buildings, though for our walk with more of a focus on natural elements.

We started from my home at 9:30 (just outside the Conservation Area) and, having watched a female sparrowhawk come over, we walked in the sunshine down to Yarmouth Road. It was unusual to be within sight of NWT Thorpe Marshes and not visit the nature reserve (one group member went there earlier and all have been other occasions). An early building to note was the former RSPB office at 97 Yarmouth Road, described in the conservation area’s character assessment as “a nineteenth century cottage though unpleasantly close to the busy road”.

Thorn-apple, with fruits.

On River Green we became the fifth Honeyguide group – following on from four ‘Norfolk breaks’ in September – to stop to admire the thorn-apple growing by a wall here this year. It was good to hear Mark from the adjacent Bishy Barney Boats know about the thorn-apple it and to report that council staff were not being over-tidy, so the plant had survived the season. It was now covered in spiny fruits, rather like a horse chestnut tree, some of which were bursting open giving hope that more will appear next year. A few metres away a real horse chestnut tree was being assessed, a fallen branch in early autumn of this ‘self-pruning’ tree having already been removed.

The Buck and part of St Andrew's church, in Thorpe St Andrew's conservation area.

We walked up Chapel Lane, past a higgledy-piggledy collection of cottages, soon reaching The Dell. David Armstrong was on site, who is much involved with this old pit’s management as a kind of pocket handkerchief nature reserve. David produced a pot of solidified but formerly soft chalk that had come out of the ground when his garage foundations were rebuilt, one example of a complex geology here that also includes sand, making ‘former marl pit’ perhaps an over-simplification of the steep-sided dug slopes. The sunshine was pouring into the pit, which can be somewhat shady, but it didn’t help us find the tawny owls that are often present.

The Dell, with some autumn sunshine. A self-seeded yew is an oddity in the centre of the picture.

We took a brief look at the attractive terrace of cottages and gardens towards the top of Chapel Lane, with passion fruit on one south-facing wall. Back on Yarmouth Road we popped into Horsewater by the River Yare, which I’d learnt last week was once used to rest and water herds of geese being walked to market.

We went up the hill past the old school, with another huge (marl?) pit to our left. Sue told us stories of growing up here. There were some fine shaggy parasol toadstools on the other side of the fence.

A carpet of spangle galls.

The next bit of the circuit was alongside the fenced former Pinebanks site. Many of us recalled social and sporting events here and lamented the loss of the former Norwich Union sports & social club. Progress on developing the site for housing has stalled. A notable natural history point was when we realised that the ground under an oak tree was a carpet of fallen spangle galls.

We had a few splashes of rain while we were in the former Weston Wood sand and gravel pit, which has become an excellent accidental nature reserve, a grassy central area fringed with trees. A large patch of blackthorn, spindle and aspens added interest and there were late-lingering flowers of wild carrot. The challenge to find silk button galls on oaks was accepted and met, which with an earlier oak apple and some fallen knopper galls meant we’d seen four distinctive galls on oaks this morning. 

Spangle galls again, in Weston Wood pit, with a green caterpillar later identified by Helen as green silver-lines moth.

We returned via South Avenue, watched a kestrel plunge to the ground on the rough land this side of the railway line and then back to Thunder Lane for coffee and cake.

Chris Durdin

Thursday 22 October 2020

Norfolk's Wonderful 150


This is a kind of book review … though it might be more honest to describe it as a plug for a splendid publication that dropped through my letterbox very recently.

‘Norfolk's Wonderful 150’ is a slim volume described as ‘A collection of special species from Norfolk to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists’ Society’. The anniversary was actually 2019; various practical things delayed the project and it’s well worth the wait.

Here’s the plug: it’s available by post – follow this link -  for just £10 including postage. As I'm a member of NNNS mine arrived free of charge, which is even better.

Norfolk's Wonderful 150.
I should declare an interest. I was asked (and I agreed) to write the account for common crane, then later for little tern as well. Honeyguide leader Tim Strudwick did rather more, namely five accounts for solitary bees and wasps, for which he is the county recorder.

The outcome is accounts of 150 species that all have some special connection to Norfolk. Ten are mammals, including three extinct species: coypu, steppe mammoth (the West Runton elephant fossil) and pioneer man Homo antecessor, stone tools and footprints of which were recorded at Happisburgh. There are sixteen birds, including several where there are important populations in the county, such as spoonbill and stone-curlew, plus others where Norfolk has a story to tell, such as collared dove, which first bred in the UK at Overstrand in the 1950s, and Egyptian goose, which have spread fairly widely from where they started at Norfolk stately homes.

Invertebrates range from the familiar and ‘no-brainer’ choices for Norfolk, such as swallowtail butterfly, fen raft spider and Norfolk hawker dragonfly, to wonderfully obscure species, including Breckland leatherbug, three leafhoppers, three aphids and six beetles. The range of ‘experts’ that NNNS has been able to call on to study and write about these groups is seriously impressive – exactly what you’d hope a natural history society can do, but should never be taken for granted.

The scope of the book extends into the underwater world, both freshwater (such as intermediate stonewort, shining ram’s-horn snail and holly-leaved naiad) and sea water. The latter reflects the huge growth in knowledge thanks especially to the underwater exploration of Dawn Watson and Rob Spray. Their photo of lightbulb sea-squirt is one of the standout images among an excellent selection of pictures in the book. Cromer crab is also there, in case you’re wondering.

For interest I counted up how many of the 150 were recorded on Honeyguide’s recent ‘Norfolk breaks’ in September 2020. The answer is 14, which excludes Cromer crab and lobster seen solely on plates, and are as follows: Chinese water deer, grey seal, pink-footed goose, Egyptian goose, crane, collared dove, bittern, marsh harrier, rook, bearded tit, grey hair-grass, hoary mullein, milk parsley and samphire. Less then 10% doesn’t sound a lot, but it’s not bad given many are very seasonal (e.g. dark green fritillary), local (e.g. Breck robberfly), tiny (e.g. the false-scorpion Dacytylochelifer latreillei), underwater (e.g. depressed river mussel, crucian carp) or mythical (Black Shuck).

Hoary mullein Verbascum pulverulentum; strongholds in west Norfolk and around the southern edge of Norwich are on the extreme north of its European range.

As the team behind the book recognises, what to include or exclude is always a matter of debate. Being an enthusiast for willow emerald damselflies I might have chosen that over scarce emerald damselfly … but then county recorder Pam Taylor’s opinion trumps mine.

Birdwatchers could point to several other species with important populations or typical of Norfolk, such as avocet, brent goose or grey partridge. From my perspective, if more birds were included I would have learnt less. 

I wouldn’t want to miss Jo Parmenter’s accounts of arable plants like smooth rupturewort and weasel’s-snout, nor Peter Lambley’s five species of lichen. I hadn’t previously come across Norfolk comfrey (a recently discovered hybrid) or Iceni bramble (one of more than 100 micro-species of bramble in Norfolk). Here are two fascinating facts: reindeer lichen was found at Horsey in 2012 and shrubby sea-blight has its own species of lichen. Wow!

A reviewer’s lot is to find fault. I scraped the bottom of my pedant’s barrel and found a few things that might be done differently, but they were all so trivial I deleted the lot. This slim volume is a cracking publication, and a snip at £10.00 including postage and packing. Every naturalist who lives in or knows Norfolk should have it.

Chris Durdin

Tuesday 20 October 2020

Holt County Park, 19 October 2020 – Honeyguide’s second local guided walk.

I chose Holt County Park as the second location for Honeyguide’s local guided walks as it had proved popular with those on our ‘Norfolk breaks’ in September, and to come here today as the weather forecast looked good and there was a good chance for autumn colours and late flowers.

Holt Lowes SSSI in the sunshine.

And so it proved, despite the uncertainties of a long-range weather forecast. Moving on from the attractions of the car park, loos and coffee as a meeting point, we walked steadily through the plantation woodland and onto the heath of Holt Lowes, taking an anti-clockwise circuit with the boggy bits by the Glaven River to our right. Heather and bell heather were still in flower plus the paler pink blooms of cross-leaved heath in wetter areas. Other lingering flowers included marsh lousewort, ragged robin and lesser spearwort. Leaves on sundews proved harder to find than in September: there were a few, but mostly the plants were limited to tiny stalks.

Marsh lousewort.

Western gorse was a mass of yellow, with its lower growing form and late flowering season its most obvious features. Being virtually without scent is another clue, and that was highlighted by finding a few coconut-scented blooms of common gorse when going through the tunnels of this taller species over parts of the path.

Western gorse.

There were plenty of birds, though many of these were in flight. Winter thrushes came over but didn’t show well, meadow pipits and skylark calls were fleeting. Robins and wrens sang; jays, woodpigeons and woodpeckers (green and great spotted) called or flew past. Much of the time there were finches calling: flight calls of redpolls and siskins were regular and a couple of times there was the subtle whistle of a bullfinch, though it didn’t show.

Then six chunky finches perched on a treetop: a party of crossbills, three of which were red males. It’s a good year for these in north Norfolk, with hundreds arriving across the North Sea during the summer, but you still need a bit of luck to see them. They were new birds for two of our necessarily small group under the ‘rule of six’.

Silk button galls.

Honeyguider Mervin Nethercoat has inspired several of us to enjoy looking at galls, and we found four that live on oak, namely oak apple, knopper galls (in large numbers on the ground at one point), spangle galls and silk button galls.

Fly agaric.

Much of the time was taken up with looking at and photographing fungi. We are all low on the learning curve when it comes to identifications, though noting fly agarics, birch polypores, tar-spot on sycamore leaves and sulphur tuft at least covers some of the more numerous and obvious species. I expect some photos will go unlabelled for some time, but here are two more IDs: purple jellydisc and amethyst deceiver. I’m very happy to be corrected – or have these confirmed – if any reader knows better.

Amethyst deceiver.
Amethyst deceiver.
Purple jellydisc on a birch stump.

A recently cleared area of heath had climbing corydalis and heath groundsel in flower, though no sign of the adders that a passing dog walker mentioned. Back in the woodland we admired a chainsaw sculpture of a buzzard and grey squirrel before returning for a coffee from Hetty’s cafĂ© which we shared, along with a packed lunch for some, on one of the park’s picnic benches.

Chris Durdin

Monday 12 October 2020

Potter Heigham marshes, 12 October 2020 – Honeyguide’s first local guided walk.

The switch from overseas holidays to UK activities continues, dictated by the constraints of coronavirus, and with four successful ‘Norfolk breaks’ in September to look back on it felt like a good time to offer some of the Norfolk break venues as a morning walk for local Honeyguiders.

That was behind the gathering at 9:30 of five Honeyguiders, Julie Durdin and me in the big car park at Potter Heigham. The early arrivals had seen skeins of pink-footed geese fly over. We could all see the high water levels in the River Thurne after recent rainy days that had led to yesterday’s story on the Eastern Daily Press website about a hire boat trapped under the low bridge. Better news was that the long-range weather forecast checked when setting the date proved correct: there was sunshine, and it was dry.

Honeyguiders at Potter Heigham Marshes.

Progress was slow alongside the river and Julie left the birdwatchers to set off for a brisk walk. On the grazing marshes beyond the river were large numbers of geese, mostly greylags and a fair few Canada and Egyptian geese. From the small strip of reed in front of us was the ‘ping’ of a bearded tit: to be expected in the big new reedbeds farther on, but a surprise in such a tiny piece of habitat. It was difficult to know whether to look for that or to watch the stonechat.

We moved on past the windmill converted to a holiday let, then paused by the more modern electric pump that switched on as we passed, creating yet more foam. We were briefly entertained by a mechanical grab that clears reed and weed from the pump’s water inlet.

It's easy to be dismissive of resident/feral geese, but when several hundred greylags came over it was quite a sight.

Greylag geese over Potter Heigham Marshes.

Then we heard the distinctive ‘groo groo’ of bugling cranes. There was the briefest of sightings and they dropped out of sight. Backtracking a little, there they were on the grazing marshes on the other side of the river. It took a little peering through gaps in reeds to see them all but eventually we agreed on a count of 13 cranes. Later we saw them all in flight.

Two swallows were in the sky over the reedbed in the middle distance. A little later a ‘chak chak’ sound alerted us to a flock of about 30 fieldfares flying over. There are only a few autumn days when lingering summer migrants and winter birds arriving can be seen on the same day, and today was one of those. On the return leg another flock of fieldfares came over, silent this time and with the odd redwing mixed in.

The most abundant birds by far on the lagoons among the reeds were teals, with a good group of shovelers in one place, mallards, an occasional gadwall and one pintail in flight. There was a lack of waders, just the odd snipe and a nice flock of lapwings: perhaps a combination of the season and high water levels. Cheryl was alert to a kingfisher on a distant fence above a yellow sheet of buttonweed. Kestrels were numerous today, hovering and perched; other birds of prey were a marsh harrier and a distant buzzard.

Dropping down off the river wall, we had to negotiate a partly flooded track before taking the long straight back to Potter Heigham, passing two more stonechats, a flock of starlings and quite a selection of livestock.

Chris Durdin


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