Friday 30 April 2021

Rain Stopped Play: Ranworth guided walk, 30 April 2021

Reports about Honeyguide guided walks are partly a souvenir for those there, plus we hope the usual account of lovely wildlife sightings to encourage others to wish they were there.

But not today, I think. Using the long-range weather forecast to help choose dates is better than not looking at the forecast, and perhaps it’s best to appreciate how often it’s right.

We started well, it has to be said. Chilly, certainly, this exceptionally cold April, and when the sun came out on a couple of brief occasions, very pleasant. The group walked from the NWT’s car park along the quiet road alongside the Bure National Nature Reserve. On a meadow on the higher land to our right there were four hares.

To our left, muddy areas among rushes and reeds showed the impact of some serious flooding last winter, creating good habitat for displaying lapwings. A pair of Egyptian geese emerged from tall rushes with chicks that were so patterned and fluffy it was tricky to tell where one stopped and the next started; we think there were about eight of them. Greylags were plentiful, gadwalls and herons flew over and we had a good view of a male marsh harrier over the reeds. Sedge, reed and Cetti’s warblers were singing at various points.

Ground ivy.
Roadside verges were coming into flower, with patches of ground ivy, red dead-nettle and germander speedwell, on which we looked at the parallel lines of hairs on the stem. Two comfrey species, soft (aka white, oriental or Turkish comfrey) and tuberous comfrey were side by side, garden escapes that have become wild flowers.
Soft comfrey, left, tuberous comfrey, right.

Turning right, a hare ran down the grassy track towards Ann and me until it veered off when it saw us. There was another in the field, with red-legged partridges and lots of woodpigeons.

As we walked along the back of South Walsham Broad, that grey cloud looked more and more threatening. Then lumps of ice started to fall, something between frozen sleet and soft hail. We tried sheltering firstly under ivy then under holly in the hope it would blow over.

It became apparent that it was more than a passing April shower and it was wiser and warmer to keep walking, so we headed back to Ranworth and the car park. We were just agreeing to come again another day when my wife Julie joined us having cycled from Norwich, taking shelter in the old church at Panxworth on route. We returned to retrieve the locked-up bike during the afternoon.

Hail. Oh dear.

Chris Durdin

Tuesday 27 April 2021

Thorpe Marshes guided walk, 26 April 2021

This was an extra guided walk to mark my birthday, and what better way to spend the morning than with a group of Honeyguiders on my local patch? A lazy option for me, as NWT’s Thorpe Marshes nature reserve is within easy walking distance, though still only occasionally visited by most of today’s group. A whitethroat on a dead branch in the field by Whitlingham Lane, the approach to the reserve, was a good start.

It was one of the chillier days this cold and dry April, but that didn’t stop the activity approaching the peak time for bird song. Right by the railway bridge that is the reserve’s entrance was a willow warbler and a Cetti’s warbler that was clearly on view: so often they are noisy yet hidden. A sedge warbler sang noisily from a buddleia that hadn’t been pollarded.

We spent a little time at the first corner looking at the egg-laying scars of willow emerald damselflies on thin willow branches over the open water. Then a little farther along the permissive path through the ungrazed marsh we stopped by a nice clump of lady’s smock. On this we looked at two tiny eggs stuck under flower buds: from orange tip butterflies on a favoured larval food plant. See if you can see one in the photo below.

Lady's smock, and hunt the orange tip egg.

Reed buntings and more sedge warblers kept us company, and there was a surprise in the eastern part of the open area of the marsh: two stonechats, a male and a female. These are a regular winter feature of Thorpe Marshes, as on other Broadland marshes, but to be still here in late April remains a puzzle. Somewhere in the big sedge beds a grasshopper warbler reeled, but only briefly and not everyone could hear it. Blackcap and chiffchaff in the wooded corner took us to seven warbler species seen or heard.

St Andrews Broad, the gravel pit, still had winter birds, namely tufted ducks and 110 black-headed gulls, though no longer a little gull – a remarkable 24 days with one or more of these unusual and charming birds here had ended on Saturday, two days ago. Common terns buzzed around, with five coming past. Swallows and house martins were nice then another surprise: a group of 15 of high-flying swifts. For a bird that we expect at the end of the first week of May it was quite something, though the Yare Valley is an area where early arrivals often appear in late April.

Heading back along the bank of the River Yare, we paused to try to get a better view of a kingfisher perching by the opposite bank. That was the female, then the male arrived. Then they mated and straight away he took several quick dives into the water: like a quick shower, it was suggested, or perhaps a celebratory plunge.

Kingfisher. The digiscoped photo doesn't do it justice, though no doubting the ID.

Compared with mating kingfishers the various botanical observations on the home leg seem rather humdrum, though the yellow blisters peculiar to the leaves of alexanders are worth noting, galls caused by a rust fungus
Puccinia smyrnii.
Galls on leaf of alexanders, caused by a rust fungus.

Then there was coffee, lunch in the garden and birthday cake, courtesy of Ann. And over-flying buzzards, much closer than one in the distance this morning.

The walk raised £100 that was donated to Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

Chris Durdin

Friday 23 April 2021

Foxley Wood guided walk, 23 April 2021

It was a perfect spring day at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Foxley Wood nature reserve, timed to enjoy spring woodland flowers at around their best. Even around the car park we found lots of common dog violets. A dog’s mercury we looked at had distortion and swelling on a leaf, likely to be caused by a rust fungus Melampsora populnea.

Foxley Wood in the sunshine.

Just around the corner, a willow warbler sang in full view. It’s an ideal time to see a willow warbler: freshly arrived, keen to sing to establish territory and easy to see before leaves emerge on trees. Other warblers singing this morning were chiffchaffs and blackcaps. It wasn’t a day for seeing a lot of birds though we did have good views of two marsh tits and heard mistle thrush.

Common dog violets.
Wood sorrel.

Mostly this was a morning for enjoying glorious weather and spring flowers. Water avens was beginning to bloom in damp patches on the wide rides. Wood anemones and wood sorrel were expected but lovely anyway. Bluebells were in bud or just coming into flower, in great carpets once we’d reached the coppiced area, just after we’d bumped into an NWT team taking a break from working on the electric fence that protects coppice from browsing deer. Bugle in bid, patches of greater stitchwort and endless lesser celandine added variety.

Wood anemones.

Brimstones, orange tips and peacocks were all much in evidence. A beetle on the path was an invertebrate curiosity: this was later named as red-breasted carrion beetle Oiceoptoma thoracicum. According to Brock’s book, adults and larvae of this species feed on other insects in dung and carrion.

Red-breasted carrion beetle.

A moth with an obviously orange underwing was later named as, er, orange underwing Archiearis parthenias. Day-flying and strongly tied to the presence of birches: sometimes going up the learning curve is easier than other times! In grassy areas, there were plenty of bees, especially red-tailed and buff-tailed bumblebees.

Foxley Wood is a great place for fungi enthusiasts in autumn. Not so in spring, though today we found hoof (or tinder) fungus on birch. This was the species found on Otsi the Iceman, presumably for its tinder qualities. James Emerson tells me that, “It was present in Norfolk before the last ice age, but has recolonised in the past 10-15 years, starting in the west in places like Dersingham.”

Hoof or tinder fungus.

We failed to find herb paris though that was more than compensated for by Cheryl being alert to an early purple orchid coming into flower. I don’t recall seeing one in flower in April, in the UK.

Early purple orchid.
Chris Durdin

Saturday 17 April 2021

Burnham Norton and Holkham NNR guided walk, 16 April 2021

Sunshine with a cool northerly breeze greeted this week’s Honeyguide group, with Rob Lucking, around the grazing marshes of Burnham Norton at the western end of Holkham National Nature Reserve (NNR).

Grazing marshes at Burnham Norton.
A great white egret was out on the marshes, though it was displaying waders that stole the show. Calling redshanks rose and twisted on angled wings; lapwings tumbled and others could be picked out on the ground sitting on nests. There were oystercatchers, too, and a few curlews.

Paul Eele, warden of the NNR and a former RSPB colleague for Rob and me, came past and paused for a chat. He confirmed that the water channels on the grazing marsh had been enhanced by a rotary digger, here in the natural-looking shapes of creeks of the saltmarsh that it once was, centuries ago. In what is becoming a very dry April, Paul also told us that this old grazing marsh was retaining its water much better than marshes that are more recent reversions from arable to grass.

It was a good morning for mammals. At the back of the group, Helen and others saw a weasel cross the path. There was hare to our right and a Chinese water deer scampered across the marshes to our left before disappearing into reeds. Later, Ann saw an otter on the gravel by a gate in the marshes; two others managed to see it before it went out of sight into a ditch.

We heard a sedge warbler but we failed to find the yellow wagtail that Rob saw briefly. Later we found a singing sedge warbler that stayed where it was to allow good views through telescopes. Marsh harriers were constantly on the move. Then two more very good birds: the first was a bittern that boomed, albeit not often. The second was an immature little gull that was flying over a flooded area among a much larger group of black-headed gulls. We found it again on the return leg of our walk, including settled on the water. The dark lines on the upper wing means it was a first-winter bird, and it lacked the smoky underwing of the long-staying adult little gull at my local patch of NWT Thorpe Marshes (photos from Thorpe here).

At the farthest point of this fairly gentle circuit we overlooked saltmarsh out towards Scolt Head and inland towards Brancaster Overy Staithe. Avocets were feeding in creeks and a flock of brent geese flew towards us and settled.

View over saltmarsh towards Scolt Head.
The sea walls were dominated by alexanders coming into flower, on which were many ladybirds. There were mason bees in the dry path and one I photographed on alexanders I think was grey-patched mining bee Andrena nitida.

Grey-patched mining bee (provisional ID).
On the lagoons on this part of the walk we added shovelers, teals and tufted ducks to the gadwalls and shelducks seen already. Little egrets go almost without comment nowadays and the great white egret returned.

We said farewell to Honeyguiders not staying on for the afternoon; those out for the day had their picnic lunches in the sunshine by the cars, under the willows with the singing chiffchaff. Swallows came over us here.

A short drive took us to Lady Anne’s Drive at Holkham which was busy with people, as were the machines issuing tickets for parking. The popularity of Holkham beach means birds are acclimatised to people and the sculpted channels and scrapes in the marshes either side of the road had plenty of birds, offering close views. These include more displaying redshanks and lapwings, a snipe, close curlews, some late wigeons and more brent geese. After visiting loos at The Lookout café, we walked along the back of the pines and immediately lost the crowds who were obviously here for the beach.

It was sheltered and warm and that brought out butterflies, three that were first-of-the-year for most of us. A male orange tip flew past, then a green-veined white settled on a flowering currant. The third was a speckled wood, dancing around a stump. Peacock butterflies dashed past as well and a willow warbler sang. A marsh harrier called; the male was high above us, over the Corsican pines, in courtside display.

Holm oak leaves: the bumps are Aceria ilicis mite galls, the brown patches are leaf miners. 
We noted how holm leaves were scarred with the tunnels of leaf miners. Then Rob showed us an odd tree planted here long ago: winged elm, also called cork-winged elm on this Holkham blog; the photo shows why it is so named. Wahoo is another name given on Wikipedia for Ulmus alata, introduced from North America.

Winged elm.
Some turned back before we reached the far (and closed) hide that overlooks the cormorant colony and heronry. The others didn’t miss much: two spoonbills in flight only and no egrets on view, just cormorants and woodpigeons. We paused on the return walk to see what we’d earlier noticed a Naturetrek group observing: the larval pits of antlions, a relatively recent colonist here. The slippery sides of the pits, for trapping and consuming ants, recalled the sarlacc in the Star Wars film Return of the Jedi.

Antlion larval pit.
We all returned to the cars at much the same time and were able to enjoy a good view of a red kite over the marshes. How amazing that red kite, marsh harrier and buzzard should all be routine sightings – a transformation within our lifetimes.

We then drove a little farther west for a brief visit to North Point wetlands at Wells-next-the-Sea (previously visited by Honeyguide on a much chillier 1 April). There were many hares on the fields and waders on the lagoons, including black-tailed godwits and ruffs, but we couldn’t find the reported grey phalarope. A spoonbill and a red kite flew over.

Wells North Point wetlands, one of the lagoons.

Chris Durdin

Thursday 8 April 2021

Potter Heigham guided walk, 8 April 2021

No rain, no hail, no snow: after recent ‘spring’ weather, that was a result on today’s guided walk at Potter Heigham marshes in the Norfolk Broads. It was far from warm and the wind was pretty brisk, it has to be admitted. The gardens of the chalets by the River Thurne were under water, but compared with the recent flooding in the River Yare that was minor and no problem on our route. 

Once we reached the newly created reedbeds and lagoons there were plenty of birds to see. Greylag and Canada geese were expected but a single pink-footed goose was not. Perhaps it was a late stayer, one of the thousands that winter in the Broads. Maybe it was injured but, if so, there was no obvious sign of that.

Pink-footed goose, with greylags either side.

Lapwings displayed and oystercatchers called though they were overshadowed by the amazing number of avocets, far from their usual coastal lagoons. There were 60 in a tight flock and another 15 or 20 not far from the main group. A single black-tailed godwit flew through, but the water was too deep for other waders. 
Avocets at Potter Heigham marshes.

Shovelers were the most obvious ducks though perhaps teals were the commonest, plus a scattering of wigeons, tufted ducks, pochards, gadwalls and shelducks. 

Mostly shovelers, with a wigeon far left and a gadwall right of centre.

The loud and distinctive song of Cetti’s warblers was frequent, albeit expected. It was when we reached a group of willows that we heard the sweetest sound of the day, a single willow warbler, my first of the year. That apart, summer visitors were simply absent, which surprised me as I’d seen scores of hirundines in the Yare Valley during the past week. There were distant buzzards (one over the garden on my return home was much closer, though) and marsh harriers showed well. 

We watched hares in a field by the track that makes the return leg to the car park in Potter Heigham. Then a strange bird for April: a single whooper swan, keeping the company of a mute swan. I’d seen this bird here in late February, so it was less of a surprise for me; perhaps – like the pink-footed goose – it has an injury, but again that wasn’t apparent.

Whooper swan, right, photographed on 24 February when it was much closer to the path

Back at the car park, most of us went to buy some food, hot drinks or other items in Lathams, which at least is a way of saying thank you for the store’s splendid car park. 

Chris Durdin

Friday 2 April 2021

Wells guided walk, 1 April 2021

It may have been April Fool’s Day but no-one was fooled by the sudden drop in temperature after the late March heatwave. Rob Lucking met us in Wells-next-the-Sea and we walked to where a stiff northerly breeze was coming over the sea as we headed along East Quay. The nearest saltmarshes were covered by a high tide; there were brent geese but few waders.

Crab pots with house sparrows on the quay.

Alexanders was dominant along parts if the sea wall, as on much of the coast, though the plant we looked at closely was by the crab pots with house sparrows. The reason was to look at galls, like blisters on its leaves: often galls are from insects, but these are created by a rust fungus Puccinia smyrnii.

It was quite a relief to drop down out of the wind with some shelter from the sea wall as we reached North Point wetlands. Rob explained how this was arable land that the farm found difficult to crop and, with Natural England’s support, created the series of lagoons there now. Two marsh harriers flew past and the male settled on top of a hawthorn. Nearby there was a brown hare next to a heron and more hares on a more distant field.

From left to right: redshank, male shoveler, lapwing, two avocets, female shoveler.

Waders were everywhere: in the lagoons, on the islands, flying over. Avocets were especially showy, and some we saw mating. Oystercatchers and redshanks were noisy in their usual way, and lapwings showed why they are also called peewits. Teals and shovelers were the most numerous ducks, with a sprinkling of gadwalls and shelducks and a single wigeon. A group of gulls on the far lagoon included great black-backs.

As we moved back towards Wells, harriers were joined in the air by a buzzard and then a red kite. We watched a chiffchaff in the scrub as well, though this windy morning small birds were generally low in numbers; reed buntings and singing skylarks were nice to see or hear. The tide was dropping now, making it easier to see curlews.

North Point wetlands, one of the lagoons, Wells.
Honeyguider Dilys lives in Wells and it was a great pleasure to go to her lovely garden for coffee and to eat picnics. Her garden has ivy mining bees, though just holes in a grassy bank today. On disturbed ground below the holes were several plants of henbit deadnettle, which is quite a scarce flower of light arable or disturbed ground.

There are still vacancies on the Honeyguide break in North Norfolk that Rob Lucking is leading in May 2021.

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