A November afternoon at Hickling Broad

A November afternoon at Hickling Broad, 8 November 2021.

Guest blog by Honeyguider Geoff Morries.

Chris was waiting for us as Jane and I arrived at NWT Hickling just after midday. The visitor centre was closed but appeared to have been left in the charge of a peacock which dutifully strutted up and down outside the locked doors. From the picnic area, we watched a great spotted woodpecker as it made its way to the top of a nearby tree. Almost immediately, we started seeing common darter dragonflies – in flight and at rest on wooden fence rails that had warmed up appreciably in the November sunshine – and they continued to be a feature of our walk for much of the afternoon. One even landed on Jane's shoulder.

Common darter, Hickling.

Much more unusual, at least for Jane and me, was another member of the Odonata – the willow emerald damselfly Chalcolestes viridis. Along with a closely related species, this damselfly is unique among European Odonata in that it lays its eggs on tree branches that overhang water.  Although widespread in continental Europe, it has colonised Britain only quite recently. Chris spotted one in a willow bush close to a patch of open water fringed by Lesser Reedmace. Although we had seen the egg-laying scars on willow branches on an earlier visit in June, this was our first sighting of the creature itself. I was amused by its leg action when at rest, rather like an insect pedalling an exercise bike. Although it stayed in one spot only for a few minutes, it didn't leave the willow bush, and Chris was able to get some nice photos showing the burnished top and green sides of its thorax.

Willow emerald damselfly on autumn leaves (digiscoped).

As we walked, we had many good views of marsh harriers, often flying low over the reeds, one carrying a small item of prey. On days like this it is hard to believe that there are in fact fewer marsh harriers than there are golden eagles in Britain. As yet spared the attentions of predators was a wood mouse which stayed with us for several minutes. It seemed curiously reluctant to leave the open path for the vegetation cover alongside, and we wondered if it was unwell. 

Wood mouse on the main path at Hickling.
Brambles alongside the path provided some remarkably intense autumn colour, as did the vivid red hanging clusters of black bryony berries. Chris found spangle galls on oak leaves, and also a cluster of tiny pale blue-green eggs, each apparently with an exit hole.

We were turning oak leaves to look for galls, and found these eggs. An internet search suggests moths, such as buff tip moth. Any ideas?

A flock of about 35 curlews flew overhead, and then Chris showed us a breeding site for the fen mason wasp Odynerus simillimus, a very local species found in Britain only in East Anglia. This solitary wasp seeks out dry, bare patches within wetlands to make its peculiar nest in the ground, whose entrance hole is topped by a tiny round 'turret', like a miniature chimney-pot. 

We had brief views of a kingfisher as it flew to and from its perch on an old tree branch set into the ground at the edge of the reeds. Chris and Jane spotted a bittern flying over the reedbeds as we approached Brendan's marsh. The yellow flower still in evidence here in large patches over shallow water and exposed mud was the buttonweed Cotula coronopifolia, a composite native to the southern hemisphere, and now widely naturalised in Britain, mostly near the coast.

You could say that Chris had saved the best until last. We hadn't been at Stubb Mill for many minutes when five common cranes flew majestically in front of us, shortly followed by another five, and then yet another five birds. A little while later one landed within sight of us. I had wanted to see these magnificent creatures in Britain for almost as long as I can remember, and I wasn't disappointed.  The stately bearing of the cranes against the low sun, flying with an easy, confident motion, necks and legs outstretched, trumpeting as they went, was something timeless and truly special that I shall not forget.

 Five cranes flying, photo by Tony Brooks, who was there with us at the 'raptor viewpoint' and kindly sent his photos.

More photos from today are also on Honeyguide's Facebook.

Geoff Morries

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