Hickling guided walk, 20 May 2022

The first local Honeyguide trip since overseas holidays resumed was planned with an eye on a sunny weather forecast, though as today approached that changed. It was cool at first then rain arrived for the four of us who met at NWT Hickling.

On a recent visit to Hickling, Helen and Malcolm had encountered cranes and that persuaded us to return here, and to go in their direction when we arrived. That took us along the path by Brendan’s Marsh, where the mix of waders was very impressive. Avocets, redshank and lapwings were to be expected. Half a dozen dunlins were nice as was a single greenshank; a grey plover in full summer plumage showed why in North America they are known as black-bellied plover. A little ringer plover repeatedly flew around and there were three male ruffs with white, black and rufous breeding plumage.

Two cranes beyond the gate; greylag & Canada geese, cormorants and gadwalls nearer.

Looking down the open area just beyond the end of Brendan’s Marsh we struck lucky, as a family of cranes was in the open beyond a metal gate. As well as two adults there were two young cranes, in the colour that prompted the late John Buxton at Horsey to call them ‘goldies’, though the young birds were mostly out of sight in long vegetation. There was added drama when a fox appeared on our side of the gate. Foxes are predators of young cranes, so it was surprising to see how unanimated the adults seem to be, as they must have known it was there.

It became cooler and by a ditch we found various damselflies settling onto reeds, namely azure, variable and blue-tailed. Closer still was a fabulous four-spotted chaser. If you look all their wings, should they be called eight-spotted chaser?

Four-spotted chaser.
Seven black-tailed godwits flew through and when we reached the visitor centre end of Brendan’s Marsh there was a flock of 18. A small group of ringed plovers flew in: it’s not often you see ringed plover and little ringed plover in the same place.

By now it was raining properly, and we sheltered and had coffee in or by the visitor centre. A female hairy dragonfly was trapped on the inside of a very high window: the visitor centre team were still puzzling over how best to rescue it later.

We decided to brave the rain and walk the circuit around the reserve, taking advantage of hides. From the first there was a Chinese water deer and we saw nesting black-headed gulls get agitated whenever a feeding little egret was too near. A cuckoo was calling and we could see it on a distant tree: interestingly the cuckoo's musical interval was a major third rather than the usual (though especially early season) minor third.

From the next stretch of path through the reeds we were lucky enough to have a good, if brief, view of a bearded tit, and a reed warbler. Looking at the oaks along the way it was plainly a good year for oak apples; many gall on oaks are caused by gall wasp species, in this case Biorhiza pallida.

Oak apples at Hickling (photographed a few days ago).

There have been many hobbies at Hickling recently, and seeing hunting birds in flight is usual. Which begs the question: where do they go when it rains? From Bittern Hide, Helen scanned and found the answer: this is where they perch, today four of them spread along the row of dead trees in the distance.

Ann was constantly on the look-out for caterpillars and other smaller creatures. The picture has the caterpillars we saw that were the biggest and easiest to identify. There were also Ann’s trademark, cigar galls, on many reeds.

Caterpillars of garden tiger moth (woolly bear) and drinker moth.

Being May, bird song mustn’t be forgotten. Twice we had good views of whitethroats. There were willow warblers, blackcaps, chaffinches, Cetti’s and sedge warblers and others, and often vocal common terns were flying around. We heard bitterns several times and had a brief view on one in flight, and of course there were marsh harriers. With the richness of NWT Hickling, these once rare birds are so routine it could be all too easy to take them for granted.

Chris Durdin

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