Monday, 30 March 2015

Coltsfoot at NWT Thorpe Marshes

Chris Durdin, NWT Thorpe Marshes

One of the earliest flowers to bloom at NWT Thorpe Marshes isn’t a marsh plant. Coltsfoot grows in disturbed ground, and there’s a little patch of it beside the River Yare. Elsewhere you might see it on what are often termed ‘brownfield sites’ – ruderal conditions, in botanical speak.

Coltsfoot, photo by Chris Durdin
Oddly, whenever I first see coltsfoot it reminds me of when I saw the Beach Boys in concert one damp night in Thetford Forest. Bear with me on this. Lead singer Mike Love talked about how the group could sing acapella: unaccompanied by instruments in musical parlance but meaning, he claimed, ‘without clothes’. As I understand it, ‘a capella’ means ‘of the chapel’, which rather ruins the story!

Without clothes sums up the early flowers of coltsfoot as the sunny looking dandelion-like flowers appear, in March, before the leaves. Those stalked leaves have a distinctive style, coming straight from the ground, rhubarb-like, and have a pale, felty underside. They are said to resemble a colt’s foot, though with angular teeth the hoof shape takes some imagining.

Birds at Thorpe Marshes during March have included barn owl, bittern and jack snipe, with dusk the best time for all of these.

Latest news and details of Thorpe Marshes monthly walks are on

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Hilgay: water levels, birds and pumps

Nick Carter, Conservation Officer (Fens)

The South West corner large compartment flooded, photo Nick Carter
Well, we did it, just about. We reached the target level of 11.59 (1.59m above sea level) in the storage lagoon and maintained it for a month at Hilgay in the Wissey Valley Living Landscape. We have also been able to wet-up much of the rest of the site too so for the first time we have had significant areas of standing water in all four corners. Unfortunately the higher water levels have also exposed some of the issues on the site. The northern shores of the lagoon have suffered some minor wave erosion with the south westerly winds we have had over the winter. It also looks as though a seal has blown in the outlet sluice so that when it is closed water leaks into the surrounding land under the pressure of water from the lagoon. Both of these issues mean that we will have to let water out of the lagoon to plant reeds along the eroded banksides to give greater protection and to replace the leaking seal.  Letting water out means we should reach the target levels in all the other compartments of the site which will help kill off terrestrial weeds and help the spread of naturally occurring reeds and those that were planted in 2013.

Oystercatcher and brent goose, photo by Nick Carter
The higher water levels have also meant wildfowl numbers have built up over the winter. On the 25 March there was a record 50 tufted duck on the site, along with 3 great crested grebe. Coot, shoveler, shelduck, mallard, gadwall, teal, pintail and feral greylag, Canada and Egyptian geese are all present. A surprise visitor was a solitary brent goose which dropped onto the lagoon for a short time one misty morning. Several pairs of lapwing and one pair of oystercatcher seem to be settling down for the breeding season while snipe are still in small winter flocks. Unfortunately with the higher water levels in the lagoon it looks as though we will lose our little ringed plovers and avocets. No sand martins have turned up yet, although it is early days, but we have smoothed some of the sandy ditch sides to encourage breeding.

Panks Pump engineers winching pump out of chamber to service it,
photo by Nick Carter
It has been one year since the lagoon pump was installed by Panks Pumps so it was time for its annual service. This is not as easy as it sounds as the pump has to be winched out of a 4m deep chamber before work can start. Fortunately all seems well. It has been running for over 250 hours during the year which does not sound too much but for the first few months there was very little water on site for it to pump. It will be much busier over the next 12 months.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

My Norfolk Love Affair

Ben Garrod, NWT Ambassador  

Whoever said the cliché 'it's better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all' obviously never saw some of my past relationships, where 'it's better to keep well clear rather than get into that emotional train wreck' would have been far more appropriate. We've all been there though, haven't we. But there's one love affair in my life that has never let me down and (I'm happy to say) is still going strong. My love affair with Norfolk. We've had our ups and downs and we've even split up a few times but we always come back together. I'll admit she can seem a bit frosty at times and at least once or twice, I've commented that's she's a bit distant but I love her nonetheless. Because she has a wild side. 

I've lived in a lot of different places, around the world and in the UK, but Norfolk is different. Maybe because I'm from here or maybe it just has a combination of things I've not found elsewhere but nowhere else makes me feel as Norfolk does. I've lost count of the number of times I've chatted with someone and they've come out with the line 'oh aren't there such big skies in Norfolk'. For years, I didn't really understand but it was only after I'd been gone for a few years and had returned that I finally saw what they meant. With such a low-lying, flat land, and few trees to punctuate the horizon, there just seems to be that bit more sky than you would usually expect to see. It makes for an impressive and inspiring place.

Bearded tits, photo by Steve Bond
We share this seemingly desolate and windswept county with a staggering horde of flora and fauna: from bluebell-strewn spring forest floors, to the elegant courtship displays of great crested grebes on the Broads, there's something for anyone wanting to fall in love with nature in Norfolk. I went for a 'little walk' once when I was home visiting my family. I wanted to clear my head. I ended up being gone for three days, walked from Yarmouth to Norwich and only saw a handful of people. I slept in fields and spent my days watching marsh harriers and herons, finding beautiful orchids in endless stretches of flowering meadows. I spied on squabbling bearded tits for hours and walked through a field with a scarred old Chinese water deer. 

Norfolk does that to you. It allows you to get lost. Lost in nature and lost in yourself. There are places where you can find tens of thousands of crows gather together, darkening the reddening evening sky; or where grey seal bulls trade blood-soaked blows with each other to rule the beach. Terns visit in their droves; weary travellers from around the world, to breed on our coast, and some sand dunes come alive with snakes, basking amongst the heather in the mid-summer sun. All in Norfolk.  

Growing up in Norfolk, my parents ran pubs in Yarmouth, so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, either going on long drives in the country or even longer walks on the beach. One granddad in particular taught me to look at the world around me and to think of the interactions we have with the natural world. He was also an irrepressible story-teller, who made up fantastic (if not wholly true) answers to my constant questions about where worms come from, or how fish swim. It was that engagement at such a young age which not only inspired me to love nature but also instilled that desire to protect it. Now, as both an evolutionary biologist and a conservationist, I know that worms don’t come from the moon and that fish don’t hold their breath under water but I’ve still kept that passion to learn and that desire to protect the nature I see around me. 

Now I’m in a position where I can strengthen my connection to Norfolk that little bit further by becoming the Ambassador for Norfolk Wildlife Trust. I’m so happy to hold this position because the natural world needs people to champion it. To help show others that it’s not only fascinating and fun but that it’s also fragile and fleeting. If I can help one person fall in love with nature in that way that I did, then I’ll consider my work a success. If I can help nurture that in more people, well then that’s just a bonus. Representing a county such as Norfolk makes my task that so much easier, as I can’t see who wouldn’t love her and her wildlife already.    

NWT Holme Dunes, photo by Richard Osbourne
You don't need to travel to distant jungles or tropical beaches to see how beautiful or inspiring nature is. Whether it's humpback whales off our shores or sticklebacks in our streams, we have nature great and small; if the melodic song of the skylark overhead doesn't make your spirit soar then maybe the rasping call of the natterjack toad will brighten your mood; if staking out a marsh-side hide to glimpse an elusive bittern appeals less than watching that tame little robin at your garden bird table, Norfolk has something for everyone. That's why I love her. She never lets me down. There's always a favourite beach to visit or a new forest to explore, a beautiful meadow that I can watch change across the seasons or a bit of the Broads I'm yet to see. I love you, Norfolk. I love your breath-taking beauty, your irresistible charm and of course your untamed wild side.   

Discover Norfolk’s wildlife for yourself! Start exploring at 

Monday, 9 March 2015

Connecting to nature: photography and inspiration

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Did you see the digital image of the weasel ‘riding’ a green woodpecker in flight? Well more than 12 million people viewed it in the first week it was on the web so there’s every chance you did! Amazing wasn’t it? A once in a lifetime observation of nature shared with millions.

This got me thinking about the power of photography to engage people with nature through taking images and sharing them.

Pied wagtaill perched on David's North car wing mirror

It's only very recently that so many of us carry cameras nearly all the time – cameras on our mobile phones, or small digital cameras that quite often enable both macro close ups and ‘high power zooms’ to be taken on one small device. Never before have so many people had the equipment to be ‘nature photographers’ combined with the opportunity to share images almost instantly, and not just with friends and family but with literally millions of people online. It’s said that as many ‘photos’ are taken every two minutes today as were taken in the whole of the nineteenth century!

Grassland jewels, photo by David North
I think this revolution in imagery does have potential, in several different ways, to help reconnect us to nature. Firstly the act of taking an image means looking – and to be a naturalist is also all about looking – nature is all around us if we have eyes to see and perhaps sometimes, even for someone already passionate about nature like me, the camera encourages me to look and helps me ‘see’.

Dorothea Lange said, ‘A camera is a tool for learning to see without a camera.’  How often have I photographed flowers only to discover back home that the image includes small insects that I hadn’t even noticed at the time. This certainly inspires me to look more carefully and makes really try and ‘see’ next time I’m looking at a plant in close up. 

Carrying a camera also simply encourages observation. Every time someone takes a photo they have found something that interests them: photography is surely the art of observation and encourages us to see the interesting and the detail in ‘ordinary’ places. Of course the nature around us in these ‘ordinary’ places, perhaps a garden or a park, or just a ‘simple’ patch of grass or tree, is by no means ordinary. We live in an extraordinary world and sometimes it takes a small digital camera with a macro lens to remind us that’s the case.

Small copper, photo by David North
Nature is full of extraordinary moments, maybe not ‘flying weasels’ but everyday there are truly amazing things, small miracles, happening around us. And more and more of these, a sunset turning a sky to fire, or dew forming in a flower’s rim at the start of a new day, are able to be shared with the people we know and love but also with people we may never meet but who visit Facebook or Flickr or any of the huge number of websites where images can be shared.

Is it possible that the growth in digital photography can inspire more people to look at the world around us in new ways – to see detail that would otherwise be missed?  To capture the ephemeral and fleeting and allow it to be wondered at long after the moment has passed and in places far away but connected digitally across the world.

People are sharing their experiences more and more, and many of those do relate to the natural world; perhaps not surprisingly as it’s our habitat too. The possibility to instantly record and then share has huge potential to profoundly alter the ways people are experiencing and being inspired by nature.

The famous pioneer landscape photographer Ansel Adams said, ‘It is my intention to present – through the medium of photography – intuitive observations of the natural world which may have meaning to the spectators.’

Grey dagger moth larva, photo by David North
My hope is that images like the one of the weasel and the woodpecker which reach millions do have the possibility of inspiring a sense of wonder, meaning and fascination with nature. I know that my own small camera has helped me to observe nature in new ways and taught me new ways to look. Being inspired by nature may be less about the things we see than about the way we see them – so let’s see the extraordinary in nature around us and let’s use this new digital revolution to share our inspiration in nature with the world.

Share your image of Norfolk's wildlife on our online gallery and be inspired by what others have seen.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Close Encounters

Nick Carter, Conservation Officer (Fens)
It is always exciting going onto the Hilgay and Methwold wetland creation sites because as the habitats change you never know what you will encounter next.  

As I drove onto the Hilgay site I noticed some white blobs in the distance and realised there were eight little egrets standing on the perimeter bank. Eight is a record number for the site and is a big increase on the one or two that have been present on site over the winter.  My attempts to photograph all eight together were hampered by the misty conditions, well that’s my excuse anyway, so I only have a reasonable shot with seven of them showing. They were just standing around on the bank with a flock of crows so not sure if there was a particular prey item present or if they were just resting.

Later in the day while putting out some remote cameras to check usage of potential badger outlier setts on the Methwold site I stopped the vehicle next to a ditch with a badger sett. Looking out the window I spotted a barn owl sitting just a few yards away from me in a willow bush looking at me. Much to my surprise it did not fly away immediately but allowed me to turn the camera on, operate the zoom and then open the window. It stayed put while I took a few photos and then decided it had had enough and flew off allowing me access to the badger sett to put the camera in place.

Two unexpected encounters and I wonder what will be there on my next visit?

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Cley Catch-up: 3 March 2015

Barry Madden, Volunteer Bird Guide at NWT Cley Marshes

The temporary cabin at Cley Marshes
Despite the metal barriers, diggers, piles of earth and plethora of hard hats, Cley Marshes is very much open for business. The nerve centre of the operation has temporarily been relocated to a cabin located in the car park. Here you will receive the familiar warm welcome, have access to a limited range of literature and most importantly be able to invigorate yourselves with freshly brewed tea and coffee and a variety of tasty snacks. It won't be like this for long and the plan is to have the whole replenished, revitalised and rejuvenated visitor centre up and running in a couple of weeks’ time, the currently projected date is 14 March. It's all quite exciting.

Once you cross the coast road however the sound of the building works soon fades to be replaced by the tranquillity of the nature reserve proper. Once sat in the hides all you can hear is the piping of redshank, the nasal cackling of shelduck and the tooting and whistling of teal and wigeon. And always the reeds rustling in the breeze. Today was another day of almost unbroken winter sunshine tempting birds and human visitors alike to show in numbers. It was a day of close encounters with some rather colourful and usually difficult to approach birds.

Redshank, photo by Barry Madden
Redshank are now busy pairing up, chasing each other around the scrapes and undertaking tentative display flights, their tooting calls echoing all around. I watched a pair amorously strutting after one another over the mud but it will be a few weeks yet before they place their scant nest in the middle of a tussock somewhere on the marsh. One bird seemed quite oblivious to my approach, seemingly more intent on probing the rich mud for small crustaceans. Strange really seeing as I walk around in a bright blue coat which can be seen from one end of the reserve to the other. A close up view of its intricately patterned plumage is seldom allowed, but when you get a good look at the subtle shading and mottling it brings home to you what a handsome bird it is. Aptly named, its orange-red legs blazed brightly in the strengthening late winter sun.

Ruff, photo by Barry Madden
Another wader that tolerated me and my coat creeping ever closer came in the form of a ruff that unusually had decided to have a snooze within 5 metres of the path bordering the coast road. I thought this bird must be sick or injured but it didn't seem to be incapacitated in any way - it simply needed a nap. A photographic opportunity not to be missed and another chance to have a really good look at a rather splendid bird. I've got a feeling this individual was a male on the cusp of developing the outlandish breeding plumage adorned by these dandies of the bird world. The breast feathering on this bird looked as though it was ready to bloom into flamboyant plumes of various shades which of course gives the species its common English name. When I returned for a second look a few minutes later it had moved on.

The bearded tits are still entertaining people along East Bank providing very close views to those with a little patience. People I spoke to were elated to see one so close, and several confessed they had never seen one before in their lives. What a way to break your duck with the sighting of a lovely male bird in full view a mere 10 feet in front of you.

Grey herons are amongst our earliest nesters and a small colony is busy setting up home in the small wood opposite East Bank. The birds are more social at this time of year sometimes flighting over the tree tops or as on this occasion taking part in a prenuptial gathering close to the nesting site. Seeing six of these birds standing side by side is quite remarkable, but they were visible most of the morning standing idly by the new roadside pools.

Herons, photo by Barry Madden

Blondie the marsh harrier, photo by Tom Whiley
And no visit to the reserve nowadays is complete without a sighting of our star bird, the glamorous lady of Cley Marshes, 'Blondie' our resident marsh harrier. She is a formidable huntress and flew in today with a half-eaten prey item, an unfortunate rat or wader of some description by the look of things. It seems that she and her mate will once again set up home in their favoured patch of reeds close to Bishop's hide where more close encounters can be anticipated as the season progresses.

So, it's business as usual here. Don’t be put off by the building works, come and visit Janine’s Snack Shack and say hello. And do take time to visit the reserve, who knows you may have some close encounters of your own to savour.