Monday, 22 September 2014

Norfolk part 2- Cley Time

In Norfolk, the place I was most looking forward to visiting was Cley. Wells next the Sea is located on the coast pretty much exactly between Cley NNR and Titchwell RSPB nature reserves. Both are famously good reserves, and both I had visited before, about 12 years ago, when I was in the Wildlife Explorers. It was on a weekend residential where we thoroughly traveled the reserves in this particular part of Norfolk, and then took a detour on the way home to sites for Stone Curlews and Nightingales (successfully seen and heard singing respectively). We went because of Norfolk's fame as a hotspot for birds, and it didn't disappoint!

Monday, 8 September 2014

In Norfolk part 1

I was lucky enough to spend the week before last in Norfolk, haven for birds and birdwatchers alike! Of course I ended up with so much material for my blog that one post could never be enough, so I'm going to split my Norfolk writing into three parts.

I went with my family and we stayed in a little town called Wells next the Sea. True to the name you could walk right down to the beach in about 15 minutes from where we were staying, along a path next to the harbour. At low tide there were Redshanks and Turnstones feeding, with a Cormorants gulping down huge fish on the water at high tide, and any time you walked along you could hear the chirping of an extremely healthy population of House Sparrows, which was wonderful and reassuring as they are in such huge declines everywhere. There were Swallows flying low over the path, Buzzards soaring over the beach, and a couple of Shags that had chosen a very odd roosting spot in the form of a pair of tyres on the side of a boat! All of this was going on just in and around the town so there was plenty to see, but I think one of my favourite things that I saw was a Wall Brown butterfly on the plants by the beach path. I wrote about the butterflies I love to see every year in my last post, so it seems like a good time to talk about the lovely Wall Brown, which I couldn't have put on my list because it's so uncommon in the south where I live. Norfolk is now the most southern part of Britain that I've seen one! Actually I'd be interested to hear from UK readers: is this an every year butterfly where you live? It definitely isn't for me, but like a lot of common butterfly species it may have declined a lot. Wall Browns are a little like very bright Speckled Woods, with orange patterns and a row of eyes around the edges of their wings. The one I saw had a chunk out of one of its wings, but it was flying just fine. I bet the predator diverting eye patterns did their job!

My sister and I were walking along to the beach along the path when we saw what I at first thought was a dragonfly- it was about the right size, with a long, bright red and black body. But when it landed I could see that its wings were small for its body and held closed over the back rather than open, like a dragonfly. It wasn't a damselfly either as the body was much too thick and too short. I was puzzled until the day after that when I looked in a book about seashore wildlife and saw an insect that looked just like it! It's called a Sand Wasp and apparently is a ferocious predator of caterpillars. I'd never seen anything like it before!

The beach at Wells was lovely; not so good for swimming as the Welsh beaches I was on last year (where I found the Gannet), but with less jellyfish and Weaver Fish! (I didn't see the Weaver Fish in Wales but there were signs up about them because they hide in the sandy shallows and have a painful sting! I did see the jellyfish though. Moon Jellyfish, we think. There were dozens. Hundreds. Thousands. Millions??!! The beach was covered in washed up ones. No swimming that day!! ^^) One thing that had been washed up at Wells beach was hundreds upon hundreds of razor shells, the long thin shells you usually see only a few of. They were all sizes but there were significant numbers of tiny ones, so we wondered if the Razor Clam breeds nearby. There were loads of Oystercatchers about too, so the source of the shells was quite clear. It looked like they had been having quite a feast!

I also found this fantastic Mermaid's Purse:

Just along the coast from Wells you can get a boat trip out to see seals where they breed and congregate on Blakeney Point. This has obviously proved popular as no less than four separate companies currently offer this service! There's no disturbance to the seals as nobody is allowed to land, but one of the shops in Wells had a cartoon in the window of seals in a boat taking photos of a load of sunbathing humans. XD

Four species of tern also breed on Blakeney Point but this was all over for the year, except for a couple of lingering Common Terns. We did see a lovely Red-breasted Merganser as we approached the colony though, which are always a pleasure to see. And then were rounded the Point and...there were the seals!

Most of the ones in the top photo are Common Seals, and most in the lower photo are Grey Seals. Until this I didn't know the two species would share a colony like this! As you can see they are of extremely variable colours and there's no 'grey' and 'not grey' despite the name. You can tell them apart by looking at the faces, though I'm not that good at it yet. The Common Seals have what I've seen described as a 'cute' face with a short nose and a rounded face, while the Grey seals have longer noses and pointier faces. Grey Seals can grow bigger than Common Seals but there's a lot of size overlap so it's not a simple rule.

Unlike other large marine mammals like whales and dolphins, it really is quite easy to get really good views of seals around the British Isles as there are very reliable spots to see them, like this one which I get the impression gives sightings at all times of year. It really is special to watch a mammal that is so unlike the mammals we might get good views of on land. This is an animal whose back legs and tail have fused together to make its body into a streamlined tube of muscle and insulation, and whose front legs have lost their 'fingers', as it was more useful for them to become fully webbed and become flippers. The bones that make those fingers are still there inside the flipper- I remember learning about it in my Biology A-level, and whales' flippers are just the same no matter how big they are. It's quite famous that seals are wonderfully graceful in water but the opposite on land, but I found that the seals I saw moving on land were surprisingly fast and maneuverable! Here's one I saw getting out of the water:

I made this one quite big as it has some nice views of the Grey Seals' faces, showing their long noses and small eyes.

This one certainly made a splash but it lumped itself along very speedily! It was impressive. Seals are totally used to moving those great big bodies on land and watching them move was fascinating. I honestly could have watched them all day except the boat had to go. Most of them weren't actually going anywhere but it was really funny watching even the ones that were lying around as they don't have so much use for the flippers on land and it makes for some funny poses! You can see in the above photo that most of these lazy seals just let their flippers flop over the fronts, but some were waving them around, and seemed to be attempting to scratch or even shield their eyes from the sun. You can also see in all my photos of the variety of poses that seem to be comfortable for seals! There's one I like to call 'the banana' which a couple of Common Seals in the first photo are doing: it's where they balance on their side with both the tail and head held out stiffly off the ground. It looks horribly uncomfortable to us but it can't be because lots of them were doing it, and when I went on a seal boat trip in Scotland back in 2010 loads of the seals were doing it then too!

In fact at the time I took these photos the Common Seals were in the middle of their breeding season. The two species of seal seem to share the space amazingly well and it probably helps that they breed at different times, with the Common Seals breeding in the summer and the Grey Seals in the winter. The tour guide told us some really interesting things about seal breeding- it turns out that only Grey Seals have the white, fluffy pups you see in pictures. Common Seals have pups that are born waterproof and can swim almost immediately! That was amazing to learn. And we even saw a very small Common Seal pup! The boat continued along the shore a little way from the colony, and there was a sort of long black blob lying where the sea was washing onto the beach. The guide said this was a baby, and looking through binoculars I saw that it was! It honestly looked like a piece of driftwood that had washed up. The babies are kept away from the colony when they are very young, as this one clearly was, because of the danger that a heavy adult seal would roll over and squash them. But seal milk is very rich and that baby seal would probably have been big enough to join the main colony within a few days of us seeing it. It's so strange to think that such a small seal baby was already capable of swimming independently, if it wanted to!

Later that week I visited the Norwich museum and saw a taxidermy seal that showed how the end of a seal's tail is structured, something that can be hard to see on a living seal in the field.

On either side are the flippers  containing what were once the animal's foot bones, and in the middle is the tail proper. I'd never realised that these parts were separate! Note: I didn't photograph the whole taxidermy seal because the head mount was just terrible. It looked like someone had just put in any old set of glass eyes without any thought of what a seal's eyes actually look like. The result was this giant pair of goggly orange-rimmed eyes, so unlike the dark, soulful eyes of a living seal. I think it was quite an old specimen, but even so!!

The Norwich museum was quite something in that it had one of the most comprehensive collections of bird taxidermy I've ever seen. There was an exhibit of scenes showing Norfolk wildlife in various habitats, which of course included many birds, and then there was a room filled with nothing but bird taxidermy, all sorted by species group, that seemed to contain almost every regular British species and several irregular ones too! I enjoy looking at taxidermy birds, especially if they are well mounted and well preserved, because it's an excellent opportunity to look at the bird's feathers closely. But there were so many birds that appear in Britain only as vagrants in that collection that you could tell they had been shot as trophies by hunters. It reminded me of a small collection of taxidermy they have in Beaulieu, New Forest, that I'm quite familiar with, the prize piece of which is an enormous flamingo. According to the description it had been shot while feeding on the Beaulieu estuary, by someone who presumably didn't know if it was a truly wild vagrant or an escape from someone's collection. Being quite young and seeing that was my first introduction to the fact that people used to shoot unusual birds, rather than watching them as birdwatchers and twitchers love to do today.

Seeing the taxidermy was interesting, but what was definitely more interesting was the video playing in the foyer of the museum that showed highlights from Norwich Cathedral's Peregrine nest cam! Norwich's pair of urban Peregrines had fledged no less than four chicks this year's breeding season. We watched the fledging section, which showed the oldest and biggest chick (Peregrines seem to practice brood reduction like a lot of birds of prey, meaning this chick had hatched before the others) being blown off the ledge while practicing flapping during a windy spell! It must have been a bit of a surprise. He was totally fine, as several days later when only the youngest chick was left on the platform, being reluctant to leave, the oldest chick returned for a visit. The captioning on the video described what happened next as playing, but I'm not so sure! The oldest chick seemed to be persistently trying to preen the neck of the youngest chick, and it ended up pulling out two of the younger chick's feathers! The younger chick retaliated to by tugging at the older chick's neck feathers, though none came out. It was very funny to watch. However the youngest chick did eventually pluck up its courage and leave the platform. Four fledged young Peregrines makes this an extremely successful year for the Norwich Peregrines!

Later that day, while my parents were looking round Norwich Cathedral, I saw a bird of prey soaring around the spire. Of course I immediately guessed it was a Peregrine, but getting my binoculars on it (I carried them everywhere in Norfolk! You have to) showed that it lacked the very clear black and white head markings of a Peregrine, and was actually a Sparrowhawk. But because I'd been looking up anyway, I scanned past the spire, and what did I see?

Now THERE'S the black and white head markings I was looking for! It just goes to show that if you don't follow David Lindo's advice and Look Up, there could be a tonne of stuff you're missing! Peregrines have a habit of sitting in a high place in their territory and scanning until they see some likely looking prey. They are so known for it that the RSPB sets up watchpoints in various places around the country each year so they can show people these lovely birds sitting in their favourite spots watching for their prey. I think this one is actually sitting on the nesting platform! It's clearly a specially put up platform so everyone must have been really pleased when the Peregrines started nesting there. I wouldn't have been surprised if the Peregrine had attempted to see off the Sparrowhawk but maybe it just couldn't be bothered. I did once see three Peregrines gang up to force a Buzzard down into a tree so it was out of their airspace! They are incredible birds. It's wonderful that they are becoming so at home in our towns so more and more people are able to see them each year.

Next time: the sublime and beautiful Cley!