Tag Archives: Dunwich

Minsmere in wintertime

My meanderings around Suffolk in February inevitably led me to RSPB Minsmere. I’d heard there were bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: rørdrum), which I’ve never seen before, and smew (Mergellus albellus, Dansk: lille skallesluger) which I’ve also never seen, in residence there. Indeed, theere had been an influx of bittern from Holland due to the fierce winter weather there and numbers were up, so I felt a little twitching was in order.

For those of you unfamiliar with the geography, Minsmere is characterised by woodland on the inland side to the north and east with a network of reedbeds and lakes behind a sand and shingle bank running along the coast. It lies between Dunwich Heath and the Coastguard Cottages to the north, and Sizewell to the south. It is a haven for numerous species of bird and my friend told me that on a morning trip there with a dawn start he spotted over 100 species of birds by lunchtime. And I reckon that’s an impressive tally. Many mammals also live and visit here including red deer, fox and otter.

As it is an RSPB reserve there are hides for observing the wildlife and as I set off along the bank which forms the sea defences to find one various gulls and great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) were on the sea. I paused to watch a marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg) quartering the reedbeds, and then headed on to an open hide where I installed myself to see what was in residence.


The view from the south end of the hide

From the lower right hand window of the hide are the reedbeds of the reserve and from the upper left window is the reactor dome of Sizewell nuclear power station. The power station reminds me that I’m very grateful for havens such as Minsmere but I also wonder why on earth does it have to be just there, the juxtaposition offends me somewhat. But there it is, so I contented myself with looking out the front of the hide and here are some of the birds I could see:


A lone lapwing foraging for sustenance

Immediately in front of my hide, in which I was the only occupant, was a water filled channel separated from the lakes just beyond by a thin strip of reeds, and immediately to the fore was a single lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk vibe). Low grassy islands in the lakes were home to various species of duck, the most numerous being…


Teal, two males and a female (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand)


Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand), and lurking in the background is a shoveler (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand)

All of these ducks are resident or nigrant breeders and winter visitors and where I am I only see them in winter. According to the BTO the teal is unusual in that it has no other names in the UK, which is an interesting little factlet which obviously needs to be challenged. If anyone knows of a local name for the teal please let me know. Another amusing piece of nomenclature is the shoveler, so named presumably for its shovel like beak and in Danish is known as the ‘skeand‘, which translates into English as the ‘spoon duck’. It uses it’s magnificent beak to filter small molluscs and crustaceans from the beds of shallow water by sweeping it across the surface and sifting the food from the disturbed sediment.

Alas, most of the birds were just too far away for my 300mm lens, but I plan to upgrade my optics this year so next time I post from Minsmere I’ll hopefully have lots of high quality close ups too.

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Suffolk Symbionts

During our trip to the east coast a couple of weeks ago a fair chunk of our time was spent wandering around churchyards and woodland and scrubby heathland. Because the air is so clean in that part of the world the gravestones and the trees, and any dead and rotting wood hosts numerous species of lichen.

A robin watching over the lichen encrusted gravestones in Dunwich St Andrews graveyard

I think lichens are highly under-represented in the annals of popular natural history, but having said that I’ve seen some superb posts from fellow natural history bloggers in the recent past, most notably from  ‘btweenblinks‘ and ‘Montana Outdoors

There have not been so many from this side of the Atlantic though so here’s my attempt to showcase some of my local lichens. Lichens are a symbiosis between a fungus and an alga where the fungus gathers nutrients from the substrata and the alga provides the photosynthetic apparatus. I’ve read that there are around 1800 species of lichen in the UK alone and up to 20000 globally. They provide homes for spiders and small insects, and have provided various dyes for colouring cloth and the active ingredient of litmus pH indicator is derived from a lichen. And they make great pictures:


Oak  moss or antler lichen, Pseudevernia furfuracea

Lichens are difficult to identify without a microscope and reagents for analysing them and the substrata they are growing on, so the identifications in this post are from this guide from the Natural History Museum.

I found the antler lichen growing on a deciduous tree at Dunwich Friary and I think there are probabaly another three species of lichen in this photograph, including the common green shield lichen, Flavoparmelia caperata. I took the picture by standing back a couple of metres and using ISO 400, F/8.0 and shutter speed 1/60s, and there was just sufficient light to make it work. The trees were reverberating with the song of great tits and robins while I was on my lichen hunt making it a very enjoyable couple of hours.


Pleurosticta acetabulum

Pleurosticta acetabulum doesn’t have a common name in my NHM guide. I really like the colours in this image, the background is the reedbeds of Minsmere and the diffuse red/brown of the defocussed reeds accentuates the greens, greys and browns of the lichen.

Leafy xanthoria, Xanthoria polycarpa

The leafy xanthoria was ubiquitous in this part of the world, many of the trees were festooned with it. This one was also at RSPB Minsmere with the reedbeds in the background and I like the warm colours especially as this was on a very cold, grey morning.

Springtime sojourn to the Suffolk coast

Last week we headed off to to the seaside for a few days and our chosen detination was Dunwich, a tiny village on the Suffolk coast which in medieval times was the capital of the region and a thriving, wealthy port for moving cargo and people between East Anglia and the European mainland. It’s an amazing place with very interesting history which I wrote about in a post last year.

We stayed in my favourite inn called The Ship which has panoramic views over the Dingle Marshes which stretch several miles north to Walberswick, which is renowned for it’s annual crabbing champi0nship. It is also where the king of art nouveau, Charles Rennie Mackintosh moved to after he had abandoned architecture to become a watercolourist and where the series of flowers known as the ‘Walberswick collection’ was painted.

The marshes along this part of the coast are full of wildlife, including rare birds such as harriers and bittern, mammals such as otters as well as a host of marsh and heathland plants and the associated fauna. It’s a wonderful place. The view from our window at The Ship was generally dominated by low grey cloud which occasionally saw fit to rain on us, but even so the wildlife was much in evidence without even leaving the inn:


The tree opposite our window played host to numerous small birds including this house sparrow (Passer domesticus, Dansk: gråspurv) and blue tit (Cyanistes caerulius, Dansk: blåmejse)
And a couple of hundred metres beyond the tree were some pools of rainwater where lapwing and these teal were on parade each morningAnd beyond that was a ditch where a little egret (Egretta garzetta, Dansk: silkehejre) was hunting every day

So, as you can imagine, it wasn’t so easy to haul myself away from my nice centrally heated room and my cup of tea and go out into the wintry mornings, when I could sit by the window and see all this! But I eventually extricated myself and walked a circuit of the village taking in the local church and graveyard, the remains of the Franciscan Friary and the woods inbetween, and was very adequately rewarded. The local church has the remains of a medieval leper hospital in its grounds which is a fascinating place historically, but is now inhabited solely by sheep and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis). There were no sheep while we were in there but the snowdrops were growing out between the melting snow.


Snowdrops infront of the be-lichened walls of the ancient leper hospital in the grounds of St James church


A lapwing pair pausing in the Friary between displays of breathtaking aerobatic excellence

The Friary is long deserted by the Franciscan brethren and is now a ruin, but it still plays host to the local wildlife. As well as the lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) , there was a songthrush (Turdus philomelos, Dansk: sangdrossel) foraging amongst the  grassy tufts and robins (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals) singing from the trees beyond.

A deciduous tree adjacent to the Friary was completely covered in lichen

I don’t know which species the lichens are on the tree trunk but I think there are at least four. The flat resupinates can be seen on old wood and even brick walls in towns and villages, but the feathery species are much more susceptible to atmospheric pollution and therefore only exist where the air is clean.

Beyond Dunwich to the south is the gorse covered heathland of Dunwich Heath which is owned and managed by the National Trust, and beyond that is the RSPB reserve at Minsmere where I watched a marsh harrier quartering the reedbeds and where another walker told me he had seen smew and a bittern in one of the lakes on the reserve. I went to look there but I didn’t see either, but I did see other birds, and some splendid lichens. Of which more in a later post.

2011 – That was the year that was

Every month of the year has different conditions which create environmental niches that favour different flora, fauna and stages of life cycles. So as 2011 rushes headlong to its wintry conclusion, for my last post of the year I was going to select a single photograph to represent the month to month changes in our wildlife throughout the year. And that was of course impossible for a number of reasons, mainly because it was impossible to represent any one month with a single image, and also because I have lots of images that I like and I want to share. I eventually managed to whittle the number down to an average of two per month which include a wide range of our native creatures in the UK including birds (migrants and natives), butterflies, moths, flowers, amphibians and fungi. I hope you like them!

January

Every autumn  lots of bird species vacate our shores to head to warmer parts of the world while we endure the cold of winter, and they’re replaced by other species which come from the north to the relative warmth of the UK in winter. Last year the autumn and winter weather in Scandinavia was ferocious and consequently many birds arrived here in larger numbers than usual, including the gorgeous waxwing. Along with the waxwing, redwing and fieldfare came too, as they do every year, and remained until the spring, providing some welcome colour.

On a bright cold January day a lone fieldfare perched in a tree

February

February was cold and the middle of the month saw us taking the children to the coast for our annual spring half term excursion, and this year we headed to the Suffolk coast at Dunwich. Dunwich is a really interesting place for lots of reasons, not least because the wildlife there is rich and varied. One of the harbingers of springtime which I look forward to every year is the flowering of snowdrops, and the woods on the edge of Dunwich were covered in them:


A carpet of snowdrops in the woods at Dunwich Greyfriars

March

By March many flowers were blooming and the fauna was turning it’s thoughts to matters procreational. And this dunnock was no exception:


A dunnock serenading the ladies from a bramble stem on Cambridge Science Park

Dunnocks have a rather to-the-point approach to the art of regeneration. They don’t get together in pairs as most birds do, they form small groups and mate with multiple partners and the males go as far as to remove packets of sperm from the cloaca of females who have been inseminated by rivals prior to passing on their own DNA. No nonsense!


A robin singing for a mate in an alder tree, also on Cambridge Science Park

And of course the birds aren’t the only creatures to get the urge in March. For the past 2-3 years a guided busway has been built between St Ives and Cambridge and as it approaches Cambridge Science Park it passes alongside a lake that is a spawning ground for thousands of toads which live in the adjacent woods and fields. The busway has therefore cut off the toads from the lake and, driven by the unstoppable instinct to reproduce, this pair were trying unsuccessfully to negotiate the sheer walls of the track. For a week in March I would get off my bike every morning on the way to work to help as many of them across as I could find.


The male toad is hitching a lift on the back of the much larger female on the way to the water to spawn

The male toad locks onto the back of the female with his front claws around her chest and he’s not at all keen to relinquish his grip until they’ve reached the water and he’s fertilised her eggs. After which armies of lone toads can be seen heading back the other way.

Fortunately for the toads Cambridge City Council funded the installation of toad tunnels under the busway so next year they should be able to negotitate the track and avoid the carnage which would otherwise have ensued. Hats off to the Council!

April

This month was a real wildlife fest and many types of creature allowed me to take some great photographs. The trees now have shooting leaves so everywhere has that lovely green colour from all the fresh growth.


Windswept male yellowhammer in the top of a hawthorn tree

The yellowhammer is a species which has become less and less common in recent decades as a result of hedgerow destruction and other modern farming methods, but we’re lucky to have plenty of hedgerows still in situ on the outskirts of Histon, and consequently, good numbers of these lovely yellow buntings. The hedgerow this one is on is mature and has old oak and ash trees in so it plays host to alot of bird species including blackcap, chiffchaff, dunnock, common whitethroat and green woodpecker, to name but a few.

Whilst sitting watching TV late one evening in March, what I initially thought was a bat emerged from behind the sofa I was sitting on with my wife. There had been no prior warning of its presence and myself and my wife both levitated off the sofa uttering something along the lines of “What the heck was that!?”. It fluttered into a lampshade where it staid long enough to get a photograph, and it turned out to be an emperor moth:


Our emperor moth inside a lamp. I though creatures like that only lived in tropical rainforests!

Unfortunately, a couple of days later I found her dead (she was the female of the species) still inside the lampshade. I extricated her and measured her and she was 7cm wingtip to wingtip. A magnificent beast.


A willow warbler beautifully framed by new leaves and blossom of the blackthorn tree

These little warblers which weigh on average around 9g have just arrived from southern Africa. I think bird migration is one of the most amazing natural phemonena – how does such a tiny creature navigate and survive a flight across the Sahara and then the Mediterranean? It’s absolutely incredible.


A pair of great crested newts getting ready to mate in a shallow pond – male on the left, more slender female to the right

The great crested newt was probably the highlight of my year. I’d never seen a newt before and in this pond there were great crested, palmate and smooth newts. I turned the flash power down and used an 18-55mm lens and got some reasonably good photographs of the newts underwater. And that at 1am after a few hours in the pub!

May

I’ve spent many a fruitless hour chasing orange spot butterflies up and down the hedgerows of Cambridgeshire, but they never seemed to settle for long enough to get a photograph. But one morning in May I must have timed it just right, they were in the mating mood.


Female orange spot announcing her availability in somewhat unambiguous fashion to a passing male who was just out of shot


Common whitethroat – these warblers also migrate to the UK from sub-Saharan Africa

The common whitethroat breeds in my local fields in good numbers. It’s easy to identify by its song and the way it perches on brambles and low scrub and then flits almost vertically up into the air to alight a few seconds later close to where it took off from and continue singing. This one is a male, he has a blue/grey head whereas the female has a brown head. As well as avian migrants from warmer climes, at this time of year many species of dragonfly are emerging:


Scarce chaser dragonfly at Milton Country Park

I like dragonflies. In the days of the dinosaurs there were dragonflies with a 75cm wingspan! They are fun to photograph (and often, not too difficult) they look awesome, and they have very interesting life cycles. My scarce chaser sat on a seed head for several minutes whilst I stood a few feet away photographing other dragons and damsels, occassionally he took off to circle the pond before returning to the same spot where he let me get to within around 50cm to capture his portrait.

June

In a normal year the weather will be warming up  nicely by June and flowers and insects and birds should be in abundance. But 2011 wasn’t a normal year, April was unseasonally warm which kick started everything, but the rest of spring and summer were cold and this had dire consequences for many butterflies and other species. One of the few that I did see in reasonable  numbers this year, although not as many as last year, was the large skipper.


Large skipper feasting on the nectar of a thistle

The marsh woundwort is so called because it has been applied to wounds to assist the healing process. I don’t know what the medical basis for that is, maybe it has antispetic properties. It  has a beautiful flowerhead and is one a good number of wild flowers growing in the drainage dikes on the local farmland around Cambridge.

Marsh woundwort poking it’s lovely head out of a drainage ditch which is full of various wild flowers every year

July

I found this splendid looking cricket lurking in the grass in a field on the edge of Histon. I first thought it was a very green grasshopper until I looked more closely at the photograph, and it turned out to be a Roesels bush cricket. It is an introduced species from mainland Europe which until recently was only found in the most southerly parts of England. There are two varieties and this is the long winged one which can colonise further afield faster than its short winged cousin, and is now as far north as Cambridgeshire and beyond.


Long winged Roesels bush cricket

This was the first of its kind that I’d seen and a few days later another one appeared on a blind in my house, so I guess thay can’t be that uncommon in this region now.

A pair of juvenile linnets

Before I got out walking in my local countryside around Histon I can’t remember the last time I saw a linnet, but they breed here in good numbers and in the winter flocks of many tens to hundreds can be seen on farmland around and about Histon. Linnet are finches which feed on seeds and the adult males are splendid with a cerise breast and a crimson spot on their foreheads.

August

When I was at school, many years ago, my Dad would feed the birds in the garden and it wasn’t particularly unusual to see the occasional bullfinch.  But mainly as a result of persecution their numbers declined dramatically through the 1970’s and 80’s and I didn’t see one for years. The males are beautiful birds and I’ve been after a good photograph of one for a long time. And finally…


A male bullfinch crunching seeds at RSPB Fen Drayton

I love this picture – so far it’s the first and only half decent one I’ve managed. Hopefully I’ll get a few more to share with you in 2012.

Later in August, we were on holiday in Northumberland, and amongst the many gulls and other seabirds on the beach at Seahouses was this redshank. I think it’s nature at it’s aesthetic best!


A lone redshank looking for nourishment in the rockpools at Seahouses

September

The biggest garden spider I’ve ever seen – she was around 4cm across

Another of natures harbingers, this time of autumn. My garden fills up with these polyocular purveyors of terror in September, and this lady was huge. She was 4cm across and was big enough to distract my son from a telling off. ‘Dad, there’s a big spider in my window‘ was an imaginative and very effective way to divert my attention from the misdemeanour of the moment. I ran to get my camera and I had to lay horizontally out of the bedroom window to take this photograph, as a result of which I couldn’t stay still for more than a few seconds!

October

After the coldest summer for 18 years we then had a mild autumn which meant that many creatures could be found out and about long after they have normally  migrated or hibernated, or died off. Swallows and swifts were still being seen into October and a bumblebee flew past my lab window one day last week. During a visit to Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge, on 28th October, to see what winter wildfowl had arrived, there were some winter visitors including tufted duck, gadwall and widgeon. But the pontoon I was stood on had around half a dozen common darter dragonflies on it along with several species of damselfly in the surrounding reedbed and a lone migrant hawker patrolling the air which took a common darter and butchered it on the wing right over my head. Dragonflies can be seen late in the year when the weather permits, but even so I was surprised to see so many at the end of October.

A pair of common darters mating in the late autumn sunshine

November

One of my November excursions took me to RSPB Fowlmere, between Cambridge and Royston, which is renowned for its water rails. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before but I was tipped off by a fellow naturalist that there was one in front of a particular hide, so I headed off there and there it was, busy foraging in the pond for the whole hour I sat there. It was very murky so the photographic conditions were difficult, but I managed to get a couple of decent pictures and I particularly like this one:

A water rail in the primeval swamps of Cambridgeshire!

And another of my trips in November was to Norsey Wood in Essex which is a very different ecosystem to Fowlmere, consisting of ancient oak, beech and birch wood. So in autumn the forest floor is a really good location for fungi and this fly agaric was one of a large group growing out of the leaf litter.


Fly agaric mushroom amongst the fallen beech leaves of Norsey Wood

December

And finally, a wildlife success story is the long tailed tit. Until the last 10-15 years I only saw these occasionally but they now seem to be common, in direct contrast to so many other species of bird whose numbers are declining. I regularly see flocks of long tailed tits on the feeders in my garden and in the hedgerows and woods around Histon. They’re gorgeous little birds and I love watching a flock of them follow each other one after the other along a hedgerow before bunching together when they have found a food  source and then heading off again in line astern.

A long tailed tit in the hedges along Guns Lane in Histon

I stood quietly for several minutes watching the flock of around 15 birds that this one belonged to and they didn’t seem at all bothered by me as they picked insects from the trees.

So there you have it. 2011 in pictures. If you had the stamina to get this far, thankyou and I hope you enjoyed it.

Best wishes for a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and successful New Year from The Naturephile!

Rotten borough, wonderful wildlife

I spent the last two days in Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. Dunwich and its surrounding countryside is a very interesting place from a political and natural history viewpoint. A paragraph about the political history first:

Until the Great Reform Act of 1832 Dunwich was classed as a ‘rotten borough‘, this was a parliamentary constituency with a very small number of voters for which the parliamentary seat could be bought and sold by wealthy patrons. Prior to 1286 Dunwich was the capital of East Anglia and a thriving sea port but in that year the first of several great tidal surges destroyed a large part of the town, sweeping it into the sea, reducing it to a small number of houses and therefore residents and voters. As a result of its earlier preeminence Dunwich had two parliamentary seats and despite it’s sudden demise retained these seats, with a very small number of voters, until the Great Reform Act was passed, (interestingly, it was his opposition to parliamentary reform which ended the premiership of the Duke of Wellington after he lost a vote of no confidence in November 1830). In the early 18th century the seat was held by Sir George Downing, 3rd baronet, whose grandfather (1st baronet) had built Downing Street in London. He was succeeded by his cousin, Sir Jacob Downing, who died childless and whose fortune was used to found Downing College, Cambridge, in 1800. An awful lot of history for a tiny village on the Suffolk coast.

Moving on to current natural history, the weather on the first day there was horrendous, rendering nature watching pretty much impossible. But on the second day the weather changed completely and was warm and sunny. The woods around the ruined friary were looking delightfully spring-like with snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) covering the ground.


Snowdrops growing in profusion amongst moss covered dead wood from fallen branches around Greyfriars at Dunwich.

A pair of goldcrests were very busy feeding in a bush at the edge of the wood which was good to see as they are not a common sight during my regular walks around Cambridge. Heading to the beach to the north of the Friary a pied wagtail (Motacilla alba)  was bathing in a puddle:

And a flight of four mute swans (Cygnus olor) flew by, heading south towards the lakes at Minsmere RSPB reserve:

Later in the morning a walk in Dunwich Forest was eerie. It started in a pine plantation which was all but silent, no birds were singing and there were few other signs of wildlife. Leaving the plantation behind I entered mixed woodland which was still quiet but  more diverse, with a mixture of predominantly pine and silver birch trees (Betula pendula). Birds were singing here but not in the profusion I’d hope for. Many of the pines were exuding aromatic sap:


Sap oozing from a wound in the bark of a pine tree. This stuff was extremely sticky but had a gorgeously delicate scent of pine resin.

The exudate was running down the trunks for several feet and in some cases from multiple places on their trunks, the aroma on a warm spring morning was lovely. A mixture of the earthy smell of well rotted compost and pine trees. Gorse bushes (Ulex europaea) were in flower here too, adding the scent of mild coconut into the mix.

Gorse bush in flower

The ground under the trees was littered with dead wood and moss and numerous fungi including puffballs, parasitic birch brackets growing on live trees and other brackets growing on dead branches, most of which defy identification by anyone who doesn’t possess the requisite expert knowledge. Which, alas,  includes myself.

After the forest I ventured to Dunwich Heath, parking by the lighthouse at the top of the cliff where gangs of black headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) were wheeling around the carpark and magpies (Pica pica) were bouncing along the ground around the cars scavenging scraps discarded by picnicers making the most of the glorious spring weather.


Black headed gull looking for leftover crumbs in the carpark at Dunwich Heath lighthouse…

… and a magpie using a signpost as a vantage point.

Leaving the carpark I headed down towards the reedbeds which I skirted for several hundred metres. The habitat here is varied with the reedbeds, scrub woodland, heath and waterways.


Looking east over reedbeds at the sourthern edge of Dunwich Heath between the heath and RSPB Minsmere, the sea is a thin grey line in the distance.

Consequently I was hoping to see a diverse range of wildlife. There was evidence that otters are in residence and sheets of corrugated iron had been placed on cropped bracken presumably to provide shelter for reptiles such as adders, grass snakes and lizards. The sun was shining and I was  sheltered from the wind so the conditions for a stroll were nigh on perfect for a February afternoon and plenty of birdlife was to be seen. Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) were hopping around the undergrowth and a flock of around 40 lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) passed overhead whilst numerous blue tits (Cyanistes caerulius), great tits (Parus major) and chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) were busy in the trees lining the path.


Cock chaffinch sitting high in a tree singing for a mate.

A single long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus) also flew by and landed very close allowing me to take some photographs:


Long tailed tit providing a rare opportunity to take some close-up pictures.

The area around Dunwich is a great place to see all kinds of wildlife, the Dingle reedbeds running north to Walberswick are the largest in England and there are large areas of heath and woodland and the salt water lagoons at Minsmere to the south all providing a huge area of diverse habitat. It is also ideally located for migrants from mainland Europe in the winter.

And right in the middle is The Ship Inn where you can get a pint of Adnams  beer to slake the thirst after a days walking. Dunwich is very high on my list of favourite places to explore.