Tag Archives: gorse

Essex adder challenge

Danbury Common near Chelmsford in Essex is a National Trust site that is a mixture of woodland and heathland and is renowned for reptiles, in particular teh European adder (Vipera berus). The weather for the last 2-3 weeks has been ideal for resurrecting hibernating reptiles so myself and my friend, Dave, who is a very accomplished nature photographer, went along to try to get some pictures of adders. They are the only venomous reptile native to the UK and their preferred habitat is heathland. Dave originates from Essex and is familiar with Danbury Common and assured me that we would definitely see adders, so I was rather excited as I’ve never seen a wild one before.


The heathland terrain was perfect reptile territory, there are substantial areas of gorse and heather intermingled with bracken

Unfortunately two events conspired against us: the weather on Saturday morning was the coldest it has been for weeks and with 100% cloud cover there was little warmth to entice the adders out of their burrows, and secondly there had been an accidental fire right over the main hibernaculum, all of which resulted in the total absence of adders and any other reptiles!

Despite that, the Common is a great place for wildlife so we wandered around to see what else was in residence and were rewarded by the first blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk) and chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger) sightings of the year for me.


A male blackcap, one of a pair

Until recently blackcap were considered to be summer migrants to the UK, spending there winters in sub Saharan Africa and as far down as South Africa.  More recently they have been winter residents too and it is thought this is the result of westward migration of birds from eastern Europe and also from the Low Countries, not our summer residents staying put. They disappear from my regular haunts around Histon in the winter, but my friend who lives on the other side of the village, just half a mile away, has been hearing them sporadically through the winter.

I heard several chiffchaff and saw a couple too, but they didn’t come close enough to photograph, but the woods were full of great tit (Parus major, Dansk: sortemejse) which were more amenable to pose for a portrait:


Male great tit feeding on pussy willow. The tree was busy with at least four great tit, a pair of blue tit and a long tailed tit

Backwarden nature reserve and Danbury Common are bisected by a road and Backwarden is an area of woodland containing sycamore, oak, birch and willow similar to that on the Common. Many of the trees were hosting various fungi including moulds and these brackets growing out of the stumps of felled trees:


…and this amazing mass of gelatinous psychedelic slime mould which I thought resembled candle wax:


I’ve never seen anything quite like this before but it appeared the sap had welled up out of the felled tree and the sugar rich solution was providing a glut of nourishment to opportunistic fungi.

The highlight of the trip, in the absence of snakes, was a weasel (Mustela nivalis) which bounded across the path and stopped to scrutinise us for long enough to take a couple of photographs. It’s years since I’ve seen weasel and we had to zoom in on the pictures to decide whether it was a weasel or a stoat (Mustela erminea). The stoat is around 30cm long so is bigger than the weasel which is around 20cm, and the stoat has a black tip to its tail which our little creature didn’t. Stoats go completely white in the winter except for the black tip of their tails and it is the pelts of the winter stoat which are used to make the ermine gowns of members of the UK House of lords.


Momentarily distracted by our presence

Then probably a potential prey item. Ready…

Set…

Go!

And he was off, like a brown furry exocet, at quite phenomenal speed. The pictures aren’t very good quality, but you can clearly see what he is and it may be a good few years before I get to photograph another! I’ll try to get to Danbury again over the summer and if I manage to take some pictures of an adder I’ll post them here.

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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.