Thursday 26 May 2016

Wildlife Events - with Matt Merritt and Mark Cocker

Matt Merritt with A Sky full of Birds

We spent Saturday in North Norfolk last weekend, visiting the Norfolk Birdfair in the glorious grounds of Mannington Hall. Writer and fellow poet, Mark Merritt (who blogs at Polyolbion), was doing a book signing for his new book, A Sky full of Birds, published by Penguin, so I was delighted to be able to ask him to sign my copy. Matt, it was good to meet you and thank you for the signature!

We watched a ringing demonstraion, allowing us to see a family of Long-tailed tits at close range. They all look so slender on our coconut feeders in comparison with all but the slimmest Blue tits, but they really were tiny. The birds had been caught together, and once they had all been ringed, they were going to be released together.

There were lots of stalls to visit in the marquee, promoting all kinds of wildlife-related products and opportunities from birding holidays to greetings cards, out-of-print books (and yes, one on Ted Ellis has been stashed away for Christmas) to organisations like WWT, RSPB and the Broads Authority.

We wandered round the lovely grounds, pausing for tea and delicious cake, before resuming our perambulation. There was a bird-watching walk in progress and we were impressed at the number of species that had been spotted. We spent quite a time trying out binoculars for size, weight and clarity - and enjoyed watching the tadpoles in the rill.

Just as we were leaving, we paused to speak to the staff on the Norfolk Wildlife Trust stall. They asked us if we were planning to attend an evening later in the week with Mark Cocker in the Forum in Norwich. We decided to buy tickets.

The Forum, Norwich - Mark Cocker, right (stage)

I have been a fan of Crow Country ever since I read it some years ago. Part of the attraction was due to the fact that the corvids in the books live in the Yare valley, home of my teenage years. But perhaps over and above the connection with a familiar patch is the fact that Mark Cocker's prose is both precise and compelling. 

His talk was part of the Wild in the City 90th anniversary celebrations of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. He spoke for about an hour, with a wide-ranging Powerpoint presentation of his wildlife images moving gently before our eyes in the background.

Mark was speaking about the commonplace in nature, and how it is important to enrich our wildlife knowledge of a small area - to focus on digging more deeply in our quest for the local, rather than to put all our efforts into scratching the surface of habitats in far-flung places.

He pointed out that we live in a culture in which rarity is prized, perhaps at the expense of more common - but often key - species. When it comes to writing, his advice was to follow our gut instincts, whether this meant describing a rare creature that we had just seen or writing for the 100th time on a favourite bird (in Mark's case, the Blackbird).

Not surprisingly in the light of recent developments (see my blog post from 2015), Mark stressed the importance of names in the natural world. He particularly stressed the importance for those of us who live in the UK of English names in addition to the traditional Greek and Latin ones. 'Without a name', he said, 'you can't begin that journey into neighbourliness.'

We were told about the 3rd Norfolk Festival of Nature, which will take place at Gresham's in June and then in The Forum, Norwich in October (as part of the Norwich Science Festival).

Here's to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the next 90 years.

Tuesday 24 May 2016

Flatford RSPB Wildlife Garden - Birds and Bees (and Biodiversity)

Flatford, on the River Stour

We visited Flatford at the weekend, with its RSPB Wildlife Garden and NT tearoom - not forgetting all the buildings and scenes that are linked to Constable, of course.

We saw these rather attractive bee bungalows ...

... which, as you can see, had already been put ot good use by masonry bees, and had therefore been withdrawn from sale.

It was rather grey, but mild enough (at last) for numerous insects to emerge. I think the butterfly below is a Green-veined White.

It was a joy to see my first damselflies of 2016 ...

They were hiding in the umbelliferous foliage by the riverbank. 

It is always a particular delight to see a Demoiselle - female Banded Demoiselle, in this case.

I have been waiting patiently for my first caterpillar sighting of the year - and here it is, the impressive Drinker-moth larva ...

I saw a couple of Ladybirds mating (for another post, perhaps), and these creatures below ...

It was also the day on which a huge number of Mayfly larvae had hatched, so the short-lived adults were busy leaping up and down in the air and 'making hay' while the sun shone over their short adult lives

We kept an eye out for other creatures. There was a nest of Blue tits, but it seemed very much to be the day of the insects. Oh, and I mustn't forget this creature, lurking in the border ...

The photo below shows Willy Lott's cottage and the iconic bridge. It also shows people (like us!) enjoying scones and cream and coffee cake by the Stour.

The wildflowers were magnificent and doubtless a key factor in the biodiversity we observed during the course of a casual afternoon. We also heard our first Cuckoo of the season.

And don't forget, it will be National Insect Week in a month's time ...

Thursday 19 May 2016

Puffins from RSPB Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire

I have been wanting to post these Puffin pictures for days, but I recently switched to Lightroom as a photo storage system and it is taking me a while, particularly with more than one or two images, to become adept at exporting and so on. I really like the way Lightroom displays, and I feel sure that the procedures will soon become second nature (but you didn't hear me say that) ...

So here at last are a few Puffins!

Our days out on the cliffs were during that bitterly cold snap. We had pelting rain, howling gales ... and just occasionally a sunny moment. I feel sure that my photos would have been better if the light had been on our side. But Puffins are Puffins, and they are always a joy to watch. It was a good opportunity, too, to visit the re-vamped RSPB Seabird Centre. 

Our first visit on this occasion was in especially unfavourable conditions. My hands have not felt so cold since I was on the outside balcony at the top of the Empire State Building in January some years ago. The Puffins were not showing well (who can blame them), but this one little chap more than made up for any discomfort. 

The Puffin may have been busy with some pre-mating grooming ...

... or was perhaps busy fluffing up the feathers, having only recently arrived off the ocean. 

You can see from the photo below that the sea was a steely grey, but the perfect backdrop for a rainbow.  

On our second visit the weather was a bit kinder, though I was still wearing two coats, a scarf, hat and hoodie. There were more Puffins about. The one below was peering down on the neighbouring Razorbills.

The photo below shows the distinctive orange-yellow spot on the cheek. If you click this link, you will see how it moves.

The coast, as you can see, were awash with seabirds. I will post more photos of the Puffins' neighbours in the days to come.

I just love those orange feet!

A pair of Razorbills strutted along the steep cliff ledge path to inspect ...

... and a Puffin perched precariously near the edge to look down.

Puffin, Kittiwake and Razorbill all seemed quite at ease with one another.

I asked David to pose on one of the new viewing platforms. Isn't Mosey Downgate a brilliant name?

I hope the photo below gives you some idea of the sheer size of the cliffs. 

A visit to RSPB Bempton Cliffs is always a most enjoyable experience. It is also an educational one.

The viewing platforms mean that you can watch the birds safely from a distance, without causing a disturbance. This is particularly important since threatened species such as the Puffins and the other seabirds arrive for the breeding season. The RSPB website includes helpful information on the subject of nesting birds. A local MP, Kevin Hollinrake, has become a Species Champion for the Puffin. You can read about his conservation publicity role here.

The Bempton staff often have scopes positioned on the cliff ledges to enhance bird-watching activity: zoom lenses are very helpful, and I often found that I had a better view through my camera than my binoculars. 

The RSPB staff and volunteers are often on hand to point out the Puffins (which, despite their 'hi-vis' features) can be surprisingly difficult to spot. There were several amusing and informative signs like the one below along the cliff.

No surprises here, but I came away convinced that Puffins are my favourite bird!

Postscript ...

My poem, 'Penmon Priory', has just been published in the 2016 ekphrastic eBook produced by Lidia Chiarelli and Huguette Bertrand for the international Immagine e Poesia Movement. The poem, largely about the priory on the Isle of Anglesey (off North Wales), also concerns Puffin Island, an islet off Anglesey, on which 2000 breeding pairs of Puffins were recorded at one point in the past. My poem has been paired with artwork by Jongo Park from South Korea. The eBook is free and can be downloaded from this link.

Monday 16 May 2016

RSPB Minsmere - those delightful but elusive Bearded tits

We saw few garden birds at Minsmere this weekend, but it was terrific to have such a good Bittern sighting. We enjoyed listening to the Bearded tits from the walkway up to Island Mere hide. We had a few fleeting glimpses of these beautiful but elusive birds; but were not able to take any photographs, so I have posted a few of a female Beardie from a previous sighting.

We also saw a Marsh Harrier and a Hobby on the reserve. I'm afraid the hobby record shot below is also from a previous occasion. Nearly all of my photos from this last visit were of the Bittern and you can see some of them here.

Sunday 15 May 2016

The Bittern's Boom (RSPB Minsmere)

Yes, we heard the Bittern's unmistakable boom this weekend at RSPB Minsmere. We also watched this Bittern touch down in the reedbed. 

I rather like the reflection of its bill. I would love to know whether it came up with a fish. 

The Mute Swans seemed quite unperturbed by its presence. 

What an extraordinary neck ...

... and plumage ...

 ... well, this is the breeding season.

Such a fine bird, and one that we feel particularly lucky to see since the species became dangerously threatened during my teenage years. Its conservation status is still red

My Bittern poem has been included in a new book from Dunlin Press, The Migrant Waders. Do take a look on the Dunlin Press website here. The book has been edited by MW Bewick and Ella Johnston. It contains prose, poetry and Ella's exquisite illustrations.