Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Tern over

I didn't go out this morning, in search of the lesser spotted woodpecker who's being seen just a half-mile away. It poured. Instead I wrote, emailed and phoned, and as I spoke to NWT about the hot-off-the-press launch of the Cley Marshes Appeal, a common tern flew over the pond, the first I've ever seen from my house.

A common tern is NWT's logo. Make of that what you will.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamed of in your philosophy.
William Shakespeare

Monday, 30 July 2012

Hot from the NWT website

For more on NWT's appeal to purchase land and increase NWT Cley Marshes by a third, click here.

The caffeine-crazed meerkat rides again (but it's all in a good cause)

I'm sorry to subject all you good marshtitters to more caffeine-induced bobbing and gurning but, like NWT's National Marine Week video last week, our Cley appeal video, released today, is too important for me not to plug it here. The only chunk of unprotected coastal marshes between Blakeney Point and Kelling Water Meadows has come up for sale for the first time in a generation. Honouring our founder's vision to preserve the county's unique habitats, Norfolk Wildlife Trust has stepped up and is buying the land, increasing our world-famous NWT Cley Marshes reserve by a third.

The snag is it'll cost us a million pounds.

I don't suppose you could spare us some change?

NWT Cley appeal video, reproduced with permission

I can hear four birds in the background: avocet, oystercatcher, little ringed plover and reed warbler. Can you add more?

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Aix marks the spot

This weekend a friend, Debs, came to stay. Yesterday, as I left to fetch her from the station, a programme ended on Radio Four, on the hell-fire and damnation loss of habitat in the Paraguayan Chaco. In the background of the credits I could hear the excited trill of monk parakeets and for that moment I was at home again in the dust in the sweat with the thousand thousand grey brocket deer of South America's great spiny forest.

A little further, in Norfolk now, a Roesel's bush-cricket sang from the fading grasses of the verge, audible even above the purr of my ageing diesel car.

Today Debs and I had lunch with her friends Trevor and Jane at their lovely quirky flinty home in North Norfolk. Nearby we walked in Felbrigg Park where green woodpeckers hopped in the grass, a dowdy pink-billed mandarin drake bustled across the lake, and the heavens hurled their thunder and their rain at us.

Tonight the sky is pearl-streaked and pink and the clover glows ghostly in the going light.

New with new friends today


mandarin duck
Aix galericulata

2012 Totals

Mammals: 80
Birds: 846
Reptiles: 20
Amphibians: 7
Fish: 6

Saturday, 28 July 2012


The Wildlife Trusts are playing NWT's marine video on a loop in their reception for the duration of National Marine Week. In Rebecca's words:

I feel sorry for the receptionist having to listen to it for seven hours a day.

Aptly put.

Friday, 27 July 2012


As I drive to Kelling Heath this afternoon the hedge is full of the yellow spikes of agrimony. A four-spotted chaser carves triangles over the top pond, where four well-grown moorhen chicks pester their mother for food and a posse of crossbills calls overhead.

In the woods by the railway line are a white admiral and a flawless autumn comma, and through the leathery leaves of an oak flits a purple hairstreak in the afternoon sun.

The rough with the smooth

The rough
Shame, shame and thrice shame on an oceanically ill-informed marsh tit. My friend Dawn Watson of Seasearch East just wrote to say that I'm guilty of marine mis-identification. The creature (indeed creatures) I proudly proclaim to be a sponge is (are) in fact finger bryozoa. It was very tactful of Dawn to point this out to me in private, rather than commenting directly on the video, though my shame is just as keen.

She also says that without sound I look as though I'm rapping. Dawn, Dawn, you were doing so well with the tact thing.

The smooth
In the National Marine Week video I clearly looked less like a caffeine-crazed meerkat than I gave myself credit for. The Wildlife Trusts have given it pride of place on the homepage of their website. I should add that any merits the video may have are wholly thanks to Rebecca, PR and Communications Manager at Norfolk Wildlife Trust and cinematic superstar.

The Academy Award for Best Original Bryozoa goes to...

Note to self

Up until now, all of the videos Rebecca and I have made for Norfolk Wildlife Trust have been scripted. For various reasons we made our video on National Marine Week quite quickly and without a script, in a here's-the-camera-now-talk sort of way.

Note to self, though: don't make unscripted videos when you were leading a nightjar walk until late the previous evening and you've overdosed on caffeine to make it through another long working day. Just a thought. The coffee makes you bob up and down and wave your paws like a demented meerkat.

Meerkat or no meerkat, our message of marine conservation and marine protected areas in the UK is important, terribly important.

NWT video on National Marine Week, reproduced with permission.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

National Marine Week

In this afternoon's positively Caribbean sun Rebecca and I roved to West Runton beach to make a short video on Marine Protected Areas and The Wildlife Trusts' upcoming National Marine Week. If you follow the National Marine Week link you'll see a splendid photo of an edible crab against a chest sporting an NWT logo. This is no ordinary chest; it's my chest, taken by artist John Hurst on West Runton beach three years ago.

Today a new photo was taken, as we made the video; this one has a head, but no crab. The old one is probably preferable.

Under a Caribbean sky on West Runton beach, photo by Rebecca Worsfold

I can't visit West Runton without mentioning Louise and Martin and their staff at the super-friendly Beach CafĂ©. If NWT needs posters in West Runton Louise is on the case, if NWT needs a retweet or a mention on Facebook Louise is all over it, if NWT needs a delicious cup of coffee after a long day on the beach she's poured it before you've even asked. No-one does more to help NWT promote the message of marine conservation at West Runton than Louise and all our friends who work with her. And if that weren't enough, Louise has 750,000-year-old fossil hyaena poo in her kitchen.

My friend David North, who is head of education at NWT, wrote this morning about various things and asked me to give his love to a Mediterranean gull at West Runton. This has become our totem bird on the beach, always there and always a delight to see. I saw two today, a smartly scaly juvenile and a moulting adult. David, I gave them your love.

Three heaths and three new vertebrates

24th July

Heath No.1: Dersingham Bog

This was an early-morning shimmy in the hope of seeing a tree pipit. I can't believe I've got this far through 2012 and not seen a tree pipit; but with the weather we've had and all the travelling I've done it's understandable. After my visit this morning, I still haven't seen a tree pipit but in such a beautiful place, and with so many other glorious creatures to see, who cares?

In the thump of summer sunshine the grasshoppers have finally begun to sing. All along the paths were the long percussive trills of the common green grasshopper and the soft oft-repeated buzz of the mottled grasshopper (a personal favourite). In the bog, bog asphodel (good name) was in flower, the exact colour of the yolk in a hard-boiled egg. Coal tits were gossipping in the pines and overhead bounded both a green woodpecker and a great spotted.

Well done to Natural England for the work they've been doing to restore this beautiful place.

Heath No. 2: NWT Roydon Common

You can't talk heaths in Norfolk without talking Roydon. Big, wild, and wondrous it's among the most significant heathland sites in East Anglia. I was supposed to be leading a wildflower walk for Norfolk Wildlife Trust but true to form I veered off into all sorts of other subjects. If only nature weren't so fascinating.

To my credit, I did talk wildflowers. The car park was bright with common ragwort, common stork's-bill, dove's-foot crane's-bill, hare's-foot clover and hop trefoil. In the shady birch-wood leading to the heath were rough chervil and upright hedge parsley (I'm a sucker for obscure Apiaceae) and on the heath were acres and acres of common heather, diligently grazed by our glossy herd of Dartmoor ponies, the best reserve wardens a heath could hope for.

Through the centre of the heath the valley mire was ablaze with more flowers of bog asphodel, but there were numberless other delights at Roydon too. In the car park I heard my first meadow grasshoppers and Roesel's bush-crickets of the year, plus field and mottled grasshoppers. One day I hope to find or foster a kindred soul who gets as excited about Orthoptera as I do. Odonata, though, are accessible to everyone, especially the big, bright ones; and none is bigger or brighter than the emperor dragonfly. One zig-zagged over a pond (stonechats and cross-leaved heath here too) while another quartered the heather, plucking midges from the limitless blue sky. By the tea-dark pond we also saw common emerald damselflies, a four-spotted chaser and common darters. There were Lepidoptera too: small coppers, gatekeepers, meadow browns, ringlets and an Essex skipper. Summer at last.

As we reached the car park a voice piped up: Is that a grass snake? It was an adder, my first of the year and a beauty.

Heath No. 3: Kelling Heath

The dragonfly theme continued here. Around the wildlife pond were large red, common blue, blue-tailed and small red-eyed damsels, while in the water were legions of three-spined sticklebacks and many other things to keep young pond-dipping minds happy. The honeysuckled woods about the ponds were bright with crisp white admirals, a rarity when I was a child here and special still.

In the evening, on my first nightjar walk of the season, we heard a singing male of the eponymous nightbird and saw a female sway past us, metres away in the gloaming, on her slender, continent-crossing wings. As we walked back from the heath common pipistrelles juddered on my bat detector and wove through the tops of the birches and pines.

What happiness there is to be had on heaths.

When the bees’ feet shake the bells of the heather, and the ruddy strings of the sap-stealing dodder are twined about the green spikes of the furze, it is summertime on the commons.

Henry Williamson
Tarka the Otter

Act One, scene i, Gonzalo:

Now I would give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground, long heath, brown furze, any thing.

William Shakespeare
The Tempest

New on Norfolk’s sunny heaths today


common pipistrelle
Pipistrellus pipistrellus


European nightjar
Caprimulgus europaeus


Vipera berus

2012 Totals

Mammals: 80
Birds: 845
Reptiles: 20
Amphibians: 7
Fish: 6

Monday, 23 July 2012

From the beauteous Broads

I'm tired, marshtitters, worn out, whacked. This is a bonkers-busy time of year for me and I spend my days racing from one event to the next, from one reserve to another. I've had a splendid day at three glorious Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserves in the Broads with Beth from Discovery Quest; but I'm too shattered to write about it all. A summary will have to do.


Place: NWT Ranworth Broad (My old NWT education team stomping ground; lovely to be back today.)

Plants: Tissue-paper spires of purple loosestrife and egg-yolk flowers of yellow loosestrife, same name but unrelated; canoe-like leaves of great water dock amid the fine froth of fen bedstraw; hop vines, bristly, weaving through bushes of guelder rose; redcurrant (rounded leaves, no smell) and blackcurrant (jagged leaves, pungent) in the carr; and a noble oak, three-hundred years old and loved by thousands of school-visitors to Ranworth.

Birds: Shrill common terns bringing fish to their chicks on the platforms; great crested grebes waving their crazy crests in the shallows; a kingfisher blasting past; a hobby snipping the sky over the visitor centre; and an Egyptian goose looking lost among a gaggle of greylags.

Creeping things that creep upon the earth: Strangalia maculata beetles, long-horned and dotted black on tawny-yellow; brown hawker dragonflies all over the place; tiny swallowtail caterpillars on milk parsley, still at the don't-spot-me-I'm-a-speck-of-bird-poo-stage.


Place: NWT Cockshoot Broad (One of the Bure Valley's least-known beauties; hugely worth a visit.)

Plants: Greater bird's-foot trefoil, bright and beautiful in the marsh; wild angelica filling the carr-woodland understorey; an out-of-place stand of enchanter's nightshade (did no one tell you you're an ancient woodland indicator?) in lacy flower along the boardwalk; parsley water-dropwort (enough said; what's not to love about parsley water-dropwort?).

Birds: The Bure Valley osprey (yes, another Norfolk osprey) twice flying from his dead-alder perch to catch a fish, twice pursued by a juvenile marsh harrier (looking puny by comparison).

Creeping things that creep upon the earth: Small red-eyed damselflies, so newly part of our Norfolk odonatofauna (I'm not sure that's a word), resting on the pads of yellow water-lilies; in the car-park by the Bure, feeding from pom-poms of spear thistle, a late swallowtail. Broadland magic.


Place: NWT Upton Broad and Marshes (The capital of dragonfly-watching in Norfolk and home to countless charismatic weeds; simply superb.)

Plants: Where to begin? Southern marsh orchids, loud and bright, and marsh helleborines, duskily beautiful; bog myrtle (love that smell!); grass of Parnassus so very nearly in flower (two more days of sunshine needed); marsh lousewort all through the squelchy fen; and dykes sharp with the spikes of water soldier.

Birds: Marsh tits sneezing in the ash-woods; a blackcap tootling cheerily in the car-park.

Creeping things that creep upon the earth: Dragonflies! Brown hawkers everywhere; a southern hawker; common blue, azure and variable damselflies; a last four-spotted chaser through the tops of the willows; common darters and many, many black-tailed skimmers; loveliest of all, perhaps, droop-winged common emerald damselflies.

I wish I went to the Broads more often these days. But I'm glad NWT is still there to look after them.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

A great dark bird

On my first day at a new school, aged seven, I sat next to a curly-haired girl with sparkly eyes named Rachel. I told her, apparently, I wanted to work with ducks. More than thirty years later she is my oldest friend and today I walked to visit her in the Watch House, half way along Blakeney Point, where every summer she and a pile of friends stay for a long weekend.

I love the crunch of the shingle under my feet as I leave the Cley beach car park; it tells me I'm stepping into one of my favourite places and my favourite frames of mind. The shingle is bright with yellow horned poppies and the almost-nothing flowers of sea sandwort (opposite pairs of untoothed leaves, Caryophyllaceae: how many weed workshops have I taught this week?). The sea is loud with Sandwich terns and little terns and an eider powers past. This is my first eider of the year, a male in soot-black and frost-white eclipse plumage, but he is eclipsed by the sun, the blue sky and summer.

At last.

Whimbrel trill by on sharp, dusky wings and black-tummied dunlin skip and flicker over the beach at my approach. Common gulls imperfect in primary moult are here too. This year, so young, so wet, so green, has turned and already these feathered Olympians are slicing our new-blue skies. South birds, south!

Some though are busy still. Little terns are carrying sand-eels to their chicks and passerines, encouraged by the sunshine, sing: a reed bunting chinks in the Suaeda, and meadow pipits its-wits-its-wits in the marsh. Over the sun-warm shingle a grayling flits, newly emerged.

As Rachel and her friends and I sit and talk, drinking Pimms in a theatre of hare's-foot clover, a hobby speeds by, more whimbrel too. And slowly, slowly, after weeks of workaholism, of doubt and of a great dark bird which almost stooped to slay this marsh tit, I begin to remember who I am.

I walk off the Point a new old me, under the cloud-streaked, soul-big vastness of my Norfolk's sky.

For this is what we do. Put one foot forward and then the other. Lift our eyes to the snarl and smile of the world once more. Think. Act. Feel. Add our little consequence to the tides of good and evil that flood and drain the world. Drag our shadowed crosses into the hope of another night. Push our brave hearts into the promise of a new day. With love: the passionate search for a truth other than our own. With longing: the pure, ineffable yearning to be saved. For so long as fate keeps waiting, we live on. God help us. God forgive us. We live on.
Gregory David Roberts

At regina gravi iamdudum saucia cura
Vulnus alit venis et caeco carpitur igni
Aeneid, Liber IV

New under a blue sky today


common eider
Somateria mollissima

2012 Totals
Mammals: 79
Birds: 844
Reptiles: 19
Amphibians: 7
Fish: 6

Thursday, 19 July 2012


Gemma and I spent today in Wayland Prison again, and again we were delighted to work with a friendly bunch of prisoners and staff. Here are a few snippets from our day:

1) A female hobby flew over on stiletto wings. I've said it many times before but what a bird!

2) In a discussion of the great crested newt we inadvertently caught while pond-dipping on Tuesday:

Marsh tit: We released it immediately of course, as handling or disturbing them is against the law.

Bright young prisoner (with a twinkle in his eye): We're not too bothered about that round here.

3) As I reached the slide of a great spotted woodpecker in an illustrated talk on common Norfolk birds:

Young prisoner (same one as above, still with a twinkle in his eye): How long does it take them to make a hole?

Marsh tit: Are you planning to drill your way out with a woodpecker?

Much laughter from assembled company, including young prisoner.

4) On a walk in the rain in search of birds:

Marsh tit: Can you hear the woodpigeon?

Young prisoner (same as above, eyes still twinkling): I can't hear f*** all.

5) The rain grew heavier so we gave up on birds and moved to plants, which have the advantage of staying still. We examined chicory, we sniffed hedge woundwort (yeuch), we peered through the leaves of perforate St-John's-wort, we smelled the sharp scent-trail of a fox and we got very wet. We also enjoyed ourselves enormously, all of us, prisoners, staff, naturalists and a marsh tit.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows

So many wonderful weeds; so little time.

Today began for me at Cley, where my life as a naturalist began some twenty-five years ago. I was, again, sharing ideas with Beth of Discovery Quest who is charged with delivering the DQ wildlife workbook to clients. Having caught up with many friends and colleagues in the visitor centre (Dave and Pat: how many avocets fledged on the reserve this year? Pat: how are the flashy goldfish? Laura: how are the guinea pig girls? Jonathan: what news of the visitor centre? Barry: how the devil are you?) Beth and I walked the four boundaries of the reserve. There was an element of cunning to this plan as our aim was to explore a range of Norfolk coast landforms and habitats and discuss their formation, their cultural importance, their wildlife and their conservation. Across the south of the reserve we talked reed-bed and grazing marsh (attractively grazed by happy-looking toffee and black cows); down the west side of the reserve we talked saltmarsh (violet with common sea lavender, that happy hue that like no other says July in North Norfolk); along the north of the reserve we talked shingle ridge and longshore drift (here yellow horned poppies and common cat's-ear turned the whole beach yellow); and down the east bank we talked landscape-scale conservation and listened to bearded tits in the reeds.

There were marsh harriers: a male, a female and two impeccable juveniles. There were wading birds already migrating south: scrapy-voiced dunlin, black-masked turnstones with chestnut backs, and sanderling. There were Sandwich terns, scrapier voiced still and still carrying silver sand-eels to their chicks. And there were many thoughts, ideas and words, on wildlife and on how best to share it with DQ's clientele.

From here we went west to one of my favourite places, a perfect picnic spot, were it not for the carpet of impossibly prickly carline thistles. DTH first took me to Warham Camp when I was a boy of fourteen and he my school biology master. I lost my heart at once to chalk grassland plants, to squinancywort, to rockrose, to pyramidal orchid, to greater wild thyme and to salad burnet. All these we saw today, at this wild, forgotten Iceni fort, plus blousy blooms of dropwort, delicate umbels of burnet saxifrage, tiny bright-eyed flowers of fairy flax and shoots of autumn gentian, the promise of flowers to come on another visit in September.

North again then, to Warham Greens, to walk into the saltmarsh, eyes blinded almost by the haze of sea lavender, noses flaring to the sharp smell of sea wormwood, ears quickening to the throaty trills of whimbrel. How soon the year turns and the birds head south. In grassland here, above the saltmarsh limits marked by sea beet and by shrubby seablite, we talked weed identification. Square stems and opposite leaves; opposite pairs of untoothed leaves; composite inflorescences; and four petals arranged in a cross. There is much joy to be had in weeds.

And then, of course, it rained again. Hard. But we went home happy with our weeds all the same.

Act Two, scene i, Oberon:
I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell'd skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in:
And with the juice of this I'll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.

William Shakespeare
A Midsummer Night's Dream

Tuesday, 17 July 2012


All of us who work on Norfolk Wildlife Trust's education team believe that contact with nature has the power to help anyone and everyone. We work with schools, we work with families, we work with adults, we work with people with severe mental illness, and today Gemma and I worked with prisoners at Wayland Prison.

Things began well. As Gemma opened the door of her posh, liveried NWT vehicle I heard crossbills flying by. In fact the whole day, the first of three we're spending there this week, was great. Today we were talking bugs. We pitfall-trapped, we pond-dipped, we sweep-netted, we made solitary bee nestboxes, we identified and we laughed.

It's a cheap point to make but what touched us most was the concern these tough blokes, all of whom have fallen foul of the law, showed for even the tiniest wild animals. Each bug was gently studied and returned to its habitat. When a dopey young hedgehog was found in the long grass it was lovingly picked up and put in a quiet corner in a box.

So it was that, at the end of the day, I found myself heading west towards King's Lynn to take the hapless hedgepig to the RSPCA's East Winch Wildlife Centre. The NWT education team has a great relationship with the wildlife hospital and we've often worked together at events, including several behind-the-scenes tours, with a chance to feed seal pups, for our junior members and our volunteers. The hedgehog, not the first sickly specimen I've taken there, was duly weighed and admitted and, in response to a request from the prisoners, I kept his case number so that we can find out how the little fellow fares. So much for hard men.

The A47 between Swaffham and Lynn was ablaze with flower: stands of delicate pink musk mallow and tussocks of brasher common mallow, fields of sharp mustardy wild parsnip and - a perfect chromatic foil - clumps of dusky grey-blue field scabious.

Reaching home, as every day through the high summer, I saw turtle doves outside Morisson's: this evening a male parachuting in display from a street lamp and another flicking across the bypass. It's rumoured that the founders of this colony were released by a local breeding project. I'm not a fan of unplanned releases but, released or otherwise, I count myself lucky to see turtle doves every day of the summer.

I added a new vertebrate to my list today, illegally. Dipping the wildlife pond at Wayland Prison we caught a splendid smooth newt, plus many newtpoles. Then one of the prisoners yelled that he'd caught a crocodile. It was a great crested newt, a first for the pond. Not having a licence to handle GCNs we quickly returned this spectacular animal to its habitat and beat a hasty - legally required - retreat.

It doesn't do to fall foul of the law, especially in a prison.

New at Wayland Prison today


great crested newt
Triturus cristatus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 79
Birds: 843
Reptiles: 19
Amphibians: 7
Fish: 6

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Weed tweets

On Thursday and today I taught beginners' wildflower (a.k.a. weed) courses for Norfolk Wildlife Trust in Thetford and King's Lynn. How chuffed I was to see on Twitter that one of my Thetford victims had enjoyed herself. Thank you Sarah for coming, for contributing, for tweeting, and for allowing me to retweet you here. We look forward to seeing you at more NWT workshops.

Sarah's first weed tweet (a quiver of anticipation in her tweeting fingers)

Sarah's second weed tweet (the thrill of conquest, of mastery of the Lamiaceae, coursing through her tweet-digit)


Sarah's response to her marsh tit immortalisation

Friday, 13 July 2012

Of falcons and tiercels

These two nights past, Rebecca and I have seen two plays enacted in our cathedral's cloister: The Tempest and The Taming of the Shrew. In the sky above these dramas another drama: the shrieking, hurling, shouting, sky-rending of our welcome peregrines. The male, the female, their daughter and their son.

Petruchio (Act IV scene i):
My falcon now is sharp and passing empty.
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorg’d,
For then she never looks upon her lure.

William Shakespeare
The Taming of the Shrew

Monday, 9 July 2012

Since last we spoke

1)    On Saturday morning – briefly and unwontedly – I saw a sky-blue-sky. Westwards as I drove, I came upon a flowering flax-field on a hill and for a moment it seemed as though the blue had come to earth to ask forgiveness for its absence.

2)    I was driving west to King’s Lynn to teach a workshop on grasshoppers and bush-crickets for Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Of all the workshops I teach in the UK, this one on Orthoptera (sometimes taught with my good friend DTH) is the most fun. Orthoptera are cute, Orthoptera are ignored by most naturalists (so you always sound really clever if you know them), there are manageably few species of them, and – best of all – most of them make identifiable noises; so if you’re a birder, accustomed to finding or surveying birds by sound, they’re a slam dunk. (Did the basketball reference there make me sound like a hip orthopterist?) We had a great time on our workshop and, despite a diluvian burst of rain and the fact that ‘hoppers are all weeks behind schedule, thanks to this dreadful summer, we saw early instars of three species: dark bush-cricket, lesser marsh grasshopper and a conehead (by habitat – coastal grasses – most likely short-winged but with such youngsters it’s impossible to be sure).

3)    Yesterday the grasshopper warbler was still singing outside my house.

4)    As I drove to the Brecks this morning, I saw, for the first time this year, some of nature's startling colours, intensified by the tin-grey sky: the mulled-wine blooms of musk thistle; the not-green-not-yellow umbels of wild parsnip; the lent-from-heaven blue of viper’s bugloss; and the joyful scarlet of common poppy.

5)    I pulled in at NWT Weeting Heath to see whether I could spot a stone curlew. These wonderful weirdos are often tricky to find but, opening the slats of the hide, I saw ten gathered before me on the bunny-scuffed breck. Superb! (A note on taxonomy: earlier in the year I saw Indian stone curlews in, well, India. These used to be considered the same species as ours but are now generally regarded as a beast in their own right. So 842 birds for the year.)

6)    I’d agreed to meet Beth, from Discovery Quest, in the car park of the RSPB’s heartening Lakenheath Fen reserve for another day of work on the DQ workbook. All around the car park cinnabar caterpillars clung to ragwort clumps and both dove’s-foot cranesbill and common stork’s-bill flowered in profusion. The trails were lined with massive frothy stands of hemlock and everywhere, like gastropod garnet and amber, were brown-lipped banded snails. As I pointed to a poplar wood, explaining to Beth that this was among the only nesting sites in the UK for golden orioles, I saw a dazzling yellow and black bird. A male! He was closely followed by his female. With juvenile marsh harriers all around (the exact colour of Green and Black’s 85% cocoa chocolate), and a Cetti's warbler plinking cheerily, we were thoroughly delighted. Here too were cuckoos, a hobby, mating blue-tailed damselflies, a female banded demoiselle and lovely lurid spikes of purple loosestrife.

7)  In the afternoon we walked nearby at NWT East Wretham Heath. Two little owls swooped across our path, setting the long-tailed tits trilling in alarm. Small heath butterflies – my first of 2012 – fidgeted over the closely-cropped sward and mild blue bugloss flowered.

8)    At Lakenheath I spied a tiny whitish legume which I didn’t know. Never one to leave a weed unknown, I resolved to look it up. On reaching home I grabbed my flora, which fell open – mirabile dictu – at the requisite page. Page 219 of 544. The plant was rough clover Trifolium scabrum, described as mostly coastal but present in the East Anglian Brecklands (I can vouch for the latter). Last year at Lakenheath I found bur medick for the first time, so it’s clearly a great site for obscure Breckland legumes (I know, I know: I really ought to get out more).

New in the Brecks today


stone curlew
Burhinus oedicnemus
golden oriole
Oriolus oriolus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 79
Birds: 843
Reptiles: 19
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 6

Thursday, 5 July 2012


A grasshopper warbler sings outside my house tonight; and more rain comes.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012


This afternoon I, foolishly, drove into town just as the Olympic Torch Relay passed through. I'd forgotten all about it and, in the sweaty heat and humidity of our damp un-summer, I started to fume. Then, once the buses and the police motorcyclists had passed and the traffic again began to inch through the streets, came the people: hundreds of people, old and young, with bright smiles and Union Jacks, with dogs wagging tails and mouths telling tales of a once-in-a-lifetime event.

(All of them, incidentally, held together by the Higgs boson. Or so it seems.)

Our simple, grubby little town wore a smile today. And I thought to myself, what a wonderful world.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

In the pink

Since my return from Bolivia five years ago, the most fulfilling, meaningful project on which I've worked has been Discovery Quest. This is a programme for people with severe mental health problems, which was conceived by Paul Lefever, and which has its logistical home at Julian Support. Its aim is for participants, many of whose lives are severely disrupted by their conditions, to grow in physical and mental health through a series of walks in the outdoors. I have been privileged to be involved since the start of Discovery Quest's first round of funding, as a nature enthusiast, birdsong-identifier, weed-spotter and co-walker. It has been a wonderful, rewarding experience.

A couple of years ago, in a hide at NWT Holme Dunes, Paul asked me whether I would take on a much bigger project: the writing and delivery of a course on Norfolk's wildlife and wild landscapes for Discovery Quest participants. I leapt at the chance and the result, supported by David North at Norfolk Wildlife Trust and many others, and sensitively designed by Paul Westley, was the Discovery Quest Wildlife Workbook. Of the many things I have written about wildlife in many places in the world it is the single thing of which I am proud.

I'm proud because it observably helps people: people who lead challenging, tumultuous lives, who are marginalised and misunderstood and who, in most cases, have no opportunity to get to know Norfolk's extraordinary wildlife. It was for them that Paul conceived it, it was for them I wrote it, and it was for them that Paul so beautifully designed it.

Recently Paul Lefever called to say that Discovery Quest had received a second round of funding, for a new programme with the workbook at its heart, through which people will have the opportunity to explore Norfolk's wild places and take part in simple creative activities in response to them. My role in the new project is to help my DQ colleagues, Bethan and Katie, as they prepare to deliver the workbook to participants.

Today, under a grey sky, with a promise of rain, we met on Holt Lowes to talk heaths. The Lowes have long been one of my favourite spots for watching Norfolk's wildlife. Here a family of NWT's Dartmoor ponies helps preserve the heath's flora and fauna by grazing, in exactly the way in which livestock has unwittingly managed heaths through centuries. Here were the ghastly red strings of dodder, sucking the life from gorse, and the feathery fronds of wood horsetail in shady corners. Here too were common spotted orchids, greater bird's-foot trefoil, heath bedstraw, ragged robin and round-leaved sundew in flower. A female keeled skimmer brushed her brittle wings through the gorse, a woodlark sang his tragic plaint in the clouds, and it was good to be sharing this beautiful heath with Katie and Beth.

From here we moved to Kelling Heath where silver-studded blues sprited through waves of purple moor grass and large skippers pinged around the blooms of brambles. Common blue damselflies sat in the sun, common green grasshoppers sang their sewing-machiney songs (a month late but after the summer we've had who can blame them?), and the tiny tissue-paper flowers of heath milkwort lined the dusty edges of the track.

On a verge nearby, where every year at this time I pay homage to the one maiden pink I know in North Norfolk, a single flower shone. Peru was spectacular but it's lovely to be back where I belong.

Maiden pink by Bethan Wardale