The month began with a trip to some of the other reserves that we look after in the Mid Yare reserve. Sam and I were to help one of the wardens “check the cows” in the Surlingham marshes on the other side of the River Yare. I had previously heard talk of this and tried to imagine what checks we might have to do. Did we have to examine them closely for disease or check their hooves? We arrived at Church Marsh and off we went into the reeds to look for the cows, with Matt the warden leading the way.
Volunteer and Warden heading into the reeds. Photo credit: Adrian Samuels
The main check we had to do was to count them to make sure they were all there, but we would also make sure they moved ok and were not stuck in a ditch. The bunch at Church marsh are 3 highland cattle and they are flighty. As we approached them, Matt said they will run away as we get closer as they had been living there from a very young age with not much human contact. Indeed they did, but we got close enough to see there were three and they were all moving ok and not stuck in a ditch.
We then went to another area of Surlingham Marshes, to check a group of 7 more highland cattle. This involved almost swimming through very tall reeds and finding the cows using some of Matt’s knowledge about where they usually are at the time of day. Sure enough, we found them, all 7. This bunch are known as the Mr Men and have names such as Mr Grumpy.
Photo of the Mr Men, highland cows standing under trees – Photo credit: Matthew Wilkinson.
If you haven’t guessed, Mr Grumpy is the one slightly distanced from the others in the shade of the trees.
We did again wander the reserve a little and Matt also pointed out a mysterious reed origami he sees occasionally. The culprit seems to be a reed mite called Steneotarsonemus Phragmitidis.
Twisted reeds with tips folded in. Photo credit: Matthew Wilkinson
We finished the day by pulling out some creeping thistle that was getting out of control in a meadow in the brickyard reserve. It had a lot of orchids and plants like yellow rattle that were all good to work amongst.
Another invasive plant that needs regular removal is Himalayan Balsam. This is a non-native plant introduced to the UK in 1839, that spreads quickly and crowds out other vegetation. It establishes itself along water courses and the seeds are transported further afield by water flows. We try to get rid of it wherever it grows on the reserve. I and a few other volunteers were to remove plants from Rockland and Surlingham Marshes, and we would go across by boat. We walked up sandy wall and along the river to a little way beyond the pumphouse where Matt ferried us and equipment across to Rockland.
Volunteer and Warden in small rowboat crossing a river. Photo credit: Adrian Samuels
Once there we began the search. Once we got our eye in, we started to find quite a few plants. Luckily not as many as in previous years, according to others who had done this before, which was welcome news. We had to pull out the whole plant at its root and break up into pieces to avoid it taking root and continuing its growth. We did this in several places along the river. In one case I think we ended up in the tallest reed I have been in so far. If it had been a bigger area, I think I may well have got lost as it was so hard to see out of the reeds. We used tall trees as markers, as we were told there were ditches at either side. At one point a marsh harrier flew over, looking for food, and I got a glimpse of what it might feel like to be a small mammal avoiding predation (or not) in the reeds. I felt hunted. But I did like being deep in the reeds with lots of caterpillars and resting dragonflies amongst other insects we saw.
Black caterpillars climbing up a plant stem. Dragonfly resting on a reed. Photo credit: Adrian Samuels
Now we come to the “into the fen” part of this month. From Mid-July, the breeding season is pretty much over and the staff and volunteers are then allowed to go into the fen as we are less likely to disturb breeding birds.
The first expedition into the fen was just out to the left of reception hide. Another experience of very high reeds and trying to keep landmark trees (e.g. that well known dead tree) or scrub in view to be aware of where we were. We also tried to avoid the extremely high reeds which would usually signify water, such as a ditch, that we did not want to fall into. This expedition was to survey swallowtail larvae on their food plant, Milk Parsley. The methodology we were using was a 15 minute point search where you start at one point and wander within 50 metres of that point counting any larvae you find on Milk Parsley until 15 minutes is up. Things to avoid are trip hazards such as hidden logs, ditches or wasp nests. The warden mentioned that running (in the reeds?!?!?) and then lying down face up (in the water ?!?!) is the best thing to do as you can then see them and swat them if needed. He did have several horror stories of wasp nest encounters that had me imagining the horror. Luckily, we did not even see one wasp. It was encouraging that we did find several larvae on several plants and showed us that the next generation of adults on the wing is well into the planning stage.
Swallowtail Butterfly on pant. Volunteer moving reeds in search of Swallow tail caterpillars. Photo credit: Adrian Samuels
Also at this time, certain areas of the fen are cut, allowing light in and the new generation of a wide variety of plants to get a foothold. If we don’t do this the “bully” plants take over, such as reed and willow and then scrub develops and eventually we have a woodland. Fen is a very rare habitat in the UK and we need to preserve what we have left. The fen is split into many plots and some are cut every 4 or 8 years and some not at all. Some plots are also still cut by professional reedcutters who take the reed for thatch. These different methods help create the diversity we see at the reserve.
My first day of reed cutting involved meeting Matt the warden and other volunteers at the workshop, collecting up the equipment such as brushcutters and forks, making sure we all had lunch and enough water. The word was that, as it was a hot day, we would need a lot! Then we headed out in our wellies into the fen. The brushcutters began cutting and as the reeds lay across the compartment we started to rake and pile them. It is surprising, considering how physically exerting this is, that it is also very satisfying to see the whole compartment cut and piled nicely at the end of the day. The motivation to achieve that was enough to keep us going. In the hot weather this quickly became hot work not conducive to the long-sleeved fleece I had on. So that was removed and sun cream and insect repellent applied. The beaming sun and the very apparent horseflies required it. There had to be several stops, either sitting on a heap of reed or resting on your fork, and definitely having a drink of water. Other stops included grabbing binoculars to observe a bird, and on a future occasion, the bird we saw was an osprey. At the end of the day, we were all exhausted but pleased with a days work well done.
Volunteers raking cut reed. Photo credit: Adrian Samuels
One further adventure into the fen involved a survey of Milk Parsley plants. This was to check the numbers and sizes of plants along certain transects mapped out by tall white poles in the fen. Sam and I carried our clipboard, pen and tape measure out into various compartments of fen and walked along the transects checking for milk parsley plants a metre either side of the line we were walking, measuring as we went. I was in charge of the clipboard and pen for a few transects before I dropped the pen too many times, resulting in lots of looking around feet through the web of reeds and vegetation trying to find it before it slipped deeper into the fen. Sam did not drop the pen once. At times the reed was so high that it was difficult to see the destination pole and keep on the transect line. After a great day of surveying we soon input the results to a spreadsheet containing data from previous years to find that although there was a reduction, it was not as bad as the wardens had feared.
This month, Sam and I were also asked to help out the volunteers at the RSPB Winterton Little Tern colony where they keep watch over the terns 24/7 to try and help as many chicks and eggs avoid predation as they can. We were asked to look after the terns overnight from 10.30pm to 5.30am, patrolling around the dunes and the beach, looking out for foxes, hedgehogs, deer and other animals that might interfere with the electric fence or predate the eggs or chicks. The first time we went in early July we arrived to find that it was very foggy. So, walking down to the beach we could not see very far into the dunes or out to sea even though it was still light. We found the RSPB tent and the person who was to induct us in preparation for the night. She showed us through the various pieces of equipment we would be using such as a massive powerful torch and a thermal imaging camera which I was very excited to use. We were also shown how to check the electric fence and more importantly how to turn it off if an animal got stuck in it. Then we were left to occasionally patrol the fence and the dunes shining a huge beam around looking for eyeshine to signify an animal. Occasionally we would be alerted to a reflection in the fog, only to get closer and realise it was a sign or other human made glinting object. We also occasionally came across sleeping skylarks that would suddenly awake and head off into the night. We did not however, see any foxes or other predators so the thermal imaging camera was mostly used to look at the terns and check they were all ok. It remained foggy all night and stayed that way until we left around 5.30am.
Luckily, we did go again more recently and in between the rain and clouds we did have one gap where we could see the night sky and I even saw a shooting star, (maybe a Perseid meteor ?), as well as Jupiter and Saturn. The lack of fog also meant as the sun came up we could see the terns going back and forth to catch fish. Along with many other seabirds such as Arctic Skua, Common Scoter and Gannets, which I love to see along with some grey seals. As we left the second time we also spotted a hobby chasing the terns that was then chased itself by a peregrine falcon. The peregrine did not stay long and headed off to Winterton but the hobby carried on its mission to catch a little tern. The person who took over from us headed off down the beach to try and scare it away. We had heard from them that the hobby had taking several adult terns in the previous weeks.
Here is the RSPB tent on the beach in the foggy morning and Sam wandering in the dark and rain.
Blue tent in the sand. Person standing in sand dune at night. Photo credit: Adrian Samuels
Talking of spotting things, here are some of the sightings I saw this last month.
One afternoon I and several other people watched an otter at reception broad swimming around for about an hour. It was a beautiful experience. The otter even approached a heron, who then barked at it when it got too close and it slinked away.
Otter swimming in the water with stream of bubbles behind it and Heron perched on log. Photo credit: Adrian Samuels
One morning on the pumphouse track I noticed the barn owl fly past. I then got to watch it for about half an hour as it sat in trees and on various fenceposts looking for food.
Owl sitting on branch. Photo credit: Adrian Samuels
On the way back from surveying milk parsley, Sam spotted this valezina form of a fritillary. Apparently 5-15% of females take this form rather than the more usual orange.
Fritillary butterfly feeding on flower. Photo credit: Adrian Samuels
And here is one of the little terns at Winterton hunting for fish
Little turn flying Photo credit: Adrian Samuels
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