September, 2010

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Bugs, Birds and Beasts in the East

All of our up to date fun and frolics in the East from office antics to great conservation stories and those magical connections with nature.
  • No longer scared of the snake in the grass

    Grass snake image copyright Kevin Simmonds, www.wildlifeimagery.co.uk

    Snakes are up there with spiders and sharks in the ‘horror movie’ wildlife list. An unexpected encounter with a snake is guaranteed to make your heart beat raise a notch or two. Our primeval instincts kick in and for many of us our first thought is ‘danger!’

    Snakes well and truly get bad press; if they’re not portrayed as scary then they are believed to be somehow sinister or conniving. But last weekend I had an experience that led me to rethink my views on snakes.

    At the bottom of my little garden is a pile of rotting logs and some long grass that I pretend doesn’t exist. I was hunting for ladybirds (under the strict instruction of my bossy two year old) when something caught my eye. Curled up on a log, basking in the sun was a snake, perfectly still. It was dark green, with a yellow collar on its neck – a grass snake. It was so oblivious to me peering at it that any initial sense of worry just melted away and I reminded myself that there really is no need for hasty exits with our native grass snakes.

    Grass snakes may be the UK’s largest reptile, the largest even growing to the length of an adult human, but they are non-venomous and very shy. In fact, the worst thing they are likely to do is smell horrible. When under threat, they produce a foul, garlicky fluid from their anal glands to put off a potential predator. Their other trick to avoid trouble is to play dead, literally going limp and floppy with their mouth gaping open until they feel safe again.

    You’re most likely to spot a grass snake in areas close to water with a good supply of their favourite food, frogs and toads. The grass snake is actually a brilliant swimmer and will take to the water to find prey. Even if you’re not lucky enough to see one, you may well find their skin near to a pond edge. They moult at least once a year, sloughing off the old skin in one whole piece.

    As cold-blooded reptiles, snakes need the heat of the sun to warm up them up. This means you are only likely to see them between April and October because, sensibly, they hibernate during the colder months when our British winter means there simply isn’t enough sunshine to get them out of bed. They’ll be underground, having found a cosy hole to hide away in, safe from ground frosts.

    In 2007, the grass snake was included in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as a species requiring greater protection and they are also protected by law. You can help grass snakes as well as lots of other species by leaving a corner of your garden untouched and putting in a pond. I can’t wait for my next snake encounter.

  • Bearded wonders...

     Bearded tit image courtesty of Kevin Simmonds, www.wildlifeimagery.co.uk

    Bearded tits don’t subscribe to the Ronseal approach of ‘does what it says on the tin’ because they are actually neither tits nor bearded. Research places these dainty golden brown birds as the only British member of a tropical family, the babblers. And as for the beard, well, you don’t need to be a facial hair expert to know that isn’t a beard - their look would be better described as a moustache or even ‘mutton chop’ style. Quite military and distinguished, I think you’ll agree.

    Like me, always happier in temperate climes, the bearded tit population will be hoping for a mild winter. These sparrow sized birds are particularly vulnerable to cold weather and following the hard winter of 1947, the Norfolk population was devastatingly reduced down to just a single bird. That’s not the only reason ‘beardies’ have had a hard time as a breeding species in the UK. Habitat loss due to drainage, persecution by collectors during Victorian times and loss of habitat due to agricultural practices have provided significant challenges to their survival in the last three hundred years.

    Since then, milder winters, conservation measures and an impressive capability for speedy breeding have enabled the Norfolk population to make a startling recovery to around 140 pairs.

    At RSPB Titchwell Marsh nature reserve, the wardens are giving bearded tits a real helping hand. Firstly, they keep the reedbeds on which these secretive birds depend in tip top condition. The reedbeds offer a total sanctuary for bearded tits providing shelter, nest sites and a supply of seeds to eat throughout the winter. But the wardens have also gone the extra mile...

    If you have sharp eyes you may spot some unusual structures in Titchwell’s reedbeds. Looking like a vital accessory for a game of quidditch, these ‘broomsticks’ - made of a broom handle and bundles of reed - appear to have been abandoned in the reedbed. In fact, there’s no magic involved, just a bit of creative thinking. These are actually perfect mobile homes for ‘beardies’; cosy snugs just right for a new family, that can be moved out of the way of rising water levels which would otherwise wash away precious nests, eggs and chicks.

    Bearded tits are both secretive and well camouflaged and that makes them harder to spot than a needle in a reedbed! But they do have a distinctive, metallic call known as ‘pinging’, which sounds just like a ball bearing being dropped onto sheet metal. If you hear this noise then keep your eyes open and you may be lucky enough to see a flock darting through the reedbed.

    Why not pop along to Titchwell, where staff and volunteers will be on hand to point you in the right direction of the beautiful, but badly named, bearded tit?

  • wink, wink, wink, wink

    Pink footed geese, Image from RSPB images 

    It’s a noise that cuts through the conversation in the RSPB’s Snettisham reserve office, as each of us recognising the sound, automatically leaves our desks and moves to the windows to gaze into the cloudy grey sky.

    For a moment we can’t see anything and then there they are, the first of the winter. High above us perhaps as many as 300 Pink Footed Geese in half a dozen wavering V shaped skeins flying towards the Wash which lies just a couple of miles to the West of where we are sitting.

     For the next five months, the farmland and coastline of north and west Norfolk will be their home, providing them with the two things that every pink footed goose needs; food and somewhere safe to rest.

     To reach us in Norfolk, these birds have completed an epic flight across the north Atlantic from their breeding ground in the interior of Iceland, making landfall in Scotland and then heading south for their winter refuge around The Wash, the UK’s most important estuary for wild birds

     These geese are clever, not only have they just found their way across the north Atlantic, but they have come to Norfolk because of what ecologists call ‘cultural learning’. In Norfolk the geese have learnt that the aftermath of the sugar beet harvest, the bits of beet root left behind in the soil after the crop has been lifted, are a carbohydrate rich food source, perfect for powering a goose through the cold dark days of winter.

     Their other need, a place to sleep where they will be safe from ground predators such as foxes, is provided by The Wash at the RSPB’s Snettisham nature reserve. Depending upon the state of the tide the 'Pinkies' roost here each night on the mudflats or open water. Then at day break they lift off into the dawn sky, at this time of year in flocks of a few hundred. As the weeks go by and their numbers build with birds freshly arrived from the far north and they depart the roost in their thousands and then in their tens of thousands. The wink, wink call that caused me and my colleagues to leave our computers and peer out of the office window grows into a cacophony of sound that becomes the soundtrack to a Norfolk winter.

     Like so many birds, pink feet depend on farmers for their survival. Sugar beet growers tolerating large flocks of geese feeding in their fields on the remains of the beet harvest is of crucial importance to these birds, as is the wild and wonderful place which is The Wash.

     And how do they repay us for letting them feed in our fields and protecting The Wash?  Well for me at least I think there is something pretty special about a bird that has the unique ability from several hundred feet up in the air, to pull me away from my computer screen and gaze at the sky and tell me that the seasons are turning, autumn is beginning to merge into winter. And everyday in the darkness of a midwinter’s dusk, the soundtrack will play in wink, wink, wink, wink a timely reminder that the day is nearly over and I need to begin to think about heading home for tea.

     To see the geese for yourself why not join one of our special guided walks visit the RSPB Snettisham reserve events page to find out more. 

    Steve Rowland, Public Affairs Manager