You will find out about all the exciting stuff going on with the RSPB in the east of the UK. We cover our sites in the following counties: Norfolk, Suffolk, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, and some of our great Lincolnshire ones. So if you are if you have never heard of the Strumpshaws and Snettishams or Stour Estuary or Sutton Fens here is you chance.
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 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?
Apparently it took me ages to say my first word, but when I did eventually decide to make myself heard I pronounced 'horse' with such clarity that it took my mum aback. I think the fact that I could look out on to a stable yard from my cot must have had something to do with it. Strange too that my first word really stuck with me - I am completely in love with anything equestrian to this day!
So I'm really pleased that amongst my little boy's first words has been a whole host of 'natural' nouns. Leaf, bug, bird and flower are some of his favourites. He also prefers nothing better than digging in the garden, going to visit the fish in the pond down the lane or lying below a big oak tree in the sun and laughing at the rustling of the leaves. I am equally pleased that the local nursery that my son goes too a couple of days a week are really in to getting the children in their care out and about and enjoying the outdoors as much as they can. But I fear that this kind of attitude, with outdoor learning awarded only a meagre government budget , is one that is dwindling. That is why it is so important that organisations like the RSPB can keep providing outdoor education opportunities and activities like they do.
One of the first things that I did when I first arrived as a new staff member at the RSPB in Norwich, was to head down to Whitlingham Country Park where the RSPB run a field teaching scheme in association with the Broads Authority. A big coach full of children from an urban primary school arrived and we spent the day with them searching for minibeasts in the woods, running through the meadow in search of ladybirds and dipping for water boatmen in the Broad. It was fantastic to see a class full of children devouring their sandwiches at lunch time, hungry after a morning spent with the sun on their backs and the freedom to play and run.
So let us keep pressing for every child to get time outdoors! The fact that the term Nature Deficit Disorder has even been termed is proof that this is something we need to act on. Long live grass stained knees, splashing in puddles and having the space to run free.
For more information about the RSPB's outdoor education opportunities visit www.rspb.org,uk/ourwork/teaching