Bugs, Birds and Beasts in the East

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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.
  • Pond Life: A whole world of wildlife exists beneath the surface of a pond

    This blog post originally appeared as an article in the Eastern Daily Press weekend magazine.

    By Vicky Boorman


    Pond dipping at Strumpshaw Fen

    We had such a brilliant time the other day, pond dipping at our local RSPB nature reserve, Strumpshaw Fen just outside Norwich. Who knew that ponds were so full of life! We borrowed nets from the reserve and my children loved scooping them through the water, then pulling them up filled, at first look, just with straggly green weed and algae, but when we tipped our wet bounty out into a tray, we find wriggling, paddling, skimming, squirming life.

    There's more than meets the eye to the waters at Strumpshaw Fen. Credit: Andy Hay (RSPB)

    With the help of an identification chart the kids were able to match and name what we found, which made it even more exciting for them.  Water beetles, pond snails, newts, back-swimmers, water scorpions, water boatman, (slightly comical with their paddle-like back legs) – there was so much there. We cupped some of these creatures and more into magnifying pots for a closer look and discovered the wonderful world of dragonfly nymphs. They look like a little alien creature – ours is translucent brown in colour, and we can see the first buds of wings folded tightly against its back. Most people know dragonflies as shimmering, iridescent above-ground insects, but actually they spend most of their lives underwater and only give us a few days or weeks in their flying adult opulence.

    Children eagerly plunge their nets into the depths. Credit: Andy Hay (RSPB)

    The elusive natterjack toad

    Ponds have also played a vital part recently in the life of the natterjack toad. This endangered amphibian can be distinguished from more common varieties by a thin, bold, yellow stripe down its back. Natterjacks used to be quite common on the Surrey and Hampshire heaths and also around the coast of East Anglia, but loss of suitable habitat meant there were only one or two colonies left. The RSPB carried out a successful re-introduction from a Norfolk site in the 1980s. Since then, we've provided a range of artificial ponds, carefully managed to offer the best survival for this very rare amphibian. Thanks to the support of our volunteers and careful pond management, it’s been a bumper year for natterjacks at one of our eastern region reserves, The Lodge in Bedfordshire. We’ve had many thousands of tadpoles in our six ponds there and by the end of May, small toadlets began to emerge; many more will make the transition before the end of the summer.

    An endangered natterjack toad peers across a mossy bank. Credit: Andy Hay (RSPB)

    Get digging, go dipping!

    A well designed pond is a haven for all sorts of plants, birds and animals therefore you’ll find them at most of our reserves. They can become amazingly complex habitat full of algae and plants, scavengers, predators, herbivores, decomposers and parasites. Some species spend their whole life in the pond, for instance water snails and small crustaceans, while others use it for only part of their life cycle, such as pond skaters. They also provide essential drinking and bathing water for birds and mammals.

    So, ponds are great all round really and I thoroughly recommend pond dipping as a brilliant children’s (and adult) activity, so why not visit our reserves events page and find out where the next pond dipping day is nearest to you.

    Well designed ponds are a haven for all sorts of wildlife to be discovered. Credit: Andy Hay (RSPB)

    Plan a garden pond

     -       Decide what wildlife you want to attract before you dig your pond. Its position, size and shape, as well as the surrounding habitat, will affect its appeal to different species.

    -       A pond should have gently sloping sides to provide the all-important shallow areas on which much wildlife depends

    -       Although the shallow areas are important for insects and spawning frogs, ponds should also have some water over 60 cm deep, so that they do not freeze solid in hard winters.

     -       Some dragonflies will breed in ponds with a surface area as small as 4 square meters, but many species need a pond of over 50 square meters.

     Now you’ve planned your pond, find out how to make one.




  • The ups and downs of life in the wild on Suffolk’s only island

    This blog post originally appeared as an article in the East Anglian Daily Times Environment supplement, sponsored by Anglian Water.


    The iconic wildlife of Suffolk's only island

    Havergate Island is famed not only as Suffolk’s only island but for its near mythical role in the history of some of the county’s- and the country’s- most iconic wildlife. Not least amongst these is the long-standing emblem of the RSPB, the avocet, which was found breeding in the island’s lagoons in 1947 after an absence of more the 100 years as a breeding bird in the UK. But life in the ever-changing landscape of the Suffolk Coast is far from plain sailing, and the sea can be a harsh mistress, as the winter of 2013 reminded us.

    An avocet walking in the mud on Havergate Island. Credit: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

    At just 2 miles long and half a mile wide and located close to the mouth of the River Alde in what is now the protected Alde-Ore Estuary, water has shaped the history of Havergate Island. Originally “saved” from the sea when it was walled and its land reclaimed for agricultural use more the 500 years ago, since that time it has been put to many uses: as arable land, for grazing, and even smuggling.

    Havergate Island brimming with birds as evening sets in. Credit: RSPB

    A dynamic landscape shaped by environment and man

    In the 1930s it was briefly used by a gravel company who set up shingle extraction on the island. Then, during the Second World War, the military took control of the island and allowed the sea to flood over the wall, creating a network of saline lagoons that was instrumental in attracting avocets back to breed in the UK in the same year they returned to what would become the RSPB’s flagship nature reserve at Minsmere, just a short hop up the coast to the north.

    The very next year the RSPB bought Havergate Island and it has been managed for wildlife ever since, but the road hasn’t always been a smooth one, and while water has played an essential part in making Havergate the rich wildlife haven it is today, we know that water will also play a role in its ultimate loss to the sea. It’s a natural process of coastal change that is seen all over the world, but rising sea levels and increasingly frequent extreme weather events caused by climate change may be accelerating the rate at which it is happening.

    Walkways across the lagoons provide easier access for visitors. Credit: RSPB

    Not an easy life for wildlife

    In the winter of 2013, the tidal surge that wreaked havoc up and down the East Anglian coast also swept over Havergate Island. Lagoons were flooded with seawater and wildlife-watching hides were lifted off their foundations. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the impact on the reserve’s wildlife appeared to be huge, but just a year-and-a-half on the plants and animals that call the island home have proved their resilience and given a boost to conservationists confronting the challenge of helping wildlife adapt to the impact of climate change

    The dynamic landscape of Havergate Island. Credit: Mike Paige (RSPB)

    But nature continues to persist!

    While populations of ground-nesting seabirds and waders, like common terns and avocets, escaped relatively unscathed as the storm hit outside the nesting season, the island’s famous population of brown hares fell to a low of just six individuals immediately after the flooding, and some specialist saltmarsh plants, including the uncommon yellow vetch, were feared to have been lost when surveys failed to record them in 2014. But this year the hare population has bounced back to a healthy 18 and yellow vetch has again been found on the island.

    Hares jumping for joy about their improving population numbers on Havergate Island. Credit: RSPB

    Yellow vetch can once again be found on Havergate Island. Credit: CrabChick (flickr.com)

    So, while long term planning for the eventual loss of Havergate Island to the encroaching sea looks to create new wetland habitats inland, the wildlife living on Havergate Island has shown us it won’t be leaving without a fight!

     A spoonbill is spotted flying over Havergate Island. Credit: John Evans (RSPB)


    Visiting Havergate Island

    A visit to Havergate Island is always a memorable experience, offering a chance to get close to some amazing wildlife, from marsh harriers and herring gulls to avocets and hares. This summer the RSPB is inviting visitors to experience the wildlife of Havergate Island:

    15 – 17 August, ‘Havergate Adventure’- a leisurely boat trip along the River Ore and guided tour around the island. Booking is via RSPB Minsmere on 01728 648281.

    To find out more about these and other events at Havergate Island, visit http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/seenature/reserves/guide/h/havergate/events.aspx 

  • Tracking Montagu's harriers journey from East Anglia to Africa once again

    Monitoring Montagu's harriers 

    Written by Emma Tovell

    Following in the footsteps of the satellite tracking of three Montagu’s harriers Mo, Madge and Mark in 2014, the project  to monitor the movements of the UK’s rarest breeding bird of prey is once again underway in East Anglia. The project is led by Dutch researchers from the “Montagu’s Harrier Foundation” alongside conservationists from the RSPB, and aims to learn more about this summer visitor and the incredible journey this beautiful bird takes every year back to Africa for winter.

    Mark, the first ever male Montagu's harrier to be fitted with a satellite tracker in the UK, delighted everyone back in April by returning to the area where he was originally tagged. Last year, Mark spent the summer as a helper at another male's nest- common practice for younger males before they reach breeding maturity- but this summer Mark bred successfully for the first time and has fathered and helped to raise three chicks of his own.

    Mark, the first ever male Montagu's harrier to be tagged in the UK. Credit: RSPB

    Mark, photographed here in 2014 shortly before release, raised three chicks in East Anglia this year. Credit: RSPB

    East Anglia is the place to be

    East Anglia is an extremely important breeding ground for this striking migratory bird, known to bird watchers affectionately as “Monty’s”, with three of just seven UK nesting attempts being recorded in East Anglia in 2015, largely on lowland farmland rather than marshes- lucky, as nests on farmland produce more chicks for this specially protected bird!

    Historically, the number of Montagu's harriers breeding in the UK has always been very small- fluctuating between 10 and 15 pairs- meaning the opportunity to monitor this incredibly rare UK breeding species using lightweight, lifelong satellite trackers is welcomed by conservationists and wildlife ecologists alike.

    Mark being released in 2014 after satellite tagging. Credit: RSPB

    Mark Thomas, who leads on Montagu’s harrier conservation work for the RSPB, said: “This is an exciting and important application of satellite tracking technology that will help us to monitor their movements and locate their feeding areas to understand more about these harriers’ not just here in the UK, but in their wintering grounds in Africa and on their migratory journey in between.”

    This year's stars

    The three birds fitted with tracking backpacks in East Anglia this year include one male and two females which have been named Roger, Rowan and Rose. Roger is striking in appearance with piercing eyes and plain grey plumage contrasted with black wingtips and white underside characteristic of male Montagu’s harriers, whilst the females sport mottled brown feathers, a white rump and speckled eyes. 

    Jim and Raymond release Rose after fitting her with a lightweight tracking device. Credit: RSPB

    A close up of Rowan. Credit: RSPB

    It has recently been discovered that Roger, named after the late Montagu’s harrier expert Roger Clarke, is actually supporting three different females with chicks! Whilst the two females Rowan and Rose continue to hunt increasingly further from their nest sites, in order to find food for their hungry fledglings as they prepare for autumn migration. 

    Ben displays Roger's impressive plumage and pointed wings. Credit: RSPB

    Keep up to date with the journey of these elegant birds of prey

    Follow Rowan, Rose and Roger on their incredible journey from the end of summer as they leave for autumn migration, and hopefully many more journeys in years to come, via a satellite tracking map on the RSPB website.

    Keep up-to-date with the latest from our Montagu’s harriers by following us on Twitter @UKmontagus

    Get involved: report your Monty's sightings

    A hotline opened by the RSPB earlier this summer for members of the public to report sightings of the striking, rare bird. “We’ve had dozens of reported sightings over the summer,” said Mark Thomas, “and one of them even lead to the discovery of a previously unknown pair, which is brilliant and shows what a valuable tool it is”. The hotline remains open and any sightings can be reported to 01767 693398 or emailed to wildlife@rspb.org.uk.

    A pair of Monty's nest-building- the male in the foreground with nest material in his beak. Credit: Graham Catley