Thursday, May 7, 2015

Not Strictly for the Birds

One bright May morning in the early 1990’s I found myself in a very crowded hide at the RSPB’s Leighton Moss reserve in Lancashire. As it was barely 6 o’clock there must have been a good reason for the crush in the, then recently constructed, Lilian’s Hide. After a seemingly long wait that reason revealed itself when a stunning male Little Bittern stepped out from the reeds into the bright morning sunshine. Unlike the Eurasian Bittern which breeds on the reserve this male was not endowed with the camouflaging phragmites-coloured plumage that makes its larger cousin so difficult to see; it had a black crown, upperparts and flight feathers that contrasted markedly with its beautiful rich buff underparts and buff white wing patches. And as for little; it was barely the size of a nearby Coot!

The throng of birdwatchers admired this beauty for at least five minutes until it retreated once more into the reedbed. As the crowd drifted off my attention was again drawn to another animal that had kept me fascinated during my wait for the rarity; but it wasn’t a bird. Across the mere splashes and ripples and briefly-glimpsed snake-like curves of a largish mammal occasionally broke the surface. But this was no Loch Ness monster but a near-mythical creature equal rarity at the time; an Otter!

In the two decades before the 1970’s Otter numbers in Britain had declined dramatically, but increased protection and improvements in water quality have led to a dramatic increase in this beautiful mammal in the past few years. During the 1990’s they were still a rare sight in England but now they have returned to every county, and RSPB reserves are among the best places to see them. In fact the Leighton Moss Otters are now so obliging that they were heavily featured in the BBC’s Autumnwatch programme last year. If you spend some time at Leighton Moss’s Lower and Public Hides you would be very unlikely not to see them.

Otter at Strumpshaw Fen RSPB

Although inland Otters used to be mostly crepuscular with a lot of sightings around dusk and dawn, at protected sites they can be active throughout the day. I have even managed to photograph them on a sunny afternoon at Strumpshaw Fen in Norfolk. This reserve hosts many sought-after fenland birds such as Bittern and Marsh Harrier, but it has also become synonymous with very rare insects such as the beautiful Swallowtail butterfly, and the impressive Norfolk Hawker. The abundance of dragonflies at reserves such as this provide a welcome food source for breeding Hobbies. Sad though it is to think of these jewel-like insects being prey to this dashing falcon, it is all part of the natural cycle. Managing reserves provides suitable habitat for a myriad of invertebrates that form part of a chain that sustains apex predators such as raptors. And we can enjoy not only the insects and the birds but the scenic habitat as well!

Wasp Beetle at Strumpshaw Fen RSPB

Broad-bodied Chaser at Strumpshaw Fen RSPB

Not only does the RSPB manage its own reserves for the benefit of a wealth of wildlife, but it lobbies Parliament to try and improve the wider countryside, by for example promoting environmentally friendly farming practices to encourage more diversity and halt the decline in farmland birds. And of course healthier farmland bird populations rely on a diversity of wildflowers, insects and wetland areas.

Many RSPB reserves have stunning displays of wild flowers during the Spring and Summer, so after you have enjoyed an early morning dawn chorus from the birds it is well worth taking a closer look at the colourful flora that is more than just a backdrop to the birdlife; it is an integral part of the environment that helps sustain the birdlife, and it is beautiful to boot!

Flag Iris at Valley Lakes RSPB

Southern Marsh Orchid at Titchwell RSPB

South Stack cliffs in Wales are duly famous for their breeding seabirds and are also one of the best places in the country to see that tumbling coastal crow with its blood-red feet and curved bill, the Chough. This bird relies on the abundant insects that are to be found in pasture that has been carefully managed. The maritime heathland at the top of the cliffs is also a rich source of invertebrates. I can keenly remember a sunny May day when the heath was buzzing with Cockchafers; these large bumbling beetles were flying around in large numbers and occasionally tumbling around in the heather. Careful scrutiny, also revealed a few metallic Rosechafers for all the world looking like gaudy flying emeralds. The heath is also home to Tiger Beetles and later in the year delicate Silver-Studded Blue butterflies.

There is a good reason for the abundant insect life and that is the profusion of Spring flowers; the heath is an Impressionist’s floral pallet. White Sea Campion flower heads bob in the breeze alongside delicate pink Sea Thrift and tall stems of purple Sheep’s Bit Scabious contrast with the gaudy yellow heads of Kidney Vetch. Naturally the flowers attract insects and in some years migrant Painted Lady butterflies from the continent appear in huge numbers and clothe the flowers with their orange and black wings while refuelling on nectar. The heather also provides cover for our only venomous snake the Adder. A few Summer’s ago I can clearly remember one slithering along the path near Ellin’s Tower, but it dived for cover in the heather before I managed to focus my camera.

Sheep's Bit Scabious at South Stack RSPB

Thrift at South Stack RSPB

Painted Lady on thrift at South Stack RSPB

Butterflies are a firm favourite amongst birdwatchers as they are colourful and easy to observe. Last year’s heatwave was a boon for these insects after previous wet and cool summers. Near Llandegla in North Wales the RSPB manages heathland for the benefit of Black Grouse and the nearby forest is a superb place from which to view the Spring lek on an RSPB-led walk. In the summer the felled areas of forest also echo with the sound of churring Nightjars. The forest edge was full was teeming with common butterflies last year such as Peacocks and Red Admirals and it was lovely to see good numbers of Small Tortoiseshells which have suffered a decline in recent years. Later in the Summer the area is also home to Black Darter dragonflies and a careful wait on a sunny day might be rewarded with the sighting of a Common Lizard.

Peacock at Coed Llandegla

Red Admiral at Coed Llandegla

Black Darter at Coed Llandegla

Common Lizard at Coed Llandegla

Much further North, many birdwatchers visit Loch Ruthven in Scotland to see the rare breeding Slavonian Grebes in its red, black and gold finery. The tranquil birch fringed loch is also home to a population of Common Toads and Spring is the best time to see them as they return to the loch to breed and lay their toadspawn. Frogs, toads and other amphibians are abundant on many reserves but one RSPB reserve is home to all six species of our native reptiles; Arne in Dorset. Reptile rambles are held in the late Spring to search for these often elusive animals. It is one of only a few sites in the country where all six British species can be seen. Arne is also home to 22 species of dragonfly and was the first place that I ever saw the Small Red Damselfy. This species has a more restricted range in Britain than its larger relative the Large Red Damselfly which is found throughout the UK and at many RSPB reserves.

Common Toads at Loch Ruthven RSPB

One species of invertebrate that I did see at Arne on a recent visit was the Raft Spider. A number of these large arachnids were found secreted around a small pond and I even photographed one feeding on a hapless damselfly. Amazingly, sitting at the centre of its web adjacent to the pond was a beautiful Wasp Spider, which as its name suggests, has striking yellow and black stripes on its abdomen. This is another large species and is thought to have only colonised the south of Britain in recent years, but it is a marvellous addition to our fauna.

Raft Spider with Common Blue Damselfly at Arne RSPB

Wasp Spider at Arne RSPB

Mammals on the whole are relatively difficult to observe, especially when compared with the ease with which we watch birds. But one RSPB reserve has become a magnet for those wishing to see the beautiful Stoat. The river estuary at Conway RSPB has been home to this voracious predator for some time, and a visit at the right time of year can produce breathtaking views of this elusive mammal. The mother Stoat secretes her numerous offspring along the rocky shoreline of the Conway River while she works tirelessly to satisfy her hungry brood. But like all infants, the boisterous young Stoats get up to all kinds of mischief while their mother is away; scrambling under, over and around the rocks, splashing through the mud and fighting and hiding amongst the Samphire. Last year as I stood on the footpath an adult Stoat even ran through the legs of my tripod! This was a great wildlife spectacle to rival anything in the country. And not to be missed at Conway at the same time are the gorgeous flowers of Bee Orchids that decorate the footpath margins.

Stoat at Conway RSPB

Bee Orchid at Conway RSPB

Stoat at Conway RSPB

RSPB reserves are some of the best places in the country to see mammals, indeed, my first ever visit to the flagship reserve at Minsmere resulted in the amazing view of a Stoat climbing headfirst down a tall tree with a bat in its jaws! And a trip to the beautiful Caledonian forest at Loch Garten is not complete without seeing the Red Squirrels visiting the nut feeders.

Red Squirrel at Loch Garten RSPB

Larger mammals can still prove difficult to see, but Leighton Moss in Lancashire is a great place to see Red Deer. Although a lot of the rutting action takes place out of sight in the extensive reedbed, the roaring of the stags send shivers down your spine. But sometimes the males will break cover and charge after each other through the shallow pools. The reserve is also home to Roe Deer, and evidence of their presence in the form of tracks in the mud can provide a fresh identification challenge.

Muntjac Deer at Titchwell RSPB

There are even some reserves where, if you are lucky, it is possible to see marine mammals. The area of water just below the lighthouse at South Stack is often a good spot to see our smallest cetacean the Harbour Porpoise. But you have to have sharp eyes because, even though they can grow to about a metre and a half in length, they spend very little time at the surface. A glimpse of a dark dorsal fin rolling through the water is all you will see, and they are impossible to see in rough weather, but just knowing they are there is exciting in itself. And the occasionally the large head of a Grey Seal can be seen bobbing in the water at this site, they are as inquisitive about us as we are about them. I have even been lucky enough to see a Common Seal that had swum up a channel at Titchwell onto the main reserve.

Brimstone at Lakenheath RSPB

Migrant Hawker at Titchwell RSPB

Common Darter at Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB

Large Red Damselfly at Ynys Hir RSPB

For over a century the RSPB has been at the forefront of bird protection, guarding our avian heritage by buying reserves and promoting responsible environmental stewardship in the wider countryside. And, not by accident, this enlightened policy has been a real boon for a whole spectrum of other wildlife. This article has barely scratched the surface of our non-avian wildlife, there is so much to see, RSPB reserves are brim full of all kinds of wildlife, so get out there and enjoy it. Oh, and there are some great birds to be seen as well!

Leighton Moss RSPB at dusk

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