Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Late summer updates and musings




Living on Blakeney Point offers a great opportunity to study the movement of bird life, and the reserve is famous as a stop-off point for birds moving to their breeding grounds/wintering areas in spring and autumn. Earlier in the summer we saw a small influx of waders, including bar-tailed godwit and turnstone. These birds are likely to be failed-breeders, cutting their losses in the Arctic to get a head-start and exploit the relatively uncrowded feeding sites here. Curlew returned in respectable numbers, though their journey was presumably less arduous as they had less ground to cover. These birds breed across the UK (excluding most southerly locations) and their call has become synonymous with desolate moors and upland areas. Now we are privileged to hear them through the night and it’s really a lovely sound – a soothing counter-melody to the staccato harshness of the pied pipers of Blakeney Point. 

Roosting turnstones in Blakeney Harbour: Richard Porter

  As the weeks pass by, more and more wading birds are starting to arrive. One of the curious things you have to learn as a budding bird-watcher is that the avian calendar is not strictly aligned with our own. By now, most species have bred or are expending their final efforts to successfully rear young (hopefully). Already there is a slight feeling of restlessness in the air, and avian autumn is within touching distance. Here, the passage of time and birds has been marked with the arrival of large numbers of whimbrel, and smaller numbers of sub-arctic breeding species such as greenshank and green sandpiper (an arboreal nester that lays its eggs in the old nests of other species).   

Birds that have been breeding locally are starting to band together, too. Their territorial streaks tamed by the waning of their reproductive cycles, the same grey partridge that were so secretive earlier in the year have now decided to expand their social circles in a bid to increase their stakes in the survival lottery. One of the highlights of my season so far began to unfold as I was lying in bed one night, reading a book. My head is on the pillow, right next to the window, and I hear a loud, slightly-unnerving sound that is simultaneously grating and keening. It betrays the vocalist as a wretched creature in distress. The noise is so loud and close it almost seems like it’s coming from inside my room. Curiosity piqued, I open my window wide and peer beneath the ledge before searching the immediate vicinity, half-expecting to see a young raptor on the floor. I see nothing, which gives the situation a new degree of strangeness. I can’t let it lie, so I leave the house by the back door and step into the night. I start to round the house and approach the little patch of ground that sits in front of my bedroom window, and there I see it - a grey partridge in the half-light, its rear side shrouded by the darkness, its head and breast illuminated by the full moon to which it seemingly calls, head held skywards like a corncrake. I was very close but it was uncharacteristically unperturbed, preoccupied with the task at hand. It would have made a great painting. I would have called it “partridge moon”. Alas, those days of solo crooning are gone, and these days I’m much more likely to stumble across a group of 10 birds in the dunes. They aren’t the only birds banding together. In a premature nod to the winter, linnets are roaming in ever-increasing flocks and a modestly-sized group of starlings can be seen patrolling the reserve. 

Living here, you have the luxury of being laid bare to the finer points of bird behaviour. We only have to open the front door of the big blue lifeboat house to be witness to amazing things. Sometimes, after our brains have been exposed to an hour of TV-watching in the evening, we almost forget where we are and after rising from the sofa, stretching and turning around to face the window, are hit with a renewed appreciation of how lucky we are to be living in such an amazing place. Several times this week we have watched hundreds of black-headed gulls take to the wing and indulge in an aerial feeding frenzy, plucking flying insects from the air in a slightly clumsy imitation of­­ a hirundine or swift. 

This week I have been employing commando tactics in an effort to get better views of the waders that frequent the creeks off yankee ridge. Leaving the house at the evening low-tide, I’ve been approaching the ridge from beach way and keeping a low-profile until I reach the wreck of the yankee. I will admit, with no small embarrassment, that from there I have sometimes crawled on all fours and occasionally made use of a sideward roll (cringe) in order to reach a patch of suaeda that provides the dual benefit of being an excellent vantage point and concealing my presence. I sincerely hope that no-one saw me from across the harbour in Blakeney or Morston - pride is a delicate thing. Luckily my antics payed off and I got an excellent chance to study four greenshank feeding in the creek. It’s nice to slow down sometimes, just taking the time to observe a single species in a bit more depth than usual, and I enjoyed watching these birds for an hour as they pursued small fry on the ebbing tide.  

Breeding terns

I’m pleased to be able to say that the little terns are doing really well this year. Estimates are purposefully kept conservative and are subject to change, but we can divulge that the number of fledglings has so far surpassed that of many previous years, even when considering the lower-margin of the estimates. All signs point to a “bumper year” and for the colony at the “watch house” this is certainly one of the best seasons in recent memory.

Notorious for their habit of nesting in loose colonies within touching distance of the high-tide mark on shingle beaches that are also valued by recreationists, these little birds need every help they can get. Luckily, there are some fantastic volunteers here at Blakeney Point, who selflessly and enthusiastically give up their spare time to help protect a much-loved and iconic part of our wildlife. For this bird, every colony in the UK is massively important – their status as a breeding bird in this country is precarious and their fate would be a lot worse if it wasn’t for the efforts of the volunteers. On the outside, their job is to see that the colony is not disturbed or threatened by external forces, but they are also making a huge contribution to our knowledge of this species in Norfolk (particularly this colony) through their observations and counts. For my part, watching the birds work together to see off a threat as if they were one giant organism with a hive-mind has been another highlight. 


Little tern fledgling: Richard Porter



An extra bonus has been the confirmation that arctic terns have nested on the tip of far point, and are currently raising chicks. These birds have historically nested here in small numbers, but it’s always encouraging to see them in the breeding season because they are on the southerly edge of their range here. A famous wanderer from pole to pole, they really bring home the fact that birds do not adhere to national boundaries and the conservation efforts geared towards many of our species have to be considered with respect to wider geographical areas.

Arctic tern with chick: Richard Porter

We’ve had several interesting sightings recently, including a red-throated diver at sea in breeding plumage (15th and 31st July). This is another bird that breeds in more northerly latitudes, and is most often seen in its winter plumage, which is much more drab. Arctic and great skuas have been spotted drifting down the coast on numerous occasions in mid-July, and a sooty shearwater was seen far out to sea during the strong onshore winds of the 12th of July. Along with red admirals, painted ladies, and confiding gatekeeper butterflies, the point was also host to some dark green fritillaries in late June, as photographed by local wildlife expert Richard Porter.

Dark green fritillary nectaring on bramble: Richard Porter

 Things are set to get really interesting soon, as the passage proper of birds through the point is on the horizon. We’re really excited to see what might stop by, and will of course keep you posted! 


Thanks for reading,
Luke (Assistant Ranger)




Tuesday, 27 June 2017


News from Blakeney Point creche 



The bird breeding season has been well underway for several weeks now, with an increasing plethora or fluffy chicks running this way and that across the reserve. Among the new arrivals are shelduck-lings, to be seen at dusk trooping in a line across mudflat at low tide, adult shelduck at either end keeping watch. It often seems their on their way for swimming lessons. The oystercatchers have been busy too, usually hatching about 3 grey and white chicks which attract the attention of patrolling gulls. Rangers on duty meeting visitors on the main beach and up towards Far Point are often to be seen waving their arms and jumping up and down to alert the adults to overhead threats.

The insect world has come to the fore too, perhaps partly due to the ridiculously hot weather. There has been a good hatch of dark green fritillaries, often to be seen nectaring on the sea lavender among the dunes, and yesterday (26 June) saw this year's first sighting of a grayling. Other fascinating sightings include an emperor dragonfly, brown argus, small tortoiseshell and common blue butterflies, with moths represented by yellow belle, mother shipton, eyed hawkmoth, marbled coronet and white colon.

The standout sighting of the week though has to be a stone curlew, a rare visitor to the reserve, spotted nestling among shingle and sueda on the main beach running up from Cley car park.    

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Change is in the Air

As we leave May and enter June, the Point has taken on an entirely different feeling as the spring migration comes to an end and the suspense and excitement that it brings has settled into a wonderful sense of awe for the amazing array of nesting birds here at Blakeney.


The most exciting news of the past few weeks is that the terns have started nesting all around the point, with more and more seen sitting each day. The highlight of my day is watching these dazzling birds diving and displaying as they fly over head, such as this stunning Arctic Tern soaring over the dunes.


                                                               (Photo: Ryan Doggart)


After a couple of weeks of absence from the point, several pairs of striking Mediterranean Gulls have been seen amongst the large flock of Black-Headed Gulls at the Marrams - listen out for their unusual call!


                                                                (Photo: Ryan Doggart)


Although the spring migration seems to have come to an end, boy did it end with a bang! On the 29th of May we where treated to a beautiful Greenish Warbler at the Hood, only the 4th ever spring record for Blakeney Point. This rarity, which normally spend their summers in Russia, was pretty flighty but patience rewarded those who saw it to lovely views as it perched up on Sueda bushes. Small flocks of migrating wading birds can still be seen on the beach, including these Sanderling in their intricate mottled summer colours.

 
                                                              (Photo: Ryan Doggart)

The recent sunny weather has also meant lots of lovely insects have been spotted including the first Red-Tailed Bumblebee and Yellow Shell moths of the year plus plenty of Painted Lady and Common Blue butterflies.

Hope to see you out on the Point!
Ryan
Assistant Ranger

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Shorts are On..

After the past few weeks of freezing-cold North-Easterly winds, the rangers on the Point where beginning to wonder if spring would ever come.. How quickly things can change! Over the last few days, South-Easterly winds have brought very pleasant (and much appreciated!) warmer air to replace the Arctic chill - which no doubt our nesting birds will have been waiting for.


After a decidedly slow start to the nesting season, things are beginning to "heat up" with lots of waders and passerines such as meadow pipits and skylarks becoming much more territorial. This is fantastic news, as visitors to the point are being treated to a dazzling array of wonderful breeding displays and beautiful bird song - this really is a awesome time to get out and get exploring on the point!


One of the highlights of the week was that our lonely single pair of avocet, nesting on the shingle by Cley, finally have some company with the rangers seeing nearly twenty avocet within their newly extended fenced-off area; such amazing birds! The ever-charismatic little terns are also beginning to return in larger numbers from their winter home in Africa, with a group of around sixty seen feeding on Wednesday evening at sunset over the flooded saltmarsh behind the bird hide. This coming week sees the beginning of another year for our lovely volunteer Little Tern Warden team who will be based out of the bird hide on the shingle. So if you're walking up the beach, why not stop in for a chat and learn more about these stunning little birds and the work we are doing to protect them.


The change in wind direction has also meant some interesting migrant birds have been spotted on the Point this week, including whinchat, sand marten, yellow wagtail, a very handsome male ring ouzel and two spotted flycatchers. The cuckoo has also been seen around the point most days this week, with it's calls making summer seem closer than ever.


Ryan Doggart
Assistant Ranger

Sunday, 7 May 2017

7th May: Lapwing chicks and May migrants

Despite the grey, chilly, windy weather this week, it has been a delight to discover several Lapwing chicks amongst the grass on Blakeney Marsh.
Lapwing chick in grass (A. Tegala)

We manage the freshwater grazing marsh specifically to benefit the Lapwing. So it is very rewarding to see lots of chicks happily learning to walk amongst the lush grass.

As well as young birds in the fields, there are countless tadpoles in the dykes, ditches, pools and ponds.

Over on Blakeney Point, we have been treated to several spring migrants this weekend. These include Blackcaps, Lesser Whitethroats, Willow Warblers, Redstarts, Wheatears, a Whinchat, Garden Warbler, Osprey, Pied Flycatcher, Grey Wagtail and this splendid male Cuckoo.
Cuckoo in the garden (A. Tegala)

It perched obligingly in the brambles near the Lifeboat House where it feasted on caterpillars in between dive-bomb attacks from nearby nesting Linnets.

Other sightings this week included an adult Great Skua sat on the beach on Friday.
Great Skua off Blakeney Point (R. Porter)

Grey Plover and Knot head northeast (R. Porter)

Another discovery on the Point this weekend was the first Oystercatcher egg. Nesting appears to have been delayed by the cold weather. But it won't be long before several will be incubating their camouflaged eggs in shallows scrapes amongst the shingle. When visiting, please be mindful of birds nesting on the ground and amongst the grass.

- Ajay, Ranger

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Cold winds...

It's been a bitterly cold start to May on the Point, with even the ever-so-hardy Ranger team resorting to wrapping in thermals, donning multiple woolly hats and leaping thankfully into warm showers, while we're getting through mountains of holm oak in the wood burner. It seems the cold weather has slowed down the progress of spring too, with fewer migrants coming through than expected, and little nesting activity to report. No oystercatcher, plover, sandwich tern or little tern nests have yet been observed, but the pair of avocet hang on, sat braving the artic chill, on their territory close to Cley Beach car park. With this in mind, please remember everyone should keep dogs on leads near Cley Beach, and always respect dog exclusion zones on the reserve.






Despite the chill, this being Blakeney there are plenty of super sightings to report. Migrant activity include willow warblers, a wood warbler, common redstart and lesser whitethroat. Very many swallows have passed us by; often appearing suddenly and silently from the enveloping mist, ghostly messengers from warmer climes. Invertebrates too are struggling into activity. Carder bee species and small copper butterflies have been apparent. Moth trapping this week has revealed the presence of yellow belles, tawny shears, flame shoulder and common quakers.






Our two standout sightings for the week though have to be a nightjar, spotted lurking among the sueda bushes, and a superlative spoonbill. This came flapping and flailing over the Lifeboat Station, to plunge into dank saltmarsh towards Yankee Ridge. What an otherworldly sight... trailing its vibrant white cloak of feathers, a huge yellow wedge of bill protruding proudly before it. It seemed to bring an immediate feel of warmer African air to Blakeney. It was spotted later, feeding and resting in a salty creek; perhaps a confused theatrical extra, due on stage in Antony and Cleopatra, but mistakenly gate crashing a production of Great Expectations. It's not been seen since, but it was definitely my highlight of the season so far.


Howard Jones
Ranger  

Thursday, 27 April 2017

New faces at Blakeney Point

A new Ranger team has just moved into the Lifeboat Station on Blakeney Point. Luke, Ryan and I will be out on the Point until the end of September, helping care for our internationally important tern and seal colonies, while continuing the now 116 year tradition of wardens on the Point. Come say hello if passing by, and let us know about your stories and sightings. 




As you can see, what a wonderful place to spend summer! Having moved from the Gulf Stream blessed beaches of Pembrokeshire I can certainly confirm it's cold by the North Sea; yet with a bounteous array of wildlife bouncing about right outside the front door, plus the best possible sunrises and sunsets, resplendent night time skies, and (thankfully) a wood burning stove, it seems we're well set.


Blakeney's wonderful raptors have completely caught our imaginations in our first month here. It seems all we'd need to complete a full set of postcards is a displaced golden eagle. We've identified kestrels, peregrines, marsh and hen harriers, red kites, a merlin, a short eared owl and today, while wandering through the dunes, I quite literally almost stood on a feasting sparrow hawk; he was to consumed with gobbling his prey to hear me coming.


The first little terns were identified arriving on 21 April, while as of 26 April there were 300 or so sandwich terns roosting on the Point. Other fantastic sightings, all firsts for me, include 3 eider ducks, a velvet scoter, Greenland wheatears, a Caspian gull and today a couple of common scoter.




We've seen our first butterflies and moths of the summer, including quite a few small coppers flittering among the dunes, and this quite beautiful emperor moth...come on, who says moths are dull?


Howard Jones, Ranger

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

18th April: Spring shoots

Change is very visible on Blakeney Freshes at the moment. In less than a month, the area of reedbed we cut in February has been growing back fast, with green shoots rising above the water.

23rd March

18th April

We control the water levels to benefit wildlife. In February, we dropped the levels to as low as possible, in order to access the reedbed to carry out our habitat management work. We have since raised the water table to make the Freshes suitable for breeding wading birds. Avocets are nesting on small islands surrounded by water, whilst Lapwings and Redshanks are nesting in amongst the grass. A Little Ringed Plover has also been seen this week.

Other sightings in the last few days include Water Vole, Swallows passing westwards and a Mute Swan nest...

Elsewhere on the reserve, recent sightings include Firecrest, Short-eared Owl and Peregrine on Blakeney Point and Wheatear on Morston Marshes. There are approximately 130 Sandwich Terns roosting on Far Point.

Firecrest (Richard Porter)

Also on the Point, the usual patch of Sea Kale is re-emerging from underneath the shingle to the east of the Watch House. This is the only place on the reserve that it grows.

Our latest low tide seal count - conducted on Tuesday 11th April - recorded 98 Grey and 57 Common hauled out on Stiffkey West Sands.

- Ajay Tegala, Ranger

Thursday, 9 March 2017

9th of March: Spring is in the air


The starlings in my garden are wolf-whistling at each other and the blackthorn in the hedgerows is coming into flower – spring is springing everywhere, including Blakeney.  We’re starting to see birds pairing off for the breeding season on the reserve, including stonechats on Friary Hills, reed buntings on the marsh and oystercatchers along the shingle ridge of the Point.  Our largest count of grey partridge pairs on Blakeney Point was an estimated 15 pairs on 24th of February, growing from six on Valentine’s Day and smashing all previous records.  We have also regularly seen a gang of six shore larks still hanging around the Point, which always brighten our day.

In February we said goodbye to the last grey seal pup born quite late on the Point this year, pictured below (exactly three weeks after it was first found) fully moulted and in good condition for independence.

The last seal pup on Valentine's Day (photo: Mary Goddard)


Our trail camera on a gate post on Blakeney Freshes is a fantastic tool for seeing what birds of prey are about and we have been getting some lovely footage recently.  Below is a selection from the last month including a kestrel having a stretch, a barn owl on a calm and misty morning and two buzzards that can be differentiated as individuals by the varying amounts of pale plumage on their chests.  My favourite, though, is the sparrowhawk being startled by masses of pink footed geese coming in to feed on the field behind.

A kestrel stretching

Barn owl in the mist

Buzzard number 1

Buzzard number 2

Sparrowhawk and pink footed geese


With ditching works on the Freshes completed in January, next has been the annual reed cutting.  This is done in blocks on a five year rotation, which helps to prevent the humus layer from building up and allowing succession of scrub, whilst also maintain the heterogeneous mosaic of different age structures that benefits reed bed wildlife.  During this work we came across an interesting fungus growing out of the base of a reed stem, which I took some (bad) photos of to send to local fungi expert Tony Leech for help identifying.  Unfortunately my terrible photography made this difficult, but I was able to re-locate the specimen and collect it to pass on to Tony for inspection.  He identified it as Mycena belliarum (or reed bonnet), a rare fungus for which East Anglia is a strong hold.  Since the 1950s the species has been recorded at three other sites in Norfolk, one in Suffolk and one in Huntingdon.
Mycena belliarum found at Blakeney (photo: Tony Leech)


Finally is to report a little gem found at Morston while we were installing some new signage and dog bins – harvest mouse nests.  We found a couple in some long grass just off the track, beautifully camouflaged.  The female harvest mouse (Mycromys minutus) builds this spherical grass nest solely for the purpose of raising her young, creating a new nest for each litter she has.  The fact that we found two in such close proximity possibly indicates multiple litters by the same mouse.

A harvest mouse (Mycromys minutus) nest
(photo: Mary Goddard)

Post by Mary Goddard, Assistant Ranger

Monday, 6 February 2017

6th of February: Blakeney wildlife update

Here at Blakeney National Nature Reserve, February is the month that follows the end of the Grey Seal breeding season and precedes the start of the breeding bird season. In preparation for the upcoming breeding bird season in March, the ranger team have been carrying out habitat management work...

On Blakeney Freshes, we completed our annual ditching works at the end of January. This involves contracting a digger to clear out some of the ditches, preventing them from becoming too clogged up with vegetation, to allow better flow of water around the Freshes and enable a greater diversity of wildlife. This work is done on a rotation. The same applies for reed cutting, which we will be completing in February. This stops woodier species from taking over the reedbed and drying it out, thus conserving the reedbed habitat for nesting Marsh Harriers, Bearded Tits and - in some years - Bitterns, as well as invertebrates that live in the reed stems.
Blakeney Freshes (Ajay Tegala)

Recent wildlife sightings on Blakeney Freshes include a male Hen Harrier, two Stonechat pairs, 7+ Bearded Tits, Snipe and also two Scaup in Blakeney Harbour on 31 January. On the same date, 872 Wigeon and 93 Teal were counted on the Freshes.

On 21 January, we took part in a coordinated Brent Goose roost count across the coast. Approximately 1,600 roosted at Stiffkey, which is over 1,300 more than last year's count. Numbers roosting in Blakeney Harbour were similar to last year, with 1,135 counted. It won't be too long before the Brent Geese begin migrating to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle, where their breeding success is related to Arctic Fox predation.
Brent Geese on the north Norfolk coast

A late Grey Seal pup was discovered in the dunes in the second half of January. On Thursday 2 February, we noticed it had moulted and was about to become the 2,367th pup to be weaned on Blakeney Point this winter.

In addition, Hobgoblin (the orphaned male pup that turned up in the car park at Morston on 21 November) was released after being cared for by the RSPCA at East Winch.
Hobgoblin (Kirsty Dickson)

This takes the total weaned to 2,368 thanks to the efforts of the East Winch team who fed the pup for two months, enabling him to get up to a healthy weight ready to fend for himself in the North Sea. Hobgoblin weighed 14.5kg on arrival and was released on 1 February having reached 45kg.

The RSPCA team also recently released Milkbottle, a young female Common Seal that we rescued from the beach at Salthouse on 22 August. She weighed just 10.5kg on arrival at East Winch and had increased to a healthy 46kg when she was released on 2 January.

Our most recent low tide seal count recorded 68 Grey Seals (4 weaned pups and 64 adults) and one juvenile Common Seal on 2 February.

Last week's sightings on Blakeney Point included a male Merlin on 30 January, two Glaucous Gulls on 31 January and six Shore Larks in Great Sandy Low on 2 February.
Juvenile Glaucous Gull (Richard Porter)

Also on 2 February, 42 Grey Partridges were counted, including three pairs; we hope 2017 will be another good year for breeding success.

  Ajay, Ranger - Blakeney National Nature Reserve

Friday, 6 January 2017

6th of January: Buoy overshadows seals

Strong winds and rough seas on Wednesday (4th January), caused shifting of shingle on Blakeney Point.

These posts are what remains of a row of telegraph poles that powered a telephone at the Lifeboat House one hundred years ago. These have been exposed considerably by the landward rolling of shingle caused by Wednesday's weather.

It wasn't only shingle that shifted. The large buoy that marks the Hjordis wreck came off it's anchor chain and washed up on the Point, overshadowing a couple of weaned Grey Seal pups on the beach...
 Buoy overshadows seals (Graham Lubbock)

...and our volunteer Richard Porter (Ajay Tegala)

The buoy marks the Hjordis wreck, at the mouth of Blakeney Channel, to prevent vessels from getting into danger by going too close to the remains of the ship that was wrecked here in 1916. Due to the channel moving eastwards over the previous winter, Blakeney Harbour Association installed a number of new marker boys in 2016 for the safety of Blakeney's many boat users. After liaising with Blakeney Harbour Association, who put out a navigation warning, we set about the task of retrieving the buoy. Fortunately, despite its bulkiness, we were able to load it onto our trailer and toe it to Morston.

 Loading the buoy onto the trailer (Ajay Tegala)

 Beginning the drive along the beach (Mary Goddard)

Delivered safely to Morston (Graham Lubbock)

Wednesday's weather had little impact on the Grey Seal rookery. The adults and weaned pups are fast dispersing. However, there have been four pups born in 2017.

 One of this January's newborn pups (Ajay Tegala)

These four take the season's total to 2,366 pups. This number is now unlikely to rise by more than one or two. This total represents a 1% increase on last season's.

With three orphaned seals in the care of RSPCA East Winch and 34 either stillborn or not surviving their crucial first few days, there has been a total of 2,403 births this season. This represents a very low <2% mortality, showing what a successful and productive rookery Blakeney Point is.

We would like to thank all visitors for respecting the seals, helping them to have a disturbance-free environment in which to pup. A great big thank you also to the RSPCA staff and volunteers at East Winch for doing an excellent job caring for sick and injured pups from Blakeney.

Notable wildlife sightings on Blakeney National Nature Reserve this week included:

- Harbour Porpoise (washed up dead), Blakeney Point on Tuesday 3rd
- Hen Harrier (ringtail), Morston Marshes on Wednesday 4th
- Two Glaucous Gulls, Blakeney Point on Thursday 5th
- Four Snow Buntings, Blakeney Point on Thursday 5th
- Two Whooper Swans, over Blakeney Freshes on Thursday 5th

We look forward to sharing wildlife news from across the reserve throughout 2017.

- Ajay, Mary & Graham (Rangers)