Tales from the Riverbank

  • February 2, 2018 6:56 pm

The thin January light seeps through Winter’s brown stems, warming the muddy tones faintly golden. The cold grips my limbs despite three layers, as I sit frozen to the damp riverbank. A Blackbird whispers his subsong in the cool sunlight, practising for when Spring arrives. The water is high, and the river flows fast, eddies and ripples and swirls of bubbles fizz downstream. The vegetation leans with the current, a Grey Wagtail alights here, bouncing tail and bright lemon zing in the sparkling river light.

He flits away upstream as a pair of Swans and their grown up Cygnet cruise slowly into view.

They paddle by both peacefully and powerfully, taking the current in their stride.

The water ahead rolls, a darkness boils up and becomes living, a hump of greasy fur coils above the surface, and is followed by a sharp straight tail. Sinking away, gone, the river settles. Closer, a trail of bubbles appears from the depths, with anticipation I follow each new one as it shimmers upwards. A nose rises through the water, a broad head, and wet whiskers decorated with pearls of liquid, pauses at the bank and calmly observes her domain. An Otter. A privilege to see and always enchanting to watch. She relaxes in the sheltered water of the bank, just her nose, eyes and ears in the cold air, and in perfectly evolved alignment. She tips her head, takes a breath, and curls back into the river, so smooth that maybe she is made from the water itself.

 

 

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Beautiful Bees

  • July 9, 2017 4:18 pm

The warm June breeze gently stirs the long grass, and shivers softly through the leaves of the apple tree behind me. Peace rests lightly across the lush garden, and a male Blackbird flutes his signature melody into the clear air. He is perched above where I’m sitting, sharing space together as I wait for the light, and he waits for a reply. A shaft of warm evening sun is slowly swinging towards my subject, which at first glance appears to be a large and exotic looking bumblebee, painted burgandy and gold, with pale wings stretched out either side, balanced on a bright green stem. It’s not an insect though, it’s an orchid. Named for its flowers remarkable resemblance to a bee – the Bee Orchid.

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Masons and Miners

  • May 20, 2017 2:13 pm

Just a quick update from me, Spring is in full swing now here in South Norfolk. Blue tit’s are nesting in the box on the back of the house, and the Hawthorn hedge at the bottom of the garden was in magnificient full bloom until the rains came over the last two days. Every year I’m fascinated by our wild Red Mason Bees, which have been using the bee nesters I installed on the east facing side of the house for several years now. They are solitary bees, each one creating an individual nest, but they come in great numbers to use the bee nesters now. Starting from around 8 bees when we first moved here to far too many to count now is fantastic to see as they are such important pollinators. I wonder if the neighbours either side are wondering why their apple trees have been producing such vast amounts of fruit over the last few years? I love listening to the constant hum of the bees going back and forth to their nests, and occasionally having a quick peek down one of the tubes to admire the pile of glorious yellow pollen that the bee has accumulated. The females are busy right now, each one provisioning their nest with pollen collected from the surrounding gardens, their rufous fur covered with sunshine yellow, as if they had been dipped in lemon sherbert. A few weeks ago though, the females were still tucked safely inside, and the newly emerged males were vying for the best spot, waiting for the girls to appear. I took this photo of a male waiting inside the nesting tube, warming himself in the early Spring sunshine.

New for this year in the garden are the Mining bees. Much like the Mason bees, they are harmless solitary bees, and great pollinators of course too. As the name suggests, instead of nesting in holes in masonry, these little bees dig their own nest chambers underground, often resulting in a little hill of soil in the lawn with a hole in the middle of around 4mm diameter. These little bees are only about 8-11mm in length and prefer nesting in well drained soil. They are a little shyer than the Mason bees, retreating into their nest when you wander past, but with a little patience I was able to photograph this Early Mining bee basking in the sun at the entrance to her nest.

Although photography is my medium of choice I do occassionally dabble in video too, and this year I was able to film a male mason bee emerging from the nester for the first time. You can take a look at that video here: https://youtu.be/FsDcjPGzLFU

 

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Spring Bluebells

  • May 2, 2016 2:29 pm

It’s been a few years since I last photographed Bluebells, they are such stunningly beautiful flowers, both en-mass and close up. Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Wayland Wood is a fantastic place to see them. Spring is my favourite time of year, and Spring in a woodland is simply glorious. The first thing that greets you is the perfume of Bluebells wafting through the trees, and a glimpse of the most intense blue. Blue like only Bluebells can be, in overcast conditions a deep cobalt blue, but in the sunshine, a softer, purpler shade. This woodland has much more to offer too, with magenta coloured Early Purple Orchids, shining white Wood Anemones, bird life in abundance, Blackcaps, Robins, Chiffchaffs, Woodpeckers and more, and butterflies like the Orange tip delicately fluttering between flowers.

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Staying home

  • February 24, 2015 8:34 pm

I’m very fortunate to live near some lovely countryside, with two small nature reserves just a few minutes walk away from home. This weekend I decided to explore these instead of heading to the Fen. The closest reserve is an area of heathy common, with short rabbit grazed turf, and prickly gorse bushes. There’s a boggy area with a small stream, where I found a Little Egret hunting. I watched as he paddled in the shallow water stalking and striking his prey. He wandered up the bank and paused in the frost to take a look at me, before moving off back to the stream to resume hunting.

Little Egret, Egretta garzetta, in frost, Norfolk, Winter

I watched for a while longer, but the first dog walkers of the day appeared, so I headed over to the other little reserve, and area of wet meadow. This is such a contrast to the common, open, lush and green. Incredibly peaceful in the early morning sunshine, I sat and watched as the frost slowly melted. Flights of Woodpigeon crossed the vast blue sky, and a team of quacking ducks circled overhead. A male Reed bunting balanced atop a reed stem watching me. Definitely well worth exploring, hopefully I’ll get the time to get to know the local wildlife a bit better!

Back in the garden this Collared dove sat on the fence…

Collared dove, Streptopelia decaocto, perched on garden fence, Norfolk,

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Spot the bird

  • January 11, 2015 5:38 pm

Wildlife photographers have a habit of showing only their very best work, which is of course understandable. It does leave aspiring wildlife photographers a little disillusioned or disappointed with their own efforts, because it’s a fact that for every amazing photo taken, there’s ten, twenty, or a hundred (or more!) ‘misses’. After all, we’re dealing with living beings which move, run or fly away, and refuse to look in the right direction. Sometimes, we go out to shoot, and come away totally empty handed, which is why patience and persistence is key to nature photography.

Today was nearly one of those days. Over on the fen this morning, bright but incredibly windy. In the shelter of the hedgerow, a twittering flock of small birds were feeding, Long-tailed tits, Blue and Great tits, a Robin, and several cryptically camouflaged little birds. Can you spot the bird in this photo?

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It’s a Treecreeper, fascinating little birds that creep up the trees, checking every crack and crevice for insects, using their curved needle like beak to extract their quarry and their long, stiff forked tail as a prop to help them cling to the bark. They are constantly in motion with tiny mouse like movements, making them extremely difficult to photograph. This one refused to look at the camera, but does nicely illustrate just how well camouflaged they are, and also my point about the frustrations of wildlife photography!

Walking on to see if I could spot the Bearded Reedlings, I was faced with a sea of swishing reeds, swaying violently in the swirling wind, and I knew it was unlikely I would see them. After an hour of waiting I heard a few pinging calls, but didn’t see the birds.

Heading back to the warmth of the hedge line, I spotted one of the Fieldfares perched so attempted a stealthy approach. Fieldfares are one of our wonderful winter visitors, a beautiful thrush species, they are closely associated with orchards, feeding on the fallen apples, and may also be seen feeding on berries in the hedges. On the fen they seem to pay close attention to the dry mole run riddled areas, perhaps taking advantage of the worms and insects bought to the surface here. This one was surprising tolerant and allowed me to photograph it as it sat in the hedge.

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Hello Deer

  • January 4, 2015 9:32 pm

I’ve had a few new visitors to my blog recently, so I just wanted give you a warm welcome to my website, and also to introduce my local patch, where I do a lot of my photography – Redgrave and Lopham Fen.

Redgrave and Lopham Fen is the largest remaining valley fen in England, and managed by Suffolk Wildlife Trust. The reserve encompasses not just fenland, but woodland and heath too. It’s a peaceful haven for me, having lived in the area for around 20 years I’ve grown up here, walking the tracks that criss cross the reserve and watching the amazing wildlife. For the wildlife, this place is an oasis in the agricultural vastness of the surrounding fields. The river Waveney rises here, although there’s not much to see at it’s source, just a boggy area and flooded scrape patrolled by Grey Herons, and dabbled by Teal in winter.

There’s something to see year round, but winter is a favourite time to visit for me, the frost crystallised on the reeds and clear cold sky, and often I have this tranquil place to myself. This morning I paused to watch a group of Long-tailed tits foraging in the brambles, and when I walked a little further a movement ahead made me stop. It was a Roe deer, the youngster from the group of three I photographed earlier in the week, she was so close, and hadn’t yet noticed me. Carefully and quietly setting up the camera, I waited and watched, fully expecting her to sense me and bound away, but in the cold still air she couldn’t smell me, and maybe if I stay still she won’t see me. She turned, nibbling on bramble leaves, and focussing manually for quietness and the distracting branches, I took her picture.

Roe deer, Capreolus capreolus, youngster in hedgerow, Norfolk, January, Winter

Roe deer have to be my favourite deer species, such elegance and grace, and such a privilege to observe one so closely. Amazingly the sound of the camera shutter didn’t spook her, and she started to move towards me. Just the other side of the brambles, just a few meters away. So close I could hear each dainty hoof-step on the frozen leaves layered on the ground. She passed by, and waiting until she had moved off, we went our separate ways.

The birds were very busy, and despite the fact it’s only January a pair of Blue tits were investigating a potential nest site. A tantalising glimpse of spring.

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The Bearded tits whizzed across the path, not pausing for a photo today, but as ever, lovely to see. Walking back, a reminder that it is still winter, a dried umbellifer sparkling with the frost.

Frosted plant, Norfolk, Winter, January

I noticed a Fieldfare paying close attention to a Molehill, and after a few moments I realised why – the mole was busy rearranging his home, pushing soil up to the surface and no doubt insects or worms too, hence the attraction to the Fieldfare. Short video here: Mole in the Molehill.

 

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Autumn

  • October 20, 2014 8:09 pm

The golden season. Hedgerows heavy with fruits lead me to the earthy scented forest. Fungi, like this Fly Agaric push through the dark, damp soil. A Jay flies overhead with a beak full of acorns, and a Squirrel scampers up a tree to watch me walk by.

Fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, in woodland, October, Norfolk

Away from the forest into the open parkland now. Gnarled old trees stand steady, how many Autumns have they seen I wonder? A roar cuts through the mist, a Fallow deer buck lets forth a deep, powerful bellow, and waits for a reply.

Fallow deer, Dama dama, Buck under oak tree, Autumn, October, Suffolk

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Pastures new, and old

  • July 17, 2013 11:51 am

Forgive me friends, for my prolonged absence. I have been doing that most stressful of things – moving house. So here I am, all settled in, exploring pastures new. Newly located between numerous nature reserves, there’s plenty to see, but more on that at a later date.

Back to pastures old, and my patch – the Fen. My first visit here for sometime, all looks lush and green, a calm oasis to mend my frazzled soul. At 5am it’s comfortably cool and the birds are taking a little time to sing before flying off to forage for their young.

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Blackbird, Turdus merula, perched in oak tree, summer, Norfolk, July

The path-side plants rise up, taller than me now. The purple-blue flowered vetch scrambles through bramble, hemp agrimony and meadowsweet are bursting into flower. As the landscape opens out, I spot the smallest movement, nearly missed her, a beautiful Roe deer doe in her russet summer coat is watching me. She calmly stares, her elegant head just visible amongst the  grass.

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She turns her attention away from me, and I glance in that direction too. The buck, I suddenly realise, much closer to me. He ignores me and I finally put two and two together. It’s July, the Roe deer rutting season. The buck is far more concerned with what his missus is doing to worry about me, and never even looks my way.

Roe deer, Capreolus capreolus, male, buck, in long grass, summer, Norfolk, July

I leave them to it, hoping to reacquaint myself with the other wildlife too. Another Reed warbler poses for me, and I watch two Little Egrets fly overhead.

Reed warbler, Acrocephalus scirpaceus, perched on reed, summer, Norfolk, July.

On the way back I spot some young rabbits resting in the shade. I hesitate, but how can I resist such soft, cute little creatures. Cue silly commando style crawl over the dry prickly ground.

Rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, young, summer, Norfolk, July

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Otters

  • March 21, 2013 8:51 pm

Had a brilliant morning with the Otters, but first, a word to photographers planning to visit this location. If you are not aware of the Nature Photographers Code of Conduct, then please read it thoroughly HERE. This is the code of practice by which all nature photographers must abide, to protect the wildlife we love to photograph, and to protect ourselves as ethical photographers. The welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph.

Photographers please have respect for this location and your fellow photographers and wildlife watchers. Normal social rules and etiquette still apply – keep your distance and be patient. Do not muscle in on someone else’s photos – you don’t want to get exactly the same images as them anyway, do not get in the way of people watching, and do not chase the otters relentlessly up and down the river. The best photos can be achieved by sitting quietly and waiting for them to come to you. Please do not leave litter or disturb or annoy the local people.

Finally, and I cannot stress this final point enough: PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE OTTERS.  I have read online and witnessed some people feeding them – this is wholly unethical. Not only does this put the river system and otters at risk of ill health and disease (you do not know what parasites and bacteria might be present on the food), you are also endangering the otters lives. Feeding them encourages them to associate humans with food – but the otters cannot tell the difference between a person with a camera and a person with a gun. You are also putting yourself at risk of being bitten – otters have an extremely powerful bite (remember Terry Nutkins had part of two fingers removed by an otter) and again this puts the otters at risk of persecution. Imagine if one were to bite a child. The otters have already suffered a lot of bad publicity and despite the fact they are fully protected by law, there is still a small minority of people that wish them harm. Please give these wild animals the respect they deserve.

If everyone can behave responsibly and sensibly, then we will all be able to enjoy the presence of these very special creatures.

Now to the photos. An early start again this morning with a lovely companion, who really wanted to see the Otters. Sitting quietly by the river we observed some of the other river wildlife, including Grey Wagtail, Kingfisher and the long staying Black-bellied Dipper. After a long wait we were rewarded as the dog otter drifted gently past. He surfaced and dived, moving up river, so we gave him some space and then followed along behind. We had some fantastic views of this magnificent animal, and then as two other photographers joined us, we were able to watch him hunting. In the clear water we could see him below the surface, twisting his powerful body in the current, a curtain of silvery bubbles rising from his fur. An amazing experience.

There’s plenty of wildlife here to photograph:

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos, female, duck, standing on riverbank, Norfolk,

Later, after the male Otter went off to bed, we took a stroll along the river. Ahead on the path a chap was standing with a video camera, so we held back, and then noticed an Otter on the path right in front of him – amazing! This time it was a female, and she was clearly on a mission heading downstream, moving very quickly. We circled around and set up to wait for her to appear, but instead of swimming along in the river as I expected, she was running along the bank. A delightful sight with as tail held high, she bounded and bounced along.

Otter, lutra lutra, female running along riverbank, Norfolk, March

 

Otter, lutra lutra, female on riverbank at base of tree, Norfolk, March

We moved back to where the other photographers had set up and warned them she was on her way. We all waited in anticipation, and she didn’t disappoint, giving us some wonderful views.

 Otter, lutra lutra, female shaking head, water drops, Norfolk, March

 Otter, lutra lutra, female on riverbank, Norfolk, March

An incredible experience once again with these beautiful animals, and also again, a great group of friendly people.

 

Further reading:

The Nature Photographers Code of Practice

Nature Photographers Network – Code of Conduct

The International Otter Survival Fund – Otter press release

The Mammal Society – Otter factsheet

Elliot Neep – How to photograph otters (Based on coastal otters, but much is relevant to river otters.)

 

Otters are strictly protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and cannot be killed, kept or sold (even stuffed specimens). They are given full protection under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act – the restrictions on photographing otters at their places of shelter are exactly the same as those for nesting birds, meaning it is an offence to disturb them at their holt.

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