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May 2016

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Sunset in May, Sheila Sims
Sunset in May, Sheila Sims

This month it’s going to be rubbish. At least, that’s what the first part of my diary is about and there won’t be any photos because we all know what rubbish looks like, there’s enough of it about. But the Sperm whales that were stranded on the North Sea coast of Germany, thought to be part of the same pod which lost some members on our own Norfolk beaches, plainly did not know what it looks like; post mortems revealed plenty of it inside them. Some reports state that these animals were severely underweight and had starved to death in spite of having full stomachs, not of food but plastic. Fishing nets, parts of buckets and even car parts were items recovered from this disgraceful find.

Our oceans are full of garbage, most of it plastic and great rafts of the stuff, gathered together by the currents, float on the surface or sink to the sea floor. Marine life suffers as a result. Not only whales but also sea birds, seals and dolphins, as well as turtles, who mistake plastic bags for jelly fish, their favourite food, and it isn’t only visible items which cause damage. Plastic is not biodegradable but is slowly broken down by the constant movement of the waves, salt and sunlight, into microscopic pieces. These are ingested by tiny organisms, filtered by shellfish, such as mussels, and are deposited in the organs and muscles of fish. Anything that feeds on these will be taking in the plastic and, yes, that includes ourselves. It is not only objects that are eaten which cause trouble. Birds, seals and other animals drown when they get caught in discarded fishing nets and plastic rings that hold together drink cans have been found around the necks of birds. Walk along any beach and you will be sure to find all sorts of washed up rubbish, in spite of hard working volunteers who go out and clean up. And it doesn’t all come from garbage dumped at sea, some is just thrown down and left by thoughtless people.

They do it inland as well. Some streets are littered with cigarette ends, paper, plastic and polystyrene trays and cups from fast food establishments. There has been talk of charging fees to these places to pay towards cleaning up. No! They are NOT the culprits! For the sake of hygiene they have to sell their food in some sort of packaging which, of course, should be minimal and made from biodegradable materials. It is the selfish customers who are at fault and fines should be much, much higher; law enforcement is vital here, as is education which should start at home and in schools. If an adult throws down rubbish a child will think that it is O.K. to do the same and Lord help anyone who challenges this kind of behaviour.

Let’s also talk to manufacturers about packaging. Why does an item measuring four inches long need to be dispatched in a box, stuffed with paper and plastic, which is twelve inches long? Why, when nature provides a cucumber with a perfectly good protective skin, do supermarkets feel they have to give it two more? In a suitable container in the right part of the fridge it will stay fresh for ages. Biscuits? Fight your way into those!

On the subject of food, dog food to be precise, well done those people who clean up after their pets, but don’t leave a little knotted bag (more plastic) hanging on a bush like a novelty Christmas decoration. Don’t do that! What do you think is going to happen to it? Does a poo fairy fly around at night collecting it up? No, please do the right thing. We may be looking into ways of living on the moon or Mars but that doesn’t mean we should not care for and value our own beautiful earth, or shall we just let it become one big trash can and then move out? O.K. that’s my rant done, now, so on with ‘Nature Diary.’

Avocets feeding at Cley Marshes, Sheila Sims
Avocets feeding at Cley Marshes, Sheila Sims

Avocets are breeding along the East coast, now, and a good place to see these elegant black and white waders is on Cley Marshes. With their distinctive plumage, blue-grey legs and long up-curved beaks they cannot be mistaken for anything else. A pair will stay together for the breeding season, usually making a nest on the mud; this will be a shallow hollow lined with pebbles, shells and bits of vegetation. They nest in loose colonies and defend their territory, driving away other birds, even those much larger than themselves. Predators are also chased but foxes know where easy pickings are so some nesting sites are protected by electric fences. There will usually be four eggs which are incubated for just over three weeks by both parents and, like all waders, the chicks will be up and running almost immediately after hatching. They will pick up small invertebrates from the mud and after about ten days their beaks will start to curve when they will be able to feed like adults. This involves sweeping their beaks from side to side through the water to catch insects, little shrimps and worms; they will also ‘upturn’ to root around at the bottom. The Avocet is a great success story; by the mid-1880s it had disappeared from our coasts. Hunting, egg collecting and loss of habitat all contributed to their demise but just after the Second World War they started to return. The hard work done by the RSPB, which has adopted the image of this bird as its logo, has seen their numbers increase and, of course, they are now a protected species.

The Small copper butterfly did not have a very good year in 2015. Not only has the loss of meadows, where the larval food plants, Dock, Sorrel and Knot grass grow, reduced their numbers but also the cool summer meant that they did not breed very well.

Small Copper, Sheila Sims
Small Copper, Sheila Sims

It’s not all bad news, though, because the Marbled white and the Brimstone had their best year since studies began in 1976.

Nettle patches will be hosts to Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars this month where they will be living in communal webs close to the top of the plants. The ‘Big Butterfly Count’ last year showed that there was a drop in numbers of this lovely insect compared with 2014 but they are still doing much better than in previous years. If you would like to take part in the count it involves spending fifteen minutes, on a sunny day, sometime between 15th July and 7th August and submitting your records but I will give you the details of what to do nearer the time.

Our Norwich peregrines are back at their nesting platform on the spire of the cathedral and have been incubating four eggs; at the time of writing one chick has hatched. You can follow their progress on the Hawk & Owl Trust live web cam. At the moment the sitting bird is being buffeted by strong winds but as the peregrine’s natural nesting site is on coastal cliffs, I don’t suppose she minds too much. I’m not actually sure whether it is ‘she’ or ‘he’ as the sexes are very similar but when they are together it is easier to tell the difference; as with most raptors the female is larger than the male.
Things to do this month include:
• Beach clean. Breeding birds – Cley Marshes. or 01603 625540.
• Family activity day – Titchwell nature reserve. or 01485 210779.
• Pond dipping. Bird identification – Holkham Nature Reserve. or 07766 073373.
©   Sheila Sims 2016