I love the winter sunsets in Norfolk, full of colours that sometimes seem unreal, as though someone has painted the sky.
November can be a cold month, especially on the coast, but it is worth visiting Snettisham, particularly to see the thousands of Pink-footed geese which fly from their overnight roosts on the mud flats to feed inland. Tens of thousands of waders feed on the mud flats and are pushed off the feeding grounds by the incoming tide, to fly back as the tide recedes. These two spectacles are wonderful sights! The RSPB has so far raised £15,000 to build a new hide at the reserve to replace the two that were destroyed by the storm surge in 2013.
Another winter ‘birding’ place is, of course, Cley Marshes. As well as the birds that make the marshes their winter home many rarities can be found resting and feeding, much to the delight of the ‘twitchers’, some of whom will travel all over the country just to add a single bird to their list!
The Black headed-gull is certainly not a rarity and can be found in many numbers both at Cley and Snettisham. At this time of year it doesn’t have a black head (which is, in fact, dark brown), this is only present during the breeding season. In the winter the head is white with a couple of brown smudges. The gull has red legs and beak and the juveniles have ginger coloured feathers on their upper parts.
The winter population is boosted by birds flying in from Europe and settling to feed. Black-headed gulls can live virtually anywhere where there is food and many can be found inland often following ploughs and raiding rubbish tips. Their diet is varied: fish, earthworms, invertebrates, carrion and stuff we humans discard willy-nilly are all eaten. They will often nest in colonies and each pair will defend a small nesting territory, laying 3-4 eggs. Up until the 1940s their eggs were collected in their thousands and sold as delicacies and even the birds themselves were eaten. This now strictly controlled and only a few licence holders are allowed to take a limited number of eggs, from designated sites, between April 1st and May 15th after which the birds will lay again. Consequently, the number of the gulls has increased dramatically and they can now be found all over the country.
Another bird you will see at coastal reserves is the Canada goose, easily recognisable with its black neck and head and white throat. These birds were imported from North America during the in the 1600s and Charles II added them to the bird collection in what was then his London garden, now St. James’s Park. What the King did was quickly copied by the English aristocracy and those with large houses and grounds also acquired Canada geese. The birds quickly bred and spread throughout the country and can be found, usually near water, in many open spaces. They feed on vegetation which, because of the amount of roughage they take in, means they poo a lot! This is one of the reasons why some people consider them to be pests. Their faeces create a lot of mess and contain significant amounts of bacteria which can cause illness; this is a particular worry for children who may play in parks where the geese live. Another reason for their unpopularity is that they can be very aggressive, so it’s not a good idea to feed them; they quickly become unafraid of people and will defend themselves with their strong wings and beaks. They can weigh up to 6.5 kgs (over 14 lbs) so not to be messed with!
An animal which will take the chicks and eggs of both geese and gulls is the Stoat, although, because they will defend their nests very aggressively, geese will prove more difficult. Stoats are members of the Mustelid family which also includes the weasel. The difference between them can easily be recognised as the Stoat is larger than the Weasel and has a chestnut-red coat, whereas the Weasel is usually a paler fawn colour. The Stoat always has a black tip to the tail, even in the places where the animal turns white in the winter. Stoats prey on a number of animals including birds, mice, voles and rats but their favourite food is rabbit. Although the rabbit is the larger animal the Stoat can easily kill it by biting the back of the neck. If the Stoat cannot chase a rabbit down it goes into a frenzied ‘dance’ routine, twisting and turning, all the time getting closer and closer to its prey. The rabbit is transfixed by this behaviour and when the Stoat gets within striking distance it jumps on to the rabbit’s back and it’s goodbye bunny. Although Stoats will mate in the summer, implantation of the fertilised egg will not happen until the next spring. They have 6 – 12 kits which, because the parents are not monogamous, will often be of mixed paternity. They nest in various places, tree roots, rock piles, even farm buildings are all used and they sometimes take over old rabbit burrows.(One maybe under your shed, even if you live in town; I was surprised to see one run across the main road in Cromer, dodging in and out of the traffic!) The kits will follow their mother around until they become independent; other than this time the stoat is a solitary animal. Like a lot of their mustelid cousins, stoats are very playful but there is a worm that affects their brains making them incoordinate causing them to tumble about and this can sometimes be interpreted as playfulness; it also affects weasels and this parasite will eventually kill these animals.
There are still plenty of fungi about and one you may find this month in grassy places, and where the soil has been disturbed, is the Shaggy ink cap, also called Lawyer’s wig. When young this mushroom is white and egg-shaped but as it matures it will open into a bell shape and start to change colour at the edges, going from white to pinkish-brown and then to black, when it will dissolve into a liquid which has been used as ink in the past; the cap will disappear leaving just the stem. The fungus is sometimes used as a natural dye for paper, wool and fabric producing a greeny-grey colour.
East Anglia, along with the South East, has been a victim of power loss in some areas because damaged telegraph poles have had to be replaced. The cause of the damage is Woodpeckers which have been drilling into the wooden poles, either in search of food or more likely to create nesting sites. UK Power Networks has been testing a wood filler which they hope will deter the birds from completing their holes.
Grey squirrels seem to have had a good breeding year; there are lots of half-grown youngsters about.
Things to do this month include:
• Winter wildfowl & waders. Learn to draw & paint birds. Both at Cley Marshes. norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603625540.
Pink-footed geese walks with breakfast – Snettisham.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 01485 210779.
• Wild wood adventure (good for families).
email@example.com or 01603 715191.
© Sheila Sims 2017