A Swallowtail Tour today, we headed down to the Broads to look for butterflies, dragonflies and, not forgetting, a few birds. It was forecast to be cloudy but dry in the morning, with rain moving in for the afternoon, so we had to make the best of the early weather.
We started at Hickling Broad. There were lots of warblers singing from the bushes as we set off from the car park – Blackcap, Whitethroat and Willow Warbler. One of the latter perched up particularly obligingly in the top of an tree. We had a quick look in at the first hide, but the scrapes were very dry and there were next to no birds present.
The weather was just warm enough, and fairly still, which helped us in our quest. We did not have to go much further before we found our first Swallowtail butterfly, fluttering round by the path. As we walked towards it, we could see that there were actually several, feeding on the flowers of Marsh Thistles. We stopped to admire them – stunning butterflies. The Swallowtail butterfly is widespread, found all around the world, but the distinctive British subspecies is only found in the Norfolk Broads. It is a real treat to be able to watch them fluttering over the reeds and around the flowers.
There were several other species of butterfly also feeding on the Marsh Thistle flowers. Notably there were several Painted Ladys. This is a migratory butterfly and variable numbers occur in the UK from year to year – 2015 looks like it may be a good year for them. We also picked up a couple of Large Skippers and a Small Tortoiseshell in the thistles. Later, around the reserve, we added Meadow Brown to the day’s list.
There were a few dragonflies on the wing here too, plenty of Four-spotted Chasers among the reeds along the ditches and Black-tailed Skimmers basking on the paths, plus a couple of Emperor Dragonflies over the water. However, we could not locate any Norfolk Hawkers here today, another localised insect restricted in UK to the Broads (though we did manage to see some elsewhere, later in the day).
We could hear lots of Reed Warblers singing as we walked along the path. Appropriately enough, they are often to be seen (or not) hiding out amongst the reeds. We managed to find one bird perched up in a bush. It sat and sang for several minutes, giving us plenty of time to get a great look at it through the scope.
The Sedge Warblers have gone a little quiet know, as they are busy with the breeding season. Along the edge of one of the ditches, we found a small family party. At least three juveniles were hiding among the reeds and we could watch one of the adults collecting food and returning to feed them.
Several Cetti’s Warblers sang from the scrub, but as usual they proved hard to see. A male Reed Bunting was more obliging, perching in the top of a sallow bush singing. A pretty bird, but not the most enchanting of songs. A lone Cuckoo flew over silently, presumably looking for a Reed Warbler nest or two to lay its egg in. Something flushed all the birds from the scrapes on the other side of the Broad – Avocets, Black-tailed Godwits, Shoveler and Shelduck. A minute or so later, two Green Sandpipers flew over our heads calling, presumably similarly disturbed.
We could hear the distant sound of Cranes bugling across the Broad as we walked round. Just as we got up onto the bank, we picked up two birds in the sky heading towards us. They were not gaining much height, given the comparative lack of warmth in the air, but they circled gradually over our way and right overhead. It was great to watch them.
Out on the Broad itself, we could see a Great Crested Grebe. A closer look with the scope revealed at least one small, stripy-headed juvenile riding on its back, tucked in between its wings. It beats having to swim yourself if mum or dad will give you a ride! While we were watching it, the other parent suddenly surfaced in the channel right in front of us – obviously out trying to find food for the hungry brood.
Round at Bittern Hide, the Marsh Harriers were circling pretty much constantly. We watched the male returning with food, and dropping it for the female circling below to catch. A couple of Hobbys appeared, flying back and forth over the reeds at the back of the scrape. We could see they were catching insects, occasionally stopping to eat something, bringing it up in their feet and bending their heads down to eat it.
However, the highlight here was the Bearded Tits. They frustrated us for some time – we could hear them calling, but there was no sign of any around the reeds. Then suddenly a couple appeared in the tops at the back. As we watched, more and more Bearded Tits climbed up the reeds to where they were in full view until we could see at least a dozen. It was hard to count them precisely, as they kept dropping down into the reeds and climbing back up again. However, we got great views of them through the scope. Most appeared to be juveniles – presumably a large family party – though we did eventually see a male briefly.
On our way back to the Visitor Centre, we took a quick detour to look out over the grazing marshes. It didn’t take long to find a pair of Cranes out in the grass. For a bird which stands about a metre tall, they are remarkably hard to see on the ground and with their heads down feeding they disappeared into the tall rushes. We found a good place to watch them and got them in the scope. We could even see their red crown patches. Suddenly a smaller, pale orangey-grey-brown head appeared next to them, on the top of a shorter neck – a juvenile Crane. Nice to see them doing so well.
We headed back to the Visitor Centre for lunch, even managing to sit out at a picnic table in the ‘garden’, which was an unexpected bonus today. A smart golden-headed male Yellowhammer sang from one of the trees, and various warblers sang from the bushes. A Short-tailed Field Vole ran out across the short grass, realised the error of its ways and ran back in again. It clouded over as we ate, but still the rain for the most part held off, save for a few spits and spots.
After lunch, we moved on to Upton Fen. The wet woodland was a little quiet at first, but there were more dragonflies on the wing here. We caught up with Norfolk Hawker at last, with several flying around the edges of the trees and the sedge beds. There were also more damselflies, with lots of Azure and the odd Variable Damselfly in amongst them.
There were lots of orchids out here too. Mostly Southern Marsh Orchid, there were big drifts of purple flowers along the paths. We did also find a Fen Orchid growing right beside the path at one point, which negated the need to stray to try to find one. A rather unprepossessing flower, but a real treat to see.
The avian highlight here was a Grasshopper Warbler. We could hear it reeling from some distance away, but even though the boardwalk got us fairly close to where it was hiding, unfortunately we could not see it. We also saw both Mistle and Song Thrush here – we stopped to listen to the latter singing its delightful song. Lots of Chiffchaffs were singing from the trees and we heard both Marsh Tit and Bullfinch calling by the entrance.
We finished the day at Ranworth Broad. It was busy here today, and quiet in the wet woodland. Out at the Broad, there were lots of Common Terns fishing. The young Great Crested Grebes were much older here and much bigger – too big to ride around on mum or dad’s back now. The adults were out fishing and the still stripy-headed juveniles were floating asleep amongst the vast hordes of Greylag here. At least they were until one of the parents returned with some food, at which point they promptly woke up and started begging.
The clouds were building and time was getting on, so we headed back to the car. Just in time, as it started to rain just as we got back. Still, we had had an excellent day and been very lucky with the weather considering the forecast.