Otters in Norfolk, England


This video is called Wild otters in Thetford, Norfolk.

By Peter Frost in England:

The otter‘s welcome return

Saturday 5th April 2014

PETER FROST tracks an otter in the backwaters of the Broads National Park and uncovers an interesting quirk of history

The tiny electric launch, the Electric Eel moved silently away from the jetty at How Hill on the river Ant in the heart of the Norfolk Broads National Park. We soon left the main river taking a tiny reed-fringed backwater.

The park ranger spotted it first – they always do – something slender, sleek and shiny swimming across the river. First guess was a mink, common enough to be a real pest in these waters.

It moved fast and looked bigger than a mink. As it scrambled on to the bank the whiskers and bright button nose made it plain this was that rarest of Broadland’s mammals – the wonderful otter (Lutra lutra).

After years of living on the brink of extinction in Britain, otters have made a dramatic comeback, and not just in the Broads.

You have a greater chance of seeing an otter on our riverbanks than at any time for half a century. Today otters are being spotted in virtually every river in every county.

Back in the 1970s, otters were nearly extinct. They have made an extraordinary comeback – and one linked to other improvements in our rivers, streams, canals and other water courses.

Otters are playful and affectionate with their young, they float on their backs with pups on their stomachs. You may be lucky and see one sitting on the river bank meticulously eating a fish. A large dog otter or a pregnant female might eat as much as four pounds (2kg) of fish a day.

Much of the otter‘s popularity can be traced back to two important books about the species – Henry Williamson‘s 1927 novel Tarka the Otter and Gavin Maxwell‘s Ring of Bright Water.

Maxwell’s book, first published in 1960, was made into a popular film in 1969 when otters had almost disappeared from both English and Welsh rivers and were quite rare in the Scottish rivers where Maxwell had set his book and film. The film and book helped to win over public opinion in favour of the otter.

At this time the few surviving otters were still being hunted with packs of hounds. The murderous so-called sport was not made illegal until 1978.

Another major factor in the otters’ decline was the widespread use of DDT and other agricultural chemicals. They drained from farmland and poisoned waterways.

Those chemicals accumulated in fish and amphibians and poisoned the otter at the top of the riverbank food chain.

These chemicals, along with untreated sewage and industrial pollution, effectively killed our rivers.

The rivers too were being dredged and straightened, while banks were being tidied up and steel and concrete pilings were installed, replacing the soft otter-friendly reed fringes. It is hard to dig a holt in a concrete bank.

Those of us who wanted to see British otters had to journey north to Orkney, Shetland or the Highlands.

Banning DDT and the gradual improvement in river water quality started to make the news, although it was usually the return of fisherman’s salmon that made the headlines. But as the salmon returned, so did the otter.

Today even lucky city folk might see an otter on a early morning canal towpath walk.

European mink in the Netherlands: here.

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Natterjack toad mating season on Terschelling island


This video from Norfolk in England is called Hunt for the Natterjack Toad.

The Dutch Wadden Sea Society reports that the natterjack toads of Terschelling island have woken up from their hibernation.

In the Koegelwieck nature reserve, in central Terschelling, each night there is a massive concert by male natterjack toads. This is audible even on the beach and in Den Hoorn village, kilometres away.

Another good natterjack spot on Terschelling is the Groene strand beach in the west of the island.

In the Netherlands as a whole, natterjack toads are and threatened. Not so on Terschelling: the related species, the European toad, common in the continental Netherlands, does not occur there.

You can hear a natterjack toad call here (click on “Roep” on the right side of the page).

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Prehistoric human discovery in England


This video from Britain says about itself:

The earliest human footprints outside Africa found in Norfolk | Natural History Museum

7 Feb 2014

A series of footprints that were left by early humans over 800,000 years ago have been discovered by a team of scientists led by the British Museum, Natural History Museum and Queen Mary University of London.

The footprints left in ancient estuary muds were found at Happisburgh in Norfolk and are direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe. Find out more about the discovery: here.

Archaeological finds from Happisburgh and other locations around the country feature in our Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story exhibition, open between 13 February and 28 September 2014: here.

From Associated Press:

Million-year-old footprints found

Last updated 15:42 08/02/2014

They were a British family on a day out — almost a million years ago.

Archaeologists have announced the discovery of human footprints in England that are between 800,000 and 1 million years old — the most ancient found outside Africa, and the earliest evidence of human life in northern Europe.

A team from the British Museum, London’s Natural History Museum and Queen Mary college at the University of London uncovered imprints from up to five individuals in ancient estuary mud at Happisburgh on the country’s eastern coast.

British Museum archaeologist Nick Ashton said the discovery — recounted in detail in the journal PLOS ONE — was ‘‘a tangible link to our earliest human relatives.’’

Preserved in layers of silt and sand for hundreds of millennia before being exposed by the tide last year, the prints give a vivid glimpse of some of our most ancient ancestors.

They were left by a group, including at least two children and one adult male. They could have been be a family foraging on the banks of a river scientists think may be the ancient Thames, beside grasslands where bison, mammoth, hippos and rhinoceros roamed.

University of Southampton archaeology professor Clive Gamble, who was not involved in the project, said the discovery was ‘‘tremendously significant”.

‘‘It’s just so tangible,’’ he said. ‘‘This is the closest we’ve got to seeing the people. ‘‘When I heard about it, it was like hearing the first line of (William Blake’s hymn) Jerusalem — ‘And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?’ Well, they walked upon its muddy estuary.’’

The researchers said the humans who left the footprints may have been related to Homo antecessor, or ‘‘pioneer man,’’ whose fossilised remains have been found in Spain.

That species died out about 800,000 years ago. Ashton said the footprints are between 800,000 — ‘‘as a conservative estimate’’ — and 1 million years old, at least 100,000 years older than scientists’ earlier estimate of the first human habitation in Britain.

That’s significant because 700,000 years ago, Britain had a warm, Mediterranean-style climate. The earlier period was much colder, similar to modern-day Scandinavia. Natural History Museum archaeologist Chris Stringer said that 800,000 or 900,000 years ago Britain was ‘‘the edge of the inhabited world.’’

‘This makes us rethink our feelings about the capacity of these early people, that they were coping with conditions somewhat colder than the present day,’’ he said.

‘‘Maybe they had cultural adaptations to the cold we hadn’t even thought were possible 900,000 years ago. Did they wear clothing? Did they make shelters, windbreaks and so on?

”Could they have the use of fire that far back?’’ he asked.

Scientists dated the footprints by studying their geological position and from nearby fossils of long-extinct animals including mammoth, ancient horse and early vole.

John McNabb, director of the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins at the University of Southampton — who was not part of the research team — said the use of several lines of evidence meant ‘‘the dating is pretty sound.’’

Once uncovered, the perishable prints were recorded using sophisticated digital photography to create 3-D images in which it’s possible to discern arches of feet, and even toes.

Isabelle De Groote, a specialist in ancient human remains at Liverpool John Moores University who worked on the find, said that from the pattern of the prints, the group of early humans appeared to be ‘‘pottering around,’’ perhaps foraging for food. She said it wasn’t too much of a stretch to call it a family.

‘‘These individuals travelling together, it’s likely that they were somehow related,’’ she said. Research at Happisburgh will continue, and scientists are hopeful of finding fossilised remains of the ancient humans, or evidence of their living quarters, to build up a fuller picture of their lives. The footprint find will form part of an exhibition, ‘‘Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story,’’ opening at the Natural History Museum next week.

The footprints themselves, which survived for almost 1 million years, won’t be there. Two weeks after they were uncovered, North Sea tides had washed them away.

The oldest human footprints ever discovered outside of Africa have already been washed away: here.

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British grey seals in stormy weather


This video is about a newborn grey seal pup with its mother on a beach in Norfolk, UK.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Seal pups brave the storms

Saturday 14th December 2013

PETER FROST finds that extreme weather has hit seal rookeries hard – but many of this year’s young have survived after all

The recent severe storms and sea surge that hit so much of Britain’s coast caused all sorts of damage. The storm destroyed sea defences and coastal bungalows as well as flooding salt-marsh and agricultural land.

Wildlife too was hit hard, with many sea birds being storm tossed and disorientated and sea mammals, particularly grey seals, greatly affected.

The storms occurred precisely at the height of the grey seal pupping season. The terrible weather could not have come at a worse time. Bodies of fluffy white dead seal pups have littered beaches all along the east coast.

Thousands of seal pups were caught up in the storms and separated from their mothers. This was very serious as the pups were not yet mature enough to survive alone.

The young pups can’t swim or survive without their mother’s milk which is 60 per cent fat and the consistency of condensed milk.

Pups put on five pounds (2kg) of weight per day until they have shed their distinctive white fur.

The beach at Horsey, close to the northern waters of the Norfolk Broads, has always been a favourite place of mine to watch these white fluffy pups.

Normally in the weeks running up to Christmas you can watch 400-500 baby seals feeding from their mothers on the beach. The best viewing is from the dunes which means you are not disturbing the family groups.

After the recent storm there were worries that more than half of Horsey’s pups had disappeared.

Along the coast at Blakeney Point, normally home to about a thousand seals and pups, again many seals seemed to have been swallowed by the storm. Other locations in Lincolnshire and even as far afield as the Isle of Man were reporting dead seal pups and abandoned and lost baby seals.

But in fact it seems the news might not be as bad as at first feared. Some of the grey seals, mothers and pups, were far more resourceful than experts had expected.

Large numbers of adult seals and pups were able to reach higher ground in among the sand dunes and escape the worst of the sea surge and resultant flooding.

Many of the seals will still have been displaced from their normal homes with the colony. A large number of wildlife charities and seal sanctuaries as well as individuals have reported and rescued distressed seals.

Around half of the world’s population of grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) are found around the British coast. That Latin name translates as hook-nosed sea pig.

Adult grey seals are one of Britain’s largest wild mammals but are still vulnerable to disturbance by humans, dogs and bad weather during the pupping season.

Grey seals come ashore to breeding sites known as a rookery or haul-out.

The females, known as cows, arrive at the breeding sites before the bull seals and will usually give birth within a day or so of coming ashore.

They feed their pups on milk for three weeks, keeping the pup close in a well-defended territory. Over the next few weeks the pup will moult its soft white birth coat. It grows a mottled waterproof replacement.

The pup doesn’t feed during the moult and relies on the fat it has built up from mother’s milk. Eventually hunger drives it to the sea where it will learn to hunt and fish for itself.

Even in a good year with everything in its favour only half the pups will survive.

With the present pressure on the seals, wildlife and seal charities are asking people to keep away from wild seals and the pupping sites. Please put off your seal spotting expeditions until our seals have got over the trauma of the storms.

However, many of the seal sanctuaries are opening for public viewing of the rescued and orphaned unbelievably cute fluffy pups. Admission charges and collections will help them in their valuable work to ensure our wonderful seal populations survive.

The far less common but less shy so more often spotted common or harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) pups later in the spring and hasn’t been so disturbed by the storms. Common seal populations are declining drastically for reasons that are still not fully understood.

Seal pups and storm in the Netherlands: here.

Humpback Whale off Norfolk


Originally posted on Letter From Norfolk:

I made a prediction in July. I foresaw that within 5 years we would be watching a Humpback Whale off the Norfolk coastline. Having committed this to print in the latest Norfolk Bird and Mammal Report I was relived yesterday morning when Ryan Irvine called me to say he’d seen one off Hemsby. A first for Norfolk and four and a half years to spare! Good on ye Ryan.

It was later seen further north. I couldn’t make it there yesterday but did make it today and amazingly it was still offshore. Although distant it appeared to be breathing quite well and also feeding accompanied by a flock of diving Gannet.

It was as I was about to move on I noticed the whale had covered an inordinately large distance in a very short time. This of course is possible. They can move quickly. My mind momentarily slipped to asking…

View original 272 more words

Small tortoiseshells on butterfly-bush


This video from England says about itself:

August 21, 2013

Filmed in the front garden from our living room window in Watton, Norfolk. It is a Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly with a brief appearance of a Large White.

The butterfly-bush flowers, farthest from the road, are also mostly gone now.

Still, this morning, the remaining flowers attracted two small tortoiseshell butterflies.

And a small white.

Small tortoiseshells in Dutch Zeeland province: here.

Zeeland wild flowers: here.

Swallows nest in English Land Rover


This video is called Barn Swallows Drinking on the Wing (Narrated by David Tennant) – Earthflight – BBC One.

From the BBC:

5 August 2013 Last updated at 16:52 GMT

Pensthorpe swallows nest in Wensum Land Rover

A pair of swallows have raised four chicks in a nest built in the roof of a Land Rover at a Norfolk nature reserve.

The mud and twig nest was created in the roof of the Pensthorpe Nature Reserve vehicle, used to carry visitors around the 800-acre (324 hectare) site.

Warden Darren Williams, 45, said he felt like a “surrogate father” and was convinced the “hot air” from his tour commentary helped incubate the eggs.

Two chicks fledged on Sunday and now follow the vehicle around the reserve.

The other two chicks remain in the nest at the reserve in the Wensum valley, which hosted the BBC’s Springwatch programme for three years.

‘Swallow hammock’

Mr Williams said: “Two of them fledged yesterday, but they’re still hanging around because as far as the birds are concerned the back of the Land Rover is home.

“I feel like a surrogate father and I’m sure all the hot air from my tour patter was keeping them warm.

“The nest is just on top of a speaker and we’ve rigged up a swallow hammock from a little bit of netting in case they fell out as we bounced over the rough terrain.”

The nest was initially removed from the vehicle to discourage the birds nesting so close to the public, but the adult swallows began to build again as soon as it was removed.

Mr Williams said: “This is uncharted territory for us.

“Initially we were concerned the birds might not incubate the eggs as they’d be scared off by our passengers, but they insisted on building the nest and there was little we could do about it.

“With a nest comes the added chore of cleaning up after the babies, but the passengers have just been enamoured with them.

“It’s very unusual to be able get that close to them in the wild.”

More about swallows

Swallows are migratory and flock in large numbers in September ready to fly to Africa, south of the Sahara
In early April, they return to the UK often roosting communally in reed beds
Agile in flight, they are insectivorous, plucking insects from the air
To rehydrate while flying they skim the surface of a body of water

Source: BBC Nature

New fly species for Britain discovered


This photo, by Tony Irwin, shows the 'display posture' of a Phalacrotophora delageae female

From Wildlife Extra:

A new fly species for Britain found in Epping Forest & Norfolk

Fascinating fly discovery

July 2013. A new fly species for Britain has been recorded at Field Studies Council‘s (FSC) Epping Forest field centre recently following an insect conservation course taking place there.

Course tutor Martin Harvey spotted a tiny fly from the ‘scuttle fly’ family. He identified it as Phalacrotophora delageae which isn’t currently on the British species list.

Martin explains: “As the fly appeared to be new to Britain I sent the specimen to Dr Henry Disney, a leading world authority on the family of this fly, Phoridae, who confirmed the identification. However, Dr Disney also traced a previous record of this species back to Tony Irwin of Norfolk Museums. Tony had found this same species in 2006, but never formally published it as new to the UK. Myself and Tony are now writing up the two records so it can be added to the British list.”

Dr Disney also has links with FSC having run another field centre FSC Malham Tarn in Yorkshire, and working as a research fellow for the organisation.

Larvae feed on ladybird pupae

This type of fly is particularly interesting as the larvae of the flies in genus Phalacrotophora are parasitoids of ladybird pupae. The fly larvae develop inside the pupae of ladybirds, killing the ladybird in the process. In other parts of the world Phalacrotophora delageae has been reared from the pupae of various ladybird species, including the 7-spot, 2-spot and 10-spot.

The specimen itself has now been added to the world collection of Phoridae held at the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology.

Environmental education charity FSC runs many natural history courses throughout the year at its network of field centres, all led by experts in their field such as Martin.

A guide to British ladybirds – in pictures: here.

Britain’s biggest butterfly, good news


This video from the Netherlands is about metamorphosis of swallowtails (Papilio machaon).

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Britain’s biggest butterfly

Thursday 18 July 2013

I never need much of an excuse to take myself off to the Broads national park. The park has its attractions all year round.

But from the end of May to mid-July this amazing place has a bonus for those who love nature.

The Broads is home to Britain’s most spectacular butterfly – the swallowtail.

The Broads is pretty much the only place in Britain where you have a good chance of seeing the swallowtail (Papilio machaon britannicus).

During much of the 20th century fenland management ceased, fens were drained for food production and much of the swallowtail’s habitat was lost.

The species went into slow decline and faced extinction.

Today active management and conservation of the Broads, where reed and sedge are cut to allow other plants to grow, plays an important part in its survival and that of many other rarities in Norfolk.

With this continued fenland management, the future for the swallowtail looks brighter.

Indeed the swallowtail is no longer rare in certain parts of the Broads national park.

My top tip for spotting this splendid creature is to visit the Norfolk Wildlife Trust or RSPB Reserves at Hickling Broad, Ranworth Broad or Strumpshaw Fen.

At the right time of year, in early morning on a bright summer’s day, with luck you will spot one.

Some of my best sightings have been from the tiny and silent Electric Eel trip boat from How Hill.

Sightings here are quite common as the boat noses into the narrow drainage channels fringed with reed and sedge.

Indeed the butterflies often land on the boat itself as it cruises past patches of waterside milk parsley, the swallowtail’s food plant and the place it lays its eggs.

This is Britain’s largest butterfly with a wingspan of up to three or four inches (9cm).

Easily recognisable by its stunning yellow and black markings, it takes its name from its two long tail extensions which resemble a swallow’s tail.

These tails play an important part in the butterfly’s survival.

Predators are confused by the tails which look like antennae and the two red and blue false eyes.

These look like another head on the back of the animal. Predators literally don’t know if the butterfly is coming or going.

Just hatched, tiny swallowtail caterpillars look like black and white bird droppings on the milk parsley leaves and stems, but as they grow they become plump and bright green with black bands and orange spots along the body.

When threatened the caterpillar extends two horn-like bright orange scent glands from the back of its head producing an unpleasant smell.

Some say it resembles the odour of pineapple.

Today the swallowtail butterfly is almost totally limited to the fenland areas in the national park.

It chooses breeding sites with a vigorous growth of milk parsley.

In summer it lays its eggs on the tallest of these umbrella-shaped plants which often grow beside the drainage ditches, rivers and broads.

The swallowtail spends the winter hibernating as a pupae at the bottom of the dried milk parsley plant stems.

The eggs can even tolerate being submerged in water for long periods when river levels rise.

From late May, as the weather warms up and sunny days become more common, adults emerge and will live for perhaps a month breeding and feeding.

The first crop of adults have lived out their brief lives and are dead by mid-July.

In a good summer a second brood of adults may emerge in August.

These will lay eggs and their caterpillars will form pupae in September and hibernate over the winter.

They will emerge again next summer to flutter among the golden reed beds of the Norfolk Broads.

They are one of the most beautiful features of the amazing Broadland summer.