Back on The Great Fen

I’ve been home in Cambridgeshire for almost a fortnight now, I don’t know where the time is going! It seems like I’ll be back in Penryn all too soon for a week of exams… ah well. Returning home gives me the chance to get out volunteering again for The Great Fen Project, where I work as a volunteer ranger, watching over the various sites and recording wildlife as I go. The Saturday just gone was my first shift since August, and what a great day it was!

We (Dad and I) started the day at the countryside centre in Ramsey Heights, a lovely albeit rather small site. It was a chilly morning, but the birds were out in force. The ‘chack-chack’ call of Fieldfares was the dominant noise, with the softer calls of Redwings, Bullfinches and a flyover Yellowhammer for support (the latter being a good day-tick for the area).

The Great Fen Project area is built around two national nature reserves (NNRs): Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen. The next site to visit was Holme Fen, a large silver birch woodland surrounded by farmland, containing areas of heathland and a few lakes. Quite a diverse range of habitats!


Holme Fen


As we wandered the footpaths, I kept my eyes peeled for birds, bagged some bryophytes for identification later, and turned a few logs to look for invertebrates. One find was a Flat-backed Millipede (Polydesmus sp.), which after close inspection, turned out to be Polydesmus angustus, our commonest species.


The millipede Polydesmus angustus


As we walked along the edge of the woodland, I spotted a dark raptor flying low over the fields. A male Merlin! A winter visitor to Cambridgeshire, and always a lovely bird to see. Shortly after that, we found a particularly vocal flock of c.30 Siskins, one of the highest counts in the county this year.

We moved on to check some of the farmland areas of The Great Fen, where we had lovely views of a Barn Owl. Even I nearly managed to get a nice shot!


Barn Owl


A few minutes later, we stumbled across a local specialty, the Chinese Water Deer. Native to China and Korea, this introduced species is thriving in the fens of East Anglia. It is easily recognised by its stocky build, and intermediate size between Muntjac and Roe Deer. They also have large, rounded ears and small tusks.


Chinese Water Deer


Our final site of the day was my personal favourite: Woodwalton Fen. Woodwalton is a beautiful pocket of ancient fenland, combining wet woodland, alder carr, marshy grassland, lakes and reedbeds.


Woodwalton Fen at dusk


It wasn’t long before the first good wildlife sighting: a flock of around 25 Lesser Redpolls, again, one of the highest counts in the county this year. I scanned the flock, hoping for a Mealy Redpoll. One pale-looking bird caught my eye, but flew before I got a good view. The one that got away?

As we walked to check on the two waterbird hides, I spotted an old railway sleeper in an area of damp grassland. It needed to be turned over! We turned the sleeper, and I soon saw that my instincts were spot on. Large numbers of the ancient fenland woodlouse Ligidium hypnorum scattered. A nice species to see, but one that can run so fast, I didn’t manage to get a good photo. At the other end of the sleeper, Dad had found a centipede that he said looked interesting. It certainly was! It was a species that I’d never seen before: Strigamia acuminata. The reddish colouration is characteristic of the genus, with the stubby build (compared to similar species) and number of legs (41 pairs to be precise) confirming the species.


The Centipede Strigamia acuminata


Myriapods (centipedes and millipedes) are one of my favourite and most studied groups, so a new species for me is very exciting! It also helps me keep my place in the pan-species listing rankings for the group, my highest ranking for any group!

We finished off the day with a visit to the North Hide, to count the Marsh Harriers that roost in the reedbed. 2 females, 1 male, and an immature male. We were then given a real treat, as the wintering male Hen Harrier came in, giving us stunning views. After a while, it gracefully dropped from the sky and settled down into the reeds. What a brilliant end to the day!










Norfolk Birding at its best

This is my first pure birding blog, which maybe reflects the huge increase in the amount of birding I’ve been doing recently. I justify this birding from an all-round naturalists perspective by making sure to find a few new bryophytes or invertebrates along the way!

So today myself, Toby and my Dad decided to bird the North Norfolk coast in order to cash in on the recent quantity of good birds there. First stop was RSPB Titchwell, which has seen amazing counts of sea ducks recently. The first good bird was a female Brambling on the feeders by the visitor centre, a very good bird for Pembrokeshire-based Toby, and my first of the winter so far. On the way out to sea, I saw a lone gull on the marsh. It was close, and looked by eye to be a Yellow-legged Gull. It was, and a textbook adult bird at that! Long wings, dark mantle, heavy bill, clean white head and red orbital ring! (It had bright yellow legs too, when it briefly stood up). Phone-scope:


On the next marsh closest to the sea we had 3 Spotted Redshank, and a Water Rail swimming across right next to the bank.

As we approached the beach, I could see a small crowd of bescoped birders looking out to sea. This was promising! We got to the beach, and it did not disappoint. 40 Long-tailed Duck (including a stonking male), 10 Velvet Scoter, 10 Red-breasted Mergansers, 3 Scaup, hundreds of Common Scoter, tens of Goldeneye and a smattering of Great Crested Grebes and Red-throated Divers! Long-tailed Duck was a long overdue lifer for me! There were also Sanderling and Knot amongst a hoard of waders on the beach. Long-tailed Duck, record shot:


The next site to visit was Holkham Gap, hoping for Shore Larks (a lifer for all of us!). After a little while walking the saltmarsh, the only birds we’d managed to flush were Meadow Pipits and Linnets, by the hundred. Luckily, I spoke to a few local birders who pointed us in the right direction. Five minutes later, Dad called out that he’d seen some Shore Lark-like birds skulking in the dead sea lavender. We walked a little closer, and up flew 13 Shore Larks! Photo courtesy of Toby Phelps, hence it isn’t a phone-scope for once.


As we followed the flock, they flew up again, and were joined by a further 12 birds. 25 Shore Larks! After a little while appreciating the Shore Larks on the floor, we headed back across the marsh. A small flock of 8 Brent Geese flew onto the marsh next to us. “Could be a Black Brant in there” said Toby (there was one reported at Holkham Gap a few days before) shortly followed by “There, I’ve got it!”. The Dark overall colour, large white flash on the flank and very distinct white neck ring were definitive. It was an Asian/Siberian bird, so the back wasn’t as dark as an American bird would be. Photos are Toby’s again, bird is second from the right in the top photo, and central with its head up in the bottom.


As we walked further back through the marsh, we flushed yet another flock of Shore Larks, this time numbering 20 birds. That brought the total to 45 Shore Larks!

The final place to visit was Cley Marshes, where we hoped for Caspian Gulls or White-wingers (Iceland or Glaucous Gulls) in the roost. From the hide, we had excellent views of Marsh Harriers, causing every bird on the marsh to fly up. The Golden Plovers eventually spiralled back down from above, bringing with them 21 Ruff. The few Gulls which had settled in the usual roost spot had been scared onto an adjacent pool, behind a reedbed! It was too far to walk round and view the pool before darkness fell, so we had to watch as the Gulls filtered out of the sky, and out of sight for good. No Gulls for us!

The day ended with another Water Rail swimming across in front of the hide, and hundreds of Brent Geese flying in V-formations across the grey, wintery skies. Stunning!






Species of the week- 11

Bryophyte is the traditional name for all Mosses, Liverworts and Hornworts (Mosses and relatives). Recently, I’ve been going Bryophyte mad! Until two weeks ago, I had almost no knowledge of Bryophytes at all, but since buying the amazing (and quite substantial) Field Guide to the Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland, I’ve been finding and identifying loads. I’ve found 21 new species in the last ten days alone!

So, as you might have guessed, species of the week this week is a Bryophyte: the Common Tamarisk Moss, Thuidium tamariscinum. Prepare yourself… here it is!


The Common Tamarisk moss is one of the most distinctive Bryophytes in Britain. It takes its name from the Tamarisk bush, to which this moss appears a minute replica. By moss standards however, the Common Tamarisk Moss is quite a giant, having shoots of up to 25cm in length!  Thuidium tamariscinum can be found in a variety of habitats, particularly on damp soil in woodland (which is where I’ve found it on every occasion so far). There are two similar, but much rarer species: Thuidium delicatulum and Thuidium assimile. T.delicatulum is found mostly in rocky upland areas, whereas T.assimile is found in grazed calcareous grassland. Both of these species are usually smaller and more delicate than T.tamariscinum.

The Common Tamarisk Moss is a pleurocarpous moss. This means it is in the large group of mosses which generally have a branched and sprawling growth form, as opposed to the individual tufted growths of acrocarpous mosses. This branching can be seen very clearly in T.tamariscinum, which usually has three divisions off the main stem (it is tripinnate).

This moss may well be my favourite so far. It’s recognisable from a distance (at least 6ft 4 away from what I can work out), it’s pretty, it’s easy to spot, and its appearance jogs my memory for its name! I’d recommend finding some for yourself, which shouldn’t be too tricky, as it’s very well distributed throughout the UK! However, things may be harder if you live in nearly-woodless Southern Lincolnshire, or the driest bits of East Anglia. Here’s its distribution map:

I hope that my new found Bryophyte based enthusiasm has come across. I encourage every naturalist (if they haven’t already) to start looking at moss!





Species of the week- 10

It’s been another two week gap without a blog due to university work, so this weeks species is a real stunner: the Rhinoceros Beetle (Sinodendron cylindricum)! Sinodendron roughly translates to ‘hollow tree’, which may refer to the habitat where the Rhinoceros Beetle is usually found: deadwood. cylindricum refers to the body shape of the beetle, being quite cylindrical! This beautiful beetle is one of three British members of the family Lucanidae, the other two being the Stag Beetle (Lucanus cervus) and the Lesser Stag Beetle (Dorcus parallelipipedus). The Rhinoceros Beetle is a fairly large beetle, usually just over 15mm in length, but is dwarfed by the others members of the family. Lesser Stag Beetles can be over 30mm, and Stag Beetle males can be 70mm! Here is the Rhinoceros Beetle:


And here’s the Lesser Stag Beetle:

May-June 2013 (23).jpg

As you can see, Rhinoceros Beetles are very distinctive! Males can easily be told from females by the presence of the horn at the front of the head, which is absent in females. The horn may be used to compete with other males for mates and resources. Adult Rhinoceros Beetles feed on tree sap, whereas their larvae feed on rotting wood. The individual in my photo was found (along with several other Rhinoceros Beetles) by my friends Ben and Max, whilst chopping wood for a fire. I suspect those beetles may have been newly hatched, or going into torpor for the winter.

Adults are strong fliers, and are active from March to October. During these months, they could turn up just about anywhere with a few trees, from gardens and parkland, to ancient woodland and farmland. The Rhinoceros Beetle is widespread throughout Britain, but is scarce in Scotland, and much of the extreme South and East of England. The Beetle in my picture above was the first that I’d ever seen! Here’s its distribution map:

This charismatic little invertebrate is well worth seeing, even if (like me) you can’t find your own and have to cycle a few miles to see it! I think it’s the first beetle I’ve ever twitched!

(For any non-birders, twitching is going out of your way to see an unusual or rare bird, or beetle, in this instance).



Species of the week- 9

I had to take a break from species of the week last week due to several assignments coming along at once. I’ll blame it on that, and not the fact that I’ve become slightly addicted to birding in Cornwall! It’s hard to say no to an afternoon out, when I can go and see three new birds in a day, after thirteen years of birding. Yesterday the new birds were Great Skua, Lapland Bunting (4) and Rose-coloured Starling, with other highlights including Merlin, Yellow-legged Gull and a self-found Cattle Egret!

Anyway, enough about birds, and on to the species this week: Cercopis vulnerata, also known as the Red and Black Froghopper. This species is one of the largest British froghoppers, reaching over 10mm in length. It is also amongst the most attractive, here it is:


Cercopis vulnerata is found in a variety of habitats, but usually in lowland woodlands, grasslands and wetlands. I have found the species to be very abundant at Woodwalton Fen NNR (the location of my photo above), an ancient fenland site made up of reedbeds, wet woodland and fen carr. Due to its size and colouration, the species can be found relatively easily by direct searching on vegetation at the right time of year (April-August). Another method of finding the species is to sweepnet long grasses and reeds. The nymphs of this species are rarely encountered unless a targeted search is carried out, as they feed on underground roots.

The Red and Black Froghopper is fairly widespread in England and Wales, but is apparently absent from Scotland, and much of the midlands. It currently has very few records in Cornwall, which is something I’ll try to change next summer! However, due to how conspicuous and distinctive the species is it’s likely to be well recorded where it is present, so it might be that the species is genuinely rare in the far South-west. Here is its current distribution map:

Certainly a species to look out for next year!




Species of the week- 8

This weeks species is the first plant to have made it species of the week, so as you’d expect, it’s interesting, rare and obscure! The Tunbridge Filmy-fern (Hymenophyllum tunbrigense)!

fern 1.png

This species, for me, was the highlight of a recent field trip to Kennall Vale, especially as I never knew it was at the site! Nearly all of the 1st year bioscience students (almost 200 people) were queueing up, wondering what would be so special about the much-discussed Tunbridge Filmy-fern. Most people seemed oddly underwhelmed, but I could barely contain my excitement! I understand of course that to someone with no interest in ferns, this inconspicuous little species looks like a slightly ruffled patch of moss, but I think it’s truly beautiful. Here I am, with the fern!

fern 2.png

The individual fronds of the Tunbridge Filmy-fern are only a few centimetres in length, and are only a very few cells thick. This gives the fern a semi-transparent appearance and film-like texture, hence the ‘filmy-fern’ part of its name. It also gives the Tunbridge Filmy-fern an appearance quite unlike any other British fern species (except for Wilson’s Filmy-fern). This fern can live for many years, and can undergo periods of drought by allowing itself to dry out almost completely.  

Although the Tunbridge Filmy-fern is globally very widespread, it is rare in the UK, being confined to the extreme South-west of England, and the West of Wales and Scotland. It is also found in a few sites in South-east England (near to Tunbridge Wells), where it is declining due to loss of woodland habitat, and shading by introduced Rhododendrons. It is not only a rare species, but can also be very hard to find, as it may only grow on a few rocks in a particular area of a seemingly ideal habitat. I’ll use that as an excuse for not finding it myself on previous trips to Kennall Vale!

Unlike most of my other species of the weeks, the Tunbridge Filmy-fern is well recorded, so its distribution map probably reflects its true range. It is usually found on mossy rocks in damp, shaded, wooded river valleys and ravines. I hope that one day, all other groups of British wildlife will be as well recorded as the plants! Here is the map:

I must apologise for the blog being a day late. This time, blame the Hudsonian Whimbrel. (Blog on recent rare birds coming up midweek!).







Species of the week- 7

Sorry this blog is one day late! I suffered from Cornish internet problems when I intended to write this last night. The species this week is from an underappreciated family of Insects: Formicidae, otherwise known as Ants. There are around 50 species of Ant that can be found outdoors in Britain, and this species is amongst the least conspicuous of them all. It is (of course) Stenamma debile! Unfortunately, there is no common name for this species. Here it is:


It isn’t the clearest phone-microscoped picture I’ve ever taken, but the ant is only about 3mm long! I admit, that compared to some of my previous ‘species of the weeks’, S.debile isn’t exactly stunning, but I hope I can persuade you that it’s still fascinating!

I chose S.debile this week, as myself and a friend Jaimie found two individuals whilst sifting leaf litter around College Reservoir (which, by the way, has a stunning juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper wading its shores at the moment!). This was the first time that I’d seen S.debile for three and a half years! The reason I see this species so infrequently isn’t that it’s especially rare, just that it’s extremely hard to find. It makes very small colonies (usually only 20-50 workers), which live in the soil under leaf litter, so the chance of stumbling across a colony is remote. If (by chance or dedication) you do manage to pick up a sample of leaf litter containing S.debile, your struggles aren’t over! This species is soil/leaf-coloured, 3mm long, moves very slowly, and tends to roll into a ball when disturbed!

Luckily, identifying S.debile when you find it is quite straightforward. General size and shape is usually a good indication, but the features to look for are: 

1) It has two waists, the first of which is relatively longer and thinner than in other ant genera.

2) It has very tiny eyes compared with most other ant genera.

3) It has only very short spines at the back of the thorax (overhanging waists). These spines are longer and thinner in most other ant genera.

4) The long, thin first waist has bulging nodes on each side near its joint to the thorax. This features separates S.debile from the much rarer S.westwoodii, which has no such nodes.

These features can all be seen fairly well in my photo below.


Workers of this ant species are probably mostly scavengers of small dead  invertebrates, but it is likely that they will take live prey if it is small, and slow enough for them! S.debile is a fairly widespread (but as outlined above, probably hugely under-recorded) species, but seems to be quite thermophilic, not having been recorded any further North than Lancashire yet. It has had very few records from Cornwall so far, so I’m very pleased to have found it! Here’s its distribution map:

I wish anybody who tries to find it the best of luck!