Sunday 5 May 2019

RSPB Otmoor As A Substitute For Norfolk

In recent years, this blog would now be populated with an account of my annual trip to North Norfolk, but Dad's ailing health and numerous appointments meant it never happened this year. Spending time on the Norfolk coast, looking for new arrivals for spring, seeking out brown hares, barn owls and anything else I can find, is one of the highlights of my wildlife calendar.

Instead, April pretty much passed by without a great deal of camera time. I found some adders early on, and managed to see one shed its skin too, which allowed for some macro images of the detail on it, when the owner had slithered away.

One highlight from the month was a day trip down to Otmoor, an RSPB reserve I have admired for many years now. With well established reedbeds and shallow pools, it has attracted species such as hobbies, bitterns, marsh harriers and common cranes, plus the paddocks and tracks are home to brown hares, cuckoos and the increasingly rare turtle dove. In fact, it could tick off a number of species I'd normally go to North Norfolk to photograph.

The visit in April provided a few sightings of marsh harriers and a brief flight from a bittern, plus the sound of one booming from a reedbed. But it was perhaps a tad early for what I usually go there for, so when May arrived, I headed back down to the reserve once more.

Opening the car door at the car park, I immediately heard a cuckoo calling, and along the track to the main part of the reserve, I added both common and lesser whitethroat to the list. High over the meadows and reedbeds were hirundines, busily catching insects on the wing, and after last year's disappointingly low numbers, I was very pleased to see some swifts too.

Further along the path, a sedge warbler was high in a hawthorn, singing away, and warranted a couple of shots.

Taking a brief wander alongside the ditch, past the hide, I hoped to see a grass snake, but I soon realised that the volunteers / workers on site were replacing fence posts, so there was little chance of seeing a creature often just disturbed by creeping past, let alone when posts were being hammered into the ground nearby! But I'm not going to moan, as the site is maintained so well, for wildlife and visitors alike, that it's got to be one the jewels in the RSPB's portfolio of reserves, and that is down to their hard work.

Down at the first screen, a couple of lizards were sunning themselves on one of the darker coloured logs, probably wondering why it was colder now in late spring than it was in late winter...

The pools were busy with diving ducks, such as "tufties" and also numerous miffed coots, frequently chasing one another over the surface of the water.

As I watched the hirundines and swifts chasing insects on the wing, I mused to myself that the hobbies ought to be arriving soon. Then instantly, as if by magic, I clocked a falcon in the distance and immediately recognised the shape! They were back too, and one became six, then seven and maybe even eight as I watched them drop down from the heavens, to chase insects. Wonderful.

A bittern was once more booming from the cover of the reeds, and after enjoying the sight of a marsh harrier paying a slightly closer visit, one visitor sharing the screen with me, commented that she'd love to see the bittern before she left. Right of cue, one burst from the reedbed and flew across the back of the pool!

By lunchtime the reserve seemed quiet in terms of people, perhaps because they'd seen the forecast of heavy showers. I was alone at the screen watching the hobbies, hoping one might fly nearby, when I glanced out of the side window, and spotted a brown hare. Before I could get a shot, it had hopped out of sight.

A family of greylag geese swam by, the parents looking supremely proud of their many goslings, following close by. I grabbed some shots, but in the back of my mind, I wondered where the hare had gone.

Out the back of the screen, I scanned the path and there it was, sitting on the grass, about a hundred yards away. Normally there are people milling up and down the track between the screens, but with no one around, I crept closer. The hare didn't bat an eyelid.

So I dropped to my knees, and then lay flat, and crawled closer along the ground. Remarkably the hare didn't run off. And by being at eye-level with it, I could get some nice mush in the foreground.

Then it was a case of waiting for the hare to do something, and hoping that other visitors didn't arrive.

In fact the only problem for me then were some red ants that were crawling around beneath me. I crawled a bit closer, and away from the ants...

With a huge slice of luck, I managed to spend a good hour lying there watching the hare, and it was active too. I saw yawns, stretches, pellets being taken, grooming, shaking (post rain shower) and grazing.

And when one other visitor arrived at the screen, he kindly chose to wait for me to finish photographing (the hare finally moved away and into a hedgerow).

Having enjoyed such a fabulous day, I was keen to return, so with a dry forecast, I found myself back at the first screen once more. This time however, it offered little in the way of shelter from the cold wind blasting across the reserve, so I set up camp beside the path behind, watching the many swifts buzzing around, secretly hoping for one of the hobbies to fly over too.

As I was carrying both my 500mm and my 100-400mm, I rigged the 1DX up on the big lens, and the 7D mk2 on the zoom. For the ridiculously agile swifts I used the lighter zoom, and when a hobby strayed into view, swapped out for the big 'un.

Thank goodness for digital media, or I'd have spent a fortune on film, and achieved very little. And annoyingly, the dry forecast turned out to be anything but, with heavy showers being hurried through the reserve on the icy wind.

With no sign of the hare alas, I spent the afternoon focusing on birds in flight, and left with images of swifts, hobbies and even some of the cuckoos that have been very vocal of late.

It might not be Norfolk, but Otmoor has certainly raised my spirits, and given me a mountain of images to look through.