Sunday, 12 April 2015

12th of April: Wardens from days gone by

Currently on Blakeney Point, the rain is lashing down and it's blowing a hoolie. In strong winds, birds often face the wind rather than get hit side-on and get their feathers ruffled. Here the Black-headed Gulls in the colony are facing the wind...

Amongst these harsh conditions, a small clump of delicate violets are in flower in the dunes:

Although introduced, there are a small number of daffodils on the Point:

Earlier in the week, when the weather was much more pleasant, the first moth and butterfly sightings of the year were made on the Point. With a Herald moth heralding spring on Monday (see image below, this was also the first moth species we found last year too), Small Tortoiseshell on Tuesday and Peacocks on Wednesday.

The first Swallows were seen flying west over the Point on Monday, with the odd Sand Martin too. Other migrant birds this week included a Short-eared Owl, female Goosander, Fieldfare and plenty of Chiffchaffs and Wheatears. The exaltation of Shorelarks is still frequenting Beach Way, albeit with numbers having sadly dropped from eight to seven.

Sandwich Terns are steadily arriving. Reaching a roost count of c.600 on Friday evening.

In mammal news, after two years, the lone rabbit is still living near the Lifeboat House. A couple of decades ago, rabbits were present on the Point in their hundreds but were completely wiped out by myxomatosis. As a consequence, the diversity of dune flora has increased allowing invertebrate life to also increase. This individual rabbit was first spotted in summer 2013 and managed to survive the tidal surge.

What do you do in the evenings?
Just as musicians often get asked "what do you do in the daytime?", Blakeney Point rangers get asked "what do you do in the evenings"... Well, I spent last night painting Little Tern decoys!

The plan is to use these decoys, combined with tape lures, to attract Little Terns to safe areas to breed. We are licenced by Natural England to do this. The reason we are trying this is because last year 60 nests were flooded by spring tides in June, due to birds laying in a low area of beach, which just filled with water (see below):

Rather than moving nests and causing disturbance. We are trying to be proactive and attracting them to suitable areas in the first place. "Why bother?" you may ask. Well, Little Terns are a rare and declining species, with limited available habitat. As partners in an RSPB-led EU Life project, we are committed to increasing their breeding success as well as trying to learn more about them. And, of course, we are legally obliged to protect them, as they are a Schedule 1 species. You can help by staying away from fencelines and obeying the seasonal dog restrictions. Your cooperation is much appreciated.

Seasonal assistants
Having spent more than two weeks alone on the Point. I am looking forward to the arrival of this year's seasonal assistants at the end of this week (I hope they are looking forward to starting despite the lack of running water!). Although, I have managed to get a lot of things ticked off the job list...

I am pleased to be joined once again by Paul Nichols. This will be Paul's ninth season on the Point, making him the second longest serving assistant, after Reginald Gaze who did numerous summers in the early days.
Reginald Gaze with Billy Eales in the 1930s 

We are delighted to be joined by Sarah Johnson, who is returning for a second season. This year we are also very pleased to welcome our newest recruit to the team, Josh Barber. No stranger, Josh filled in for two months (February and March 2013) between Eddie leaving and me starting. Josh also spent the winter filling in at Heigham Holmes and also works for the National Trust at nearby Sheringham and Felbrigg.
Josh helping Paul and Graham in 2013

Over the past couple of years, I put together this list of Blakeney Point Wardens from days gone by:
Summer Lead Assistants Assistant Assistant
1901-29 Bob Pinchen (none)
1930 Bob Pinchen Billy Eales
1931-38 Billy Eales Reginald Gaze
1946-50 Ted Eales Reginald Gaze
1951-73 Ted Eales John Peake (1950s) ?
1974 Ted Eales Mike Bennett (two did moonlight flit)
1975-76Ted Eales??
1977 Ted Eales Alec Osborne ?
1978 Ted Eales Alan Davies Steven (from Cheshire) John Bean (winter)
1979 Ted Eales Chris Parker ? John Bean (winter)
1980 John Green Chris Parker (a Welshman)
1981 Ronald Pimm Andrew Stocker (succession of five!)
1982 Joe Reed Andrew Stocker Christopher Pryor
1983 Joe Reed Glenn Webb Laurie Allan
1984 Joe Reed Glenn Webb Graham Lubbock
1985 Joe Reed Glenn Webb Graham Lubbock
1986 Joe Reed David Sharrod David Mills Helen Smith
1987 Joe Reed Richard Gilbert David Mills Victoria Johnson
1988 Joe Reed Richard Gilbert John Walton James Sellwood
1989 Joe Reed Richard Gilbert Mark Driscoll Juliet Grace
1990 Joe Reed Richard Gilbert Gareth Eggar Clare Robinson
1991 Joe Reed Richard Gilbert? Bradley Robson Victoria Stares
1992 Joe Reed Richard Gilbert Dougal McNeil Rachel Tuck
1993 Joe Reed Martin Williams Dougal McNeil Rachel Tuck
1994 Joe Reed Martin Williams James McCallum John Riley
1995 Joe Reed Richard Gilbert James McCallum Martin Williams
1996 Joe Reed Nick Hammond Andrew Hayman Mark Warren
1997 Joe Reed Saul Brown Andrew Hayman Stefan McElwee
1998 Joe Reed Paul Leatherland David Pile Robert Mortley
1999 Joe Reed Paul Leatherland James McCallum Hannah Leveridge
2000 Joe Reed Dave Wood Tracey Cooper Robert Mortley
2001 Joe Reed Dave Wood Henry Walker Mark Cornish
2002 Dave Wood Graham Collins Niall Mugan
2003 Dave Wood Aaron Boughtflower James McCallum
2004 Dave Wood Aaron Boughtflower James Squires
2005 Dave Wood Lucy Browne Chris Le-Clare
2006 Dave Wood Eddie Stubbings Andy Cristinacce James McCallum/Lucy Browne
2007 Eddie Stubbings Paul Nichols Andy Cristinacce Aaron/Lucy/Ollie Moore
2008 Eddie Stubbings Paul Nichols Jason Moss
2009 Eddie Stubbings Paul Nichols Richard Berridge Ajay Tegala
2010 Eddie Stubbings Paul Nichols Joe Cockram Ajay Tegala
2011 Eddie Stubbings Paul Nichols Becky Pitman
2012 Eddie Stubbings Paul Nichols Joe Cockram Ajay Tegala
2013 Ajay Tegala Paul Nichols Matt Twydell
2014 Ajay Tegala Paul Nichols Sarah Johnson Josh Herron
2015 Ajay Tegala Paul Nichols Sarah Johnson Josh Barber

Above: Left: Ted Eales; Right: Richard Gilbert, c1988 (works at NT Dunwich)
Below: Left: Joe Reed ringing a gull chick in the 1980s; Right: the 2011 team

If anyone can fill any of the gaps in the table, then please do get in touch. We are always interested to hear from past members of staff, their memories and any pictures they may like to share.
 Bob Pinchen with students in the 1920s (thanks to UCL)

- Ajay (Coastal Ranger)

Sunday, 5 April 2015

5th of April: African arrivals

This morning on Blakeney Point, the dunes were full of sound. With the syrupy song of Skylarks and calling Meadow Pipits. Both of these bird species are abundant in the dunes, and will soon be making their fragile nests amongst the Marram grass.

Earlier in the week, the point was blasted by blown sand, splashed with horizontal downpours and ripped by 70mph winds. As a result new dunes have formed on the foreshore. But it made for a bitterly cold start to the month.

Today, however the sky and sea were shades of warm Nofolk blue. With dozens of visitors walking on the beach. Many coming to see the seals, of which there were 385 Grey and 6 Common. It really did feel like the first day of spring, not just because of the weather, but the "keerick" calls of Sandwich Terns above.
On Friday evening, 94 were counted roosting on Far Point. It's so good to have them back, having migrated from West Africa. These elegant seabirds with pure white plumage, angular wings and shaggy black crests are the emblem of Blakeney Point. The end of the Point now belongs to them (there is no public access to this area).

For this reason - and other ground-nesting birds along the shingle ridge - the seasonal dog ban is now in place, and will be until around the 10th of August. This is to reduce disturbance and has proven to work. Dogs are still permitted on the first mile of the Point from Cley beach and on the Landing Ridge, around the Lifeboat House and southern half of the boardwalk, but please keep them on leads at all times.

Another sign of spring were these Colt's-foot flowers at the Marrams. This clump appeared last spring and was the first record of the species on the Point. Presumably the seed was brought here by the December 2015 tidal surge.

Migrant birds over the past few days have included a mixture of birds arriving and leaving Merlin, Wheatear, Black Redstart, Robin, Song Thrush, Goldcrest and also the first Whimbrel of the spring (on the 3rd). And the exaltation of Shorelarks are still seen regularly in the Beach Way area, their favourite spot since December.

Recent sightings also included a Muntjac on Beach Way. We have several Muntjac sightings on the Point every year, and the occasional Roe Deer too. 

Calm water in Blakeney Harbour this evening

- Ajay (Coastal Ranger)

Sunday, 29 March 2015

29th of March: Strong winds and heavy rain

This afternoon was far from a fair spring day. With strong winds and heavy showers sweeping across Blakeney Point. You could imagine the look-out tower blowing off the top of the Lifeboat House. Had the rotting wood not been replaced two years ago, then this may well have happened!
 Blakeney Point this afternoon

Although still a bit miserable, thankfully conditions weren’t so bad during yesterday’s beach clean. A big thank you to all who came along to help. It was nice to see some new faces. The litter on the beach was not as bad as it has been in previous years, but we still managed to collect 15 large bags full, 25 containers, 2 fish-boxes, a fishing rod and a flipper… and the obligatory tennis ball – there’s always a tennis ball! No pants this year, though!
A morning’s work

Blakeney Point is now nicely tidy, ready for the start of the season. However, unfortunately the toilets will not be ready. The leaking water pipe is going to take a little while to be replaced. For the time being, the toilets on the Point are closed. We will keep you updated with the progress of the pipe repairs.
Toilets closed until further notice

In the meantime, we have stocked up on bottled water for the Lifeboat House:

The water pipe was put in during the 1970s. Bob Pinchen, the original Watcher (from 1901-1931), tells of how they got water in the early days (from his 1935 book ‘Sea Swallows’):

“For a good many years fresh water was carried down to us in small tubs, jars or bottles, and with the coming of visitors came a difficult problem. I well remember that when students from the University College […] were visiting the Point that we had only one large tank for catching rain-water.

After a few years it was decided to build a laboratory on the Point, and Professor W. Oliver of London University suggested to me that we might endeavour to find a supply of water somewhere. I told him that would not be much trouble and that if he walked up Pinchen’s Creek on the hottest day in summer, at a certain place he could see water spouting up. It is very cold at this particular spot even when other parts of the Creek are quite warm. I advised him to have a try in Glaux Low close to where it was decided to build a laboratory. Several attempts to obtain water were made and the idea of sinking a pump was soon given up as this became choked. An empty tar-barrel was also tried, all to no purpose. I suggested that a carpenter should make a square wooden structure without a bottom so that one could get inside, dig down, and then let it drain. This was done and, after going down a matter of four to five feet, the water welled up and filled the inside.

Since then a plentiful supply of fresh water has been available, and what seemed an insuperable difficulty has been overcome.
Bob Pinchen in the 1920s

After this we used our handcart to convey water, in any form of vessel available, to the Lifeboat House some distance away. Talking the matter over with the Professor I suggested that, as water was to be had at one spot, they ought to be able to get a supply close to the House. He agreed, and the next day some of his young men were set to work. They drove in four posts and dug down a few feet. Finding water, they boarded up the sides and thus solved another problem, for an ample supply of water at this place also has been forthcoming. Four more wells close by have since been opened.

During the war soldiers were stationed on the Point, and they did not trouble to keep the sand clear, with the result that the wells filled up. After the war, Professor Oliver had two large drainpipes sunk one on top of the other, a cover being fitted to the top with a lifting lid, into which a pail could be inserted. I have seen water running over the surface of the ground by the well, and in the driest summers we had water for all requirements. The surface of the water rose and fell with the tide, but the taste of it was unaffected. […] The one small well gives supplies for all purposes, for residents and visitors alike at Blakeney Point – no mean advantage, considering the former haphazard method of getting water and the difficulties of carting it such a long way.”

So maybe we should dig another well?!

In this rough weather, it is perhaps not surprising that no Sandwich Terns have arrived on the Point yet. One was reported flying out at sea past Cley on the 20th, but none have made it to the Point. This time in 2013 was far more extreme; our beach clean had to be cancelled due to strong winds and snow. That year, the first Sandwich Tern arrived on the 1st of April. It could well be around that date this year too. But a few migrants have dropped into the bushes over the weekend; a Chiffchaff in the Tamarisk yesterday and three Chaffinches in the brambles this morning. During the beach clean, the over-wintering flock of Shorelarks put in an appearance at their usual favourite spot on Beach Way.

In other news, a juvenile Goshawk has been captured on camera on Blakeney Freshes this week. Goshawks are seldom seen on the reserve as they are largely found in woodlands. It was a delight to find that one of our trail cameras had captured this up-close footage:
-          Ajay (Coastal Ranger)

Monday, 23 March 2015

22nd of March: And so it begins...

Spring has officially arrived and is evident on the Point. A Mallard is incubating her eggs in a nest underneath a Suaeda bush on Far Point. It is in more-or-less the same location that a Mallard's nest turned up last March, also the first nest of the year we stumbled upon. The 2014 nest was shared by two females, but was abandoned before hatching. We will be carefully watching this year to see if this is also a shared nest, and to see if they have a bit more luck this year. Nesting so near a Black-headed Gull colony is a big risk.
Mallard nest on Far Point

Interestingly, the last nest of 2014 can still be found on the Point. The dead eggs of a Wood Pigeon, that nested in the Tamarisk in September, can still be seen behind the Lab. So six months after the last nest of 2014, the 2015 nesting season begins.
Wood Pigeon eggs laid in September 2014

There are still signs of winter around. About half a dozen juvenile Grey Seals are still being seen on Far Point. The latest low tide seal count recorded a total of 109 Grey Seals and two Common Seals.
Juvenile Grey Seal on Far Point

Before the nesting season really gets underway, we are conducting our annual beach clean (details below - please click to enlarge). If you are free on Saturday, please do come and lend a hand, and help keep the beach safe and tidy. Your help is always much appreciated.

- Ajay (Coastal Ranger)

Sunday, 15 March 2015

15th of March: Fiery Hills

March is a month of avian anticipation at Blakeney. With some sunny days early in the month, there is a strong feeling that the breeding season and spring migration are about to begin. But patience is needed as things don't just happen overnight. We have been keeping busy as there is lots to prepare before April. An extra thing keeping us busy this week has been clearing up Friary Hills after a fire, which happened last Saturday.

It is believed that somebody deliberately set fire to two areas of gorse. The fire service had to be called to put out the blaze. Two blackened areas were left, which we have now cut and removed. Luckily, part of our management of Friary Hills involves removing gorse anyway, and fortunately no birds had begun nesting in the areas that were burned. A number of birds will be nesting here very soon, including Linnets and Long-tailed Tits.

These photographs were taken the day after the fire:
 Above and below: The eastern end

The western end

This week over on the Point, signs of spring have brought smiles to our faces. On Tuesday, a few hundred Black-headed Gulls returned to their breeding grounds amongst the Suaeda on the tip of Far Point. The return of these chocolate-headed birds signifies the beginning of the breeding seabird season at Blakeney.
Far Point, access is restricted to prevent disturbance

With the Black-headed Gulls back, we eagerly await the first Sandwich Tern, which shouldn't be too long. The first sighting last year was on the 23rd of March. Yesterday, two Mediterranean Gulls were heard amongst the 'Black-heads'. These splendid birds are a pleasure to see, but also have a taste for Sandwich Tern eggs, highlighting that nature is full of conflicts no matter how beautiful the species!

Four pairs of Ringed Plovers have been observed on the shingle ridge.
Male displaying (Richard Porter)

The over-wintering flock of Shorelarks continues to delight those lucky enough to stumble upon them in the Beach Way area...
One of the flock of eight seen regularly (Richard Porter)

Beach Way also hosted the first Wheatears of the spring; two on Friday. Saturday produced a delightfully chirpy Chiffchaff in the Plantation. A quick low tide count of Far Point and the West Sands recorded 32 Grey Seals (approximately 8 bulls and 24 cows).

It won't be too long until myself and the Seasonal Rangers move into the Lifeboat House. But first, we need to fix a leak in the water pipe that runs under the harbour from Morston to the Point. Not only does it supply our drinking water, but also the public toilets. It is not an overstatement to say that repairing a water pipe in Blakeney Harbour is a challenge!
Locating the pipe at Morston

George and I were out on Blakeney Freshes at 5:30am on Thursday to listen for booming Bitterns. Unfortunately none were present, but we were able to watch the Marsh Harriers leaving their roost at Cley/Salthouse and a pair of hunting Barn Owls that seemed to be showing an interest in the owl box where nesting occurs most years.
Looking east at dawn

We will keep you up to date with more wildlife news as the season unfolds.
- Ajay (Coastal Ranger)

Sunday, 15 February 2015

15th of February: Blakeney in February

February is quite a quiet month wildlife-wise at Blakeney. It is that gap between the breeding seal season and the breeding bird season. The Point looks empty in comparison to a month or so ago. But a few birds are around; a Black Redstart has been seen in the Plantation, a few Blackbirds in the Suaeda, Goldfinches feeding on seeds on the shingle ridge and frequent Marsh Harriers overhead - occasionally a Hen Harrier too. There are also still a small number of Snow Buntings and Shorelarks to be found.

The weather has mostly been mild, with signing Skylarks and some lovely blue skies....

Although there have been bleaker moments, like this afternoon... the Watch House a slightly mysterious atmosphere. It has been the setting for a horror novel and was also used as a sinister, remote location in the 2005 film 'Brothers of the Head' (see 4:51-5:17).

A look at the tip of Far Point reveals that the spit is still growing. A clear new ridge of shingle has formed since the summer...

Back on the Mainland, Blakeney Freshes has provided some great wildlife sightings in the past week. With regular good views of a Kingfisher, Barn Owl and Bearded Tits, and also a Water Rail swimming across a dyke. It won't be too long before we start surveying pairs of Lapwings and looking for signs of breeding Bitterns.

On the Point, patridges are pairing off. There are four pairs of Grey Partridges, one of which has a single Red-legged Partridge tagging along with them - a curious Anglo-French trio! There is also a male Pheasant holding a territory at the Hood. It feels like spring is just around the corner, it will only be a few weeks before we celebrate the return of the first Sandwich Terns, one of our favourite birds here on the Norfolk Coast...
Sandwich Tern - just a few weeks away

- Ajay, Coastal Ranger

Sunday, 25 January 2015

25th of January: The less glamorous side of seal monitoring

Following a week of television attention, it is now very quiet on the seal front, the breeding season having come to an end. In a very short space of time, Blakeney Point has become almost devoid of pups, with just single figures remaining, all weaned. With the beach and dunes more-or-less desserted, we have been able to carry out some important data collection, without causing disturbance.

For the first time ever, we have collected some DNA samples from dead pups. This involves snipping a small piece of tail flipper off. The samples will be sent of for analysis to see how the Blakeney Point Grey Seal DNA differs from Grey Seal pups in other parts of the UK and also The Netherlands, this will give an idea of how much inter-change there is of adults between breeding sites from season to season.

If you see any dead pups with green dye on them, these have been marked by us to show they have been sampled (to avoid taking a sample from the same pup twice). Although there are a few dozen pup carcasses on the Point, this is perfectly natural - a 5% mortality rate is very low.

This week, we have also been collecting seal scats for anlysis. This is basically seal poo. A student at St. Andrew's in Scotland is studying Grey Seal diet. The fish species eaten by the seal can be revealed by identifying its ear drums. This study is looking at seal diet at different sites in the UK at different times of year, to teach us more about what fish species seals are eating where and when.
Picking up a seal scat

Note how empty the beach is now, but how flat the Marram grass is

A big thank you to our volunteers who spent an afternoon helping to collect scats

At the start of this week, we will be taking down the fencelines. Now that the seals have moved on, there will be access to the beach and dunes once again. However, the very tip of Far Point will remain fenced off to protect the seals that haul out here.

With the breeding seal season over, it won't be too long before the first Sandwich Tern of spring arrives. The first one is usually spotted in Norfolk towards the end of March.

- Ajay (Coastal Ranger)
with photography by Richard Porter

Sunday, 18 January 2015

18th of January: On TV this week

The seal pupping season on Blakeney Point is pretty much over, with the birth of pup number 2,426 at the start of the week - more than likely the last one of this winter. As the season reaches its end, the media spotlight is very much on the Grey Seals of Blakeney Point...
One of this winter's pups (Ian Ward)

They will be featured on Winterwatch at 8pm tomorrow on BBC 2 and also on Tuesday night's episode - click here for a sneak preview. To coincide with Winterwatch, the seals are also appearing on Blue Peter at 5.30pm Thursday (22nd) on CBBC. Tune in and look out for Rangers Ajay and George on Winterwatch and Blue Peter respectively.

Ajay with Iolo Williams (BBC)

Ajay and George with Radzi Chinyanganya

Read more about the record-breaking seal pupping season on Blakeney Point on the National Trust East of England blog.

The below graph and table show just how dramatic the pupping increase has been over the last 13 years...