Notes from Thorpe Marshes

Blog post by Chris Durdin on 24 Aug, 2019
Reed bunting with food for its young, by Brian Shreeve

Four-spotted chaser, by Chris Durdin

In late June, Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s education team ran a family fun day which attracted more than 100 people. There were happy smiles from those who took away craft items and the usual glee from various finds in the pond-dipping area. In my role as a nature guide there were two things that particularly stood out, and my telescope played a part in both.

Dragonflies are amazing to look at but can be tricky to see well. Norfolk hawkers patrol a stretch of ditch, usually flying quite low, so seeing them in flight was straightforward. Other dragonflies may come and go in an instant. The star of the show was a four-spotted chaser in an area of ditch right by where we were meeting and greeting. It hunted, as dragonflies do, but the bonus of this species is that it often returns to the same perch. A frame-filling view of the four-spotted chaser in the telescope on its regular perch led to a few oohs and aahs from all ages at the event. This picture follows the same theme: it was digi-scoped – photographed through the telescope – much as was enjoyed that day.

Reed bunting with food for its young, by Brian Shreeve

Reed bunting with food for its young, by Brian Shreeve

The other immaculately behaved wildlife, from my perspective, was a singing male reed bunting. From a distance it’s a little brown job and its rather insipid, repetitive song isn’t one to inspire someone new to nature. What they have got going for them is that they often stay on the same exposed perch for long periods. This is ideal for a nature guide: you can line up the telescope for everyone to get frame-filling views. Then it’s obvious that a reed bunting can be a seriously smart-looking bird, with its black head and collar framed by a white edge and elegant streaking on its brown back.

In high summer, the ungrazed marsh is colourful with purple loosestrife and pink hemp agrimony. But it’s something more obscure that we often talk about on guided walks. Gipsywort, usually growing on the water’s edge, could easily be dismissed as a stinging nettle at first glance. That’s explained by being a labiate, the same family as dead-nettles. The stem is square, like all labiates, and with difficulty you can see that the tiny flowers, in a ‘whorl’ or ring around the stem, have a dead-nettle like lip. However, it’s the name that raises eyebrows: what’s the connection with gypsies? The answer is that the root of gipsywort contains a dye, and people believed – though there is some dispute about how true this is – that gypsies used it to make themselves look more mysterious, perhaps as part of fortune-telling. The dye can certainly be used for textiles, including tartan.
 
Chris Durdin leads monthly wildlife walks at NWT Thorpe Marshes. Details of monthly walks and recent sightings at the nature reserve can be found here.
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