Author Archives: Doc Doolittle

About Doc Doolittle

I'm a prematurely retired medical doctor, thanks to a stroke at 52. Good recovery means that though I can't do my old job safely, I now have time to reconnect with the me of decades ago and pick up my love of animals and plants from where I left off to train in Medicine. Now I spend many happy hours looking after a domestic menagerie, volunteering in wildlife conservation, learning about horticulture, and simply nurturing our beautiful garden. Doctor "Dolittle" is in fact the correct spelling of the famous character's name -all the variations of this are already taken on WP so I have taken the liberty of using a mis-spelling. I am working on learning to talk with the animals. I am starting this blog with no clear idea of where it will end up. But then the journey is always so much more interesting than the destination.....

The Hoglet Bloglet


It’s been a long time since I wrote anything on Metamorphosis. Not for any particular reason, just a quiet period and one in which my wildlife pursuits have been curtailed by minor but painful musculoskeletal injuries. So not a lot to write about.

Being unable to get out onto the marshes was a little depressing, then in July 2020 the unexpected happened…..

… my wife Ali had been expressing a hankering for a pet pygmy hedgehog. We had had quite a few discussions and I was resisting as we already have a houseful of cats, dogs, rodents, reptiles, fish, shrimps and frogs. In fact the only vertebrate class we don’t host are birds (and, technically, cartilaginous and jawless fish). I felt we had enough to do. Ali looked sad, and underneath my attempts to be “sensible” (why start now?) I felt a little guilty and mean. Little did I know that there was a conspiracy afoot.

The very next day a family of hedgehogs wandered into our driveway, in the middle of the afternoon. In fact to start with, just one hoglet, then two more appeared. A few days later a large and obviously very sick Mum appeared in front of our house. If hogs are about in the day, they are in trouble. Hedgehogs are nocturnal and sleep in the day. If they are foraging for food in the day, they’re probably starving as they are not eating, or in the case of the hoglets, being fed by Mum.

There’s been a lot going on since June 2020, and from our initial phone call to our local Hedgehog Rescue about the family that adopted us, we’ve become hedgehog fosterers, with an incubator, an indoor cage and an outdoor run. We’ve had half a dozen or so come through our hands and go on to release in the wild, and currently have two to stay over the winter. There’s a lot to tell and show, so I am restarting my writing with the stories of the gorgeous and smelly beasts who have taken over our lives, given us so much fulfilment, the privilege of being able to add a tiny bit to Conservation, and now the chance to help to save an ancient species recently scheduled as “at risk of extinction” in the UK.

And this is how the story begins …

Hoglet Bloglet 2. So we begin

And this is how the story begins …


In the middle of the afternoon, as we were leaving the house to drive out, Ali spotted a small hedgehog in a large tussock of grass by a fence. The bottom of the fence is piled with long pine needles from the Corsican pine overhead and it seems that the baby may have emerged from a makeshift nest in the mix of grass and long dry pine needles. It is just as well she saw him, as I couldn’t even see him when she pointed him out.

As people with no knowledge of hedgehogs at all, we assumed that all was well with the hoglet and left him to go on his way, after putting a bowl of cat food and one of water out for him. A natural enough response -we had no reason to think there was a need to do more than that. Little did we realise that a hedgehog out and about in the daytime is a hedgehog in trouble.

22/06/2020. The first Hoglet in the grass tussocks and pine needles at the bottom of the fence, finding food we’d put out for him and enjoying a good feed. This was the closest we’d ever been to a hoglet. Little did we know what lay ahead.
Further along the fence. In our ignorance we’d put out some old cat food bowls that were hard for the little one to eat and drink from, though fortunately not impossible. We later learnt that for little hoglets (this one turned out to weigh 110 grams), jam jar lids are much easier. This size is fine for adults.

This is a fascinating clip -the hoglet is self-anointing. That’s a response to a new smell -the hoglet is producing frothy saliva and depositing it on his back with a surprisingly long tongue, contorting to reach the spot, after licking the piece of cat meat for the first time. No one knows for sure what the response is for -some think it’s to do with memory of things via smell -almost like an olfactory record bank.

We kept our eyes out for him and more hoglets over the next few days but didn’t see more until the evening of….


A delivery driver for a takeaway restaurant pulled into our drive in the early evening.

“Do you know you have three little hedgehogs over there?” he asked, as he handed over our lazy dinner, pointing at a shamefully unkempt bed mostly covered in shrubs and bushes, but in fact being the ideal hedgehog shelter at the entrance of our drive. “I just saw three little ones trotting down your drive and under the bushes”.

Sure enough, three small hoglets were there, hiding under the weeds in the damp scrubby bed in the shade of Buddleia and Magnolia. So, again we put food out for them and let them be – but not until I’d printed “Slow, hedgehogs crossing” signs lifted from the Internet, laminated and attached either side of the entrance. We would have been very upset if we’d found a flat hoglet there.


The next day my daughter visited to go for a walk. As we returned to the house with our dogs, she spotted a brown lump in the road outside our drive. At least that’s what I saw. She saw a hoglet. (Mental note made to visit opticians ASAP). He wasn’t moving much and it dawned on me that he was in trouble and we should do something.

We happened to have a spare hamster cage in the garage (it’s like Steptoe and Son in there -don’t even ask what else there is, but it all fits into the category of “I’ll hang onto this because it’ll come in handy one day”).

Wearing a pair of gardening gloves, we transferred the little hoglet to the cage and got him out of the sun, providing him with bowls of food and water. For no particular reason, and without really knowing his gender, I decided he should be called Cedric.

Cedric in the hamster cage, snaffling up cat food. A very hungry hoglet

Now late afternoon, daughter had to leave but not before finding the number of our local hedgehog rescue, Hedgerows Hedgehog Rescue. The amazing Jill Beecher (who runs this non -profit rescue centre from her home on love, tireless energy, and the goodwill of donors), advised us that evening on what to do and promised to visit the next day. It was warm weather and Cedric was eating and drinking well, so we settled him down inside our shed, with some hay to nest in and food and water.


The next day we searched the driveway again and found the other two hoglets. Jill arrived shortly after. They appeared to be female so were immediately christened by Ali as Joyce and Sybil. Jill checked them thoroughly. It seemed that their mother had abandoned them or was two ill to look after them, or possibly worse. All three were extremely flea and tick-ridden and underweight but seemed reasonably well except for Cedric. Jill was unhappy about the skin along his skirt, the border line between spines and fur that runs circumferentially around a hedgehog*. She was suspecting an infection, so after de-fleaing all three, she set us up with clear instructions on how to look after Sybil and Joyce.

Three little hoglets after spraying with permethrin -a natural insecticide synthesised by French Marigolds. Hedgehog fleas are species-specific. This means that even if they land on you or your pets, they won’t stay long. The hedgehog flea (Archaeopyslla erinacei) only lives on Hedgehogs.

We are a bit crazy about animals, and have a menagerie. (A friend once remarked on this, asking “How many hearts beat under your roof?” We made it around 31, not including ourselves). We had a spare heated vivarium that we’d used for Herbie the tortoise, who we rescued from likely euthanasia  as a baby and when only 90 grams. Herbie had long outgrown the viv but it was perfect for two tiny hoglets -only 110 grams on the day they adopted us. So in they went, complete with a thermostatically controlled heat mat and an IP camera fitted inside so we could keep an eye on them.

In the vivarium. Eating and drinking from jam jar lids, with a fleece to snuggle under.

*This is one of the wondrous and unique design details of hedgehogs. Under the skirt runs a circular muscle, the orbicularis, that acts like a purse string to close the spines tight over the feet and underbelly as part of the familiar protective response of a hedgehog to perceived threat (they frown first, then tuck their heads down, before the familiar “curling up”). Humans have three orbicularis muscles, one round the mouth that purses the lips, and one around each eye, that screws them up tight. These two are often used in the human threat response “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me”. Not as effective as the hedgehog’s mechanism but still a favourite amongst children of all ages.

Hoglet Bloglet 3. Matilda.

The sad tale of Matilda the Mother.


The next day, after all the excitement of being catapulted into hedgehog fostering by the arrival of the hoglets, we found Matilda (again the name just appeared in my mind) looking very flat in the middle of our drive. We presumed she was the Mum of the hoglet trio already rescued.

Matilda was obviously very sick. She had no aversion to being picked up and put into a washing up bowl for transfer to somewhere safer. She was limp and indifferent to any stimuli around her. No defensive reactions at all.

Matilda as flat as a pancake. Not at all a natural look for a hedgehog.

Matilda really couldn’t care less. So out of it all -breathing but not reacting to us. You can see she has a few ticks in between her right eye and her snout.

Jill came back immediately after we phoned to explain what had happened and how ill Matilda appeared to be. On first looking at her, her extensive experience and training in Hedgehog rehab told her that Matilda was very dehydrated and underweight and needed immediate resuscitation. She took her home for emergency care.

The most urgent requirement was rehydration -we were in the middle of a very long dry spell, and it’s likely that there was a severe shortage of puddles to drink from. Jill’s professional background is Nursing, so she is very properly skilled to use subcutaneous fluids to rehydrate. Her training from the Vale Wildlife Hospital  equips her with the skills to translate this to care of hedgehogs rather than humans. On Matilda she used Hartmann’s solution, an intravenous fluid preparation of electrolytes and bicarbonate, particularly useful to not only rehydrate but also combat the build-up of acid in the body that accompanies severe dehydration.

Matilda in fact shows up on two security camera shots. Here are two clips. They have been enlarged and cropped, as on the original she is just a dot, so a lot of definition is lost. However, you can still see that she is moving extremely slowly and with enormous difficulty. It looks almost as though she is dragging herself along the ground, instead of the usual walk on four legs that is normal for hedgehogs. It’s really a pitiful sight.

Matilda is the blob just to the right of centre in the triangular space beneath the olive tree. It is a warm, dry and windy day. She is utterly exhausted, crawling very slowly to the right.

A few minutes later from a different angle. She moving almost like a caterpillar. Her skirt is barely off the ground. Her legs were so weak she can’t lift her body. Is she trying to find her hoglets? Who knows? She might be following their scent.


Jill contacted us to let us know the sad news that after an initial rally with treatment, Matilda declined and passed away in her arms. RIP poor Matilda, you did well to raise your hoglets and bring them to a safe place.

More to follow…..

…. Come back soon.

Study 009

Fen Raft Spider observational study record 009

Location:                                           Carlton Marshes: Dyke 5a, just south of bridge

Date:                                                  23/08/19

Time start:                                        10.00

Time finish:                                      11.15

Weather (from BBC weather app):

  • General:                              Sunny and light winds
  • Humidity:                            74%
  • Pressure:                            1025
  • Temp:                                  20C
  • Temp feels like:                21C
  • Wind:                                  6mph SW
  • Cloud cover/sun:              Intermittent cloud, mostly sunny

Observational subject:

One nursery web, one adult, two nearby juveniles

Vegetation/macro location:

Web in channel of dyke, on water soldier. Juveniles on water soldier and frogbit


10.00: One nursery web containing spiderlings. A banded adult female is on the far (North) side of web -in deep shade and hard to see initially.

The web is dead centre in the picture

10.20: A little movement amongst spiderlings, which seem to be in two groups. The group on the left begins to spread. There is an egg sac to the right of this group with a group of spiderlings immediately beneath it. The guarding female is behind and to the left of the web. She is in the shade and looks very dark in colour in this light.

From left to right, guarding female, spiderlings, and egg sac with spiderlings beneath
Closer view

Mum was very hard to get a good look at. Moving to a different viewpoint to the left, and knocking up the EV compensation to lighten her up, resulted in a better view of her but with overexposure of the surroundings.

She looks quite different here -the cephalothorax is lighter than the abdomen, and she has light brown bands. The legs are transilluminated in the bright backlighting sunlight -a daylight radiograph!

Below is a video of the web showing a burst of spiderling activity. The dark flickering to the left and below the adult female is just the playing of light and shadow in the background. My videography skills are in their infancy so bear with me!

10.21.The banded juvenile just north of the web and facing north, sitting on water soldier leaf. It’s in hunting pose, with forelegs on the water meniscus. Body length is estimated at around 5mm.

The banded juvenile is at the meniscus, perched on a water soldier leaf. You can see if just above the frogbit pad at the bottom of the pic, about 3/4 of the way from left to right.
Closer up
Small but perfectly formed hunter. The forelegs are dipping the water meniscus. Tiny vibration-sensitive hairs on the ends of the leg will pick up water movement that could indicate prey nearby.

10.40 The juvenile on the water soldier has moved behind and up the leaf and is now almost hidden from view.

10.55. A second banded juvenile is seen a metre further away, on a frogbit pad. Body length estimated at 5mm long. The first juvenile has returned to the water surface.

The second juvenile is on the frogbit pad in the upper left quarter of the pic. The first juvenile is on left of the bottom right quarter, out of focus, on the water soldier leaf.
Second juvenile
First juvenile now in focus, second out of focus.

No unusual or notable behaviour was noted today. But it’s worth commenting that the juveniles are relatively close together and look almost identical. There is a good possibility that they are siblings who hatched in this location and are growing up there.

Study 008

Fen Raft Spider observational study record 008

Location:                                           Carlton Marshes: Dyke 2b, South end, opposite end of 2a

Date:                                                  14.08.2019

Time start:                                        10.00

Time finish:                                      11.30

Weather (from BBC weather app):

  • General:                              Light cloud and a moderate breeze
  • Humidity:                            77%
  • Pressure:                            1014 mb
  • Temp:                                  17C
  • Temp feels like:                18C
  • Wind:                                  14 mph, SSW
  • Cloud cover/sun:              Intermittent sunshine.

Observational subject:

The same webs as Study 007 done yesterday.

Vegetation/macro location:

All the webs are built on water soldier in the channel of the dyke


Web 1: As yesterday: old, empty egg sac and spiderling exuviae present, no adult nearby

Web 2: As yesterday. Spiderlings still present, one female seen behind. Banded, dark in colour, with white hazy appearance on backs of abdomen and thorax and parts of legs. I think this is the same individual as yesterday. She remained partly hidden for most of the study period.

Web 2
The abdomen of the dark female is just visible about 1/4 of the way along the horizontal centre line of the pic, in a gap between two leaves.
Closer up and now in the centre of the pic. You can see several of her legs too. Just a slight shift in angle of view and she’s lost from sight.

Web 3: Old web with empty egg sac, only one adult female with egg sac seen today beneath web. From back markings, identifiable as F3:2 from yesterday, with confluent white patches.

The female is below the left-most quarter of the web, midway between the web and the bottom of the pic.
Great view of F3:2

Web 3a: Behind and to right of Web 3. Spiderlings present and female (without egg sac) seen below web and on water soldier. Hazy appearance to back. Or is this in fact a male? There are “boxing glove” palps. * * * See footnote * * *

Web 4: As yesterday, spiderlings present, no adult seen

Web 4a: Behind and to left of Web 4. As yesterday, spiderlings easier to see today. No adult seen.

Webs 4 and 4a with spiderlings.

No significant movement or activity to report today.


On the difficulty of sexing a Fen Raft Spider -advice from Dr Helen Smith.

” There are a couple of images where you have identified the spiders as males and I wasn’t convinced. Adult males have disproportionately long legs and the cephalothorax always looks relatively bigger than the abdomen. If the palps are curled under, at some angles this makes them looked clubbed. We had issues with this on some images we were sent for the Wildguide to spiders – it could be really difficult to be sure which sex we were looking at. Numbers of adult males around will be very low by now but a bit later in the season we’ll start to see sub-adult males which usually overwinter before their final moult. Their leg and body proportions are ‘female’ and the palps start to become clubbed, although the palpal organ is not fully developed. I’ve only once seen a newly emerged adult male in autumn – at Castle Marshes in mid-October “

Addendum 1:

I returned to these webs 6 days later, after a period of very high winds, storms and rain. Most of the webs were severely degraded though one remained with spiderlings. I took photos but in all honesty they don’t add to what is already in this post. I was unable to make any written notes as I was surrounded by grazing cows -not too bad, until a curious calf approached. Mum was watching and if she had perceived a threat to junior she might have decided to take issue with me. Not keen on dealing with over half a ton of beef charging me, I politely retreated.

Addendum 2:

I returned one more time on the 30th August, 17 days after the start of the study (13th August, Study 007). The area looks desert-like compared with the lush vegetation at the start. Quite a dramatic change in appearance with the water soldiers sinking underwater and very little green, new growth in the channel. There’s evidence of cow damage on the far bank with a new web a metre up in the marginal vegetation empty and probably damaged. Only two of the documented webs in the channel can be seen.

The marshes know winter s approaching. the dykes are starting to change, preparing for their long winter sleep.

Study 007

Fen Raft Spider observational study record 007

Location:                                          Carlton Marshes: Dyke 2b, South end, opposite end of 2a

Date:                                                  13.08.2019

Time start:                                       10.30                   

Time finish:                                      12.15

Weather (from BBC weather app):

  • General:                              Sunny intervals and a moderate breeze. Cooler than recently
  • Humidity:                            67%
  • Pressure:                            1016 mb
  • Temp:                                  16C
  • Temp feels like:                16C
  • Wind:                                  14 mph, westerly
  • Cloud cover/sun:              Intermittent sunshine. Cool when the clouds cover the sun

Observational subject:

A number of webs and adults seen today so numbering system devised. Webs numbered 1 to 4  from left to right as seen (South to North), and adults numbered as (=gender + web number): (adult number) eg F2 would be the sole female at web 2, but  F3:1 and F3:2 would be the first and second females seen at Web 3.

Today’s site. The webs look very hard to find in this picture, but with close-focus binoculars on site it’s not so hard.

Vegetation/macro location:

All webs on water solder and in the channel of the dyke


Web 1: Old, empty egg sac and spiderling exuviae present, no adult nearby

The empty egg sac is near the bottom of the web.

Web 2: Spiderlings present, one female seen behind. Not banded, very dark in colour, with white hazy appearance on abdomen, cephalothorax and parts of legs.

Web 2 -the dark female is above, behind and to the left, slightly out of focus

Dark female

Web 3: Old web with empty egg sac, two adult females (F3:1 and F3:2) beneath web, both banded and carrying egg sacs. 3:1 has white markings on back of abdomen and cephalothorax and is tan in colour, 3:2 is dark and has distinctively patterned confluent white patches on back of abdomen and cephalothorax.

Old web with two egg-sac carrying females beneath
Distinctively patterned banded females carrying egg sacs

F3:2 with a clear view of her eyes, which are glinting in reflected sunlight, and her disctinctive white dorsal markings.

Web 3a: Behind and to right of Web 3. Spiderlings present.

Web 4: Spiderlings present. Unbanded brown female beneath web.

The web is above and right of the spider. A few spiderlings are visible

Web 4a: Behind and to left of Web 4. Spiderlings present though hard to see initially.

10.50: F2 moved away from web and disappeared from view for a while, then reappeared later on.

11.00: Spiderlings in Web 2 began to make dish formation facing the sunlight during the study period.

Dishing of spiderlings causing increased sunlight exposure

11.00: F3:1 moved away from web and disappears under water soldier leaf

11.40: F3:1 has reappeared about 50cm to left of previous position

11.50. Spiderlings in Web 2 becoming quite active. No sign of female with hazy abdomen and thorax. She has wandered off again.

Footnote: I asked Dr Helen Smith for her advice on the white markings on the females. This is her response. Utterly fascinating:

“The white staining on the bodies of the adult females only happens this time on year, and (I’m pretty sure) only occurs on females that have second broods and are wearing out. It’s a surface deposit and I’m pretty sure it’s excreted guanine. When they go underwater they excrete a white cloud of guanine to ‘cover their tracks’ against attack by visual predators. When they’re young, they groom their body hair assiduously to maintain waterproofing but at this stage in life they neglect this. You may also have noticed that they are now much more likely to be seen sitting up in quite vulnerable positions guarding the nursery. I suspect they can afford to risk all at a stage when they’re no longer in the market for any further reproduction – and there’s also no advantage in spending time down on the water finding food.”

Study 6.

Fen Raft Spider observational study record 006


Location:                                           Carlton Marshes: Dyke 2b (at end where it meets 2a)

Date:                                                  30.07.2019

Time start:                                        11.00

Time finish:                                      12.35

Weather (from BBC weather app):

  • General:                  Sunny and a moderate breeze
  • Humidity:               59%
  • Pressure:                1008 mb
  • Temp:                      22C
  • Temp feels like:     25C
  • Wind:                      17 – 19 mph SSE
  • Cloud cover/sun: Intermittent cloud and hot sunshine when present

Observational subject:

A web with ball of spiderlings and egg sac, nearby female adult

Vegetation/macro location:

In middle of dyke on water soldier, 20cm above surface


11.00: Spiderlings emerging slowly from egg sac with inferior opening. Female, dark and banded, on water soldier slightly below web and about 20cm from it, and about the same height above water. Sac and spiderling huddle about the same size.


Spiderlings emerging from egg sac top to the right of centre, female can be partly seen in shadow at bottom, just to the left of centre. She is facing left. Her left band and a few legs can be seen. 

11.40: Female moved down from sedge to water surface. Hard to see as partly hidden by vegetation. Moved back up and onto web itself but continued downwards again and out of sight for rest of study in spite of viewing from a range of angles

12.00: Egg sac now smaller, and ball of spiderlings now about twice the size of the sac.


Spiderlings continue to emerge.

12.05: Spiderlings appear to have completely emerged from sac and spreading out

12.10: Spiderlings have taken up a concave disc formation, directly facing direction of noonday sun due south.


Forming a disc facing the sun.

12.35: No further activity seen. End.


It is probably safe to assume that the female had very recently opened the egg sac. If the emergence rate of the spiderlings was roughly constant (making a reasonable assumption) then they would have taken roughly three hours to emerge.

The formation of a concave disc facing the sunlight direction supports the idea that the spiderlings are exhibiting basking behaviour. The female, on the other hand, seemed to have retreated into shade though this could not be confirmed.

Study 5

Fen Raft Spider observational study record 005

Location:                                           Carlton Marshes: several dykes

Date:                                                  23.7.19

Time start:                                        11.30

Time finish:                                      15.00

Weather (from BBC weather app):

  • General:                              Sunny and light winds. Feels hot
  • Humidity:                            58%
  • Pressure:                            1018 mb
  • Temp:                                  22C
  • Temp feels like:                25C
  • Wind:                                  N 6mph
  • Cloud cover/sun:              clear sky

Observational subject:

My aim today was to observe adult spiders. Only 4 days ago on a routine survey we found 38 webs and maybe a dozen adults. Today on a very hot day, circumnavigating most of the survey-allocated Dykes at Carlton across 3 hours,  I saw only maybe 8 of those webs, most looking tattered, and only one adult, in a deeply shaded recess in the margin, under vegetation. Too dark and too distant even for a decent photo.

3 days ago we had storms and brief but torrential downpours. These would have damaged or destroyed many of the webs we had seen on the routine survey. After speaking to a biology graduate friend, I understand that spiders tend to shelter in the cool in hot weather, and are prone to desiccation in such conditions. Maybe the FRS adults had all gone into the shade, or perhaps underwater. There was no sign of guarding adults in the very few webs with spiderlings present that I saw today.

Vegetation/macro location:



It seems reasonable to conclude that the storms followed by hot weather affected my ability to find viable nursery webs and provides explanation for the apparent absence of adults.

Mother and child

The Fen Raft Spider displays a remarkable degree of maternal protective behaviour. the fact that many higher animals (for example reptiles) show no protective behaviour for their young as soon as egg laying is over makes this all the more remarkable.

The following pictures were taken whilst on a routine survey of the Carlton dykes in mid July 2019.

The next three show two females carrying egg sacs. The first two pics are of the same lady, the third is a different individual.






She has wrapped her eggs in a silk cocoon which has turned a brown colour due to oxidation. She will carry them like this until they are ready to hatch. Then she will build a nursery web for them and help them out of the sac by picking a hole in the silk.



Here’s a ball of hatched spiderlings in a (fairly thin) nursery web



Mum guarding the nursery. You can see two balls of spiderlings in the web above her.



Another mum with her nursery. She has a thin abdomen and could be mistaken for a male, but the non-clubbed palps give away her gender. She has eaten very little for weeks, being too busy carrying the sac, and guarding the nursery to hunt. This is on top of the massive energy expenditure in creating her young, the egg sac, and the web. Slimming World could learn a thing or two from her. It has just rained. Spider surveyors are a dedicated bunch!



Here are a few spiderlings on the move within the web.



This is a male. I’ve included the pic only because it displays so beautifully how the fen raft spider is perfectly adapted to aquatic life -walking on water. His first left and right legs are resting on the water, feeling for vibrations in the meniscus, possibly signalling the arrival of the next meal.



Another male -see his clubbed palps in front of him -the “boxing gloves”. These are full of sperm transferred from his primary genitalia and stored ready for mating. The shot is slightly fuzzy as I’ve enlarged it considerably to show his eyes and the palps. He has uncommonly bright bands and you can see his two rows of eyes at the front of the cephalothorax (combined head and chest).

Males don’t have anything to do with the nurseries or young -they are basically sperm donors in their world. I have included this shot not because it’s particularly good, but because it took me ages to get the view and exposure I wanted, He was in a relatively dark recess at a distance. I sweated over it!

Love is in the air.

The Norfolk Hawker dragonflies are all around us at Carlton at the moment. Big, brown and beautiful with jade green eyes, they often create a sudden rattling sound as their wings beat stems as they take off from amongst reeds. It’s like being in the midst of a bunch of tiny croupiers mixing packs of cards.

Handsome beasts!


A mating pair of Norfolk Hawkers

In this pic the male is above, clasping the neck of the female with his claspers, which fit into special grooves on her neck, specific to species -a key and lock system which may have evolved to prevent successful mating between species.

He has already successfully driven off competing males and attracted her to his territory, and has already transferred sperm from his primary genital opening on the 9th abdominal segment. near the tail end of the abdomen, to his secondary genitalia at the second and third abdominal segments, nearer the thorax.

If the female is ready, she will curl her abdomen under and forward to bring her genitalia into contact with the male’s secondary genitalia, allowing the transfer of sperm and insemination.

After the initial clasping, the pair may fly together till the male finds a perch to cling on to. The shape they make is called the “heart” or “wheel”. After mating, the female needs to lay her eggs, but before this the male may fly with her, still clasped, to prevent other males mating with her. He may also spend some time cleaning out her genitalia with his penis to remove any possible sperm from rivals.


Here the female is depositing her eggs (ovipositing) on a stem of vegetation. This is a very vulnerable time as she is at risk from predators such as fish or fen raft spiders. The method of ovipositing varies between species. Some possess a sharp ovipositor used to slit vegetation so the eggs can be deposited inside, others lay eggs in the water and some drop them in flight.

Although the shot below is rather poorly focussed, I wanted to include it and the series below as it shows a pair of damsel flies after mating. The male is clasping the female and took off and landed in different places several times. Every time they landed she oviposited.

When I get a chance to take better shots I’ll replace these -but I was thrilled to get a chance to witness this -just the day after writing the main part of this post.











Courtship and Defence

Here is a selection of fascinating photos taken while on a routine nursery web survey. Whilst not a formal behavioural study in the sense of the others written up here, it is worth including here as the most appropriate section overall.

I can’t take credit for the interpretation of the pics and videos -I sent them to Dr Helen Smith who kindly interpreted them for me. These are mostly her words:


Though this individual is not behaving in any particular way, we were interested to know more about the brightness of its bands which we found striking. He appears to have lost his second left leg. There is also a recorded conversation about its age in a courtship video below -Helen comments on this too.

“Band colour and brightness varies between individuals and is not particularly age-related. The exceptions to this are (1) that tiny juveniles tend to have lighter ground colours and (2) adult females tend to have more subdued band colours, although you do see some brightly banded ones. I’d be interested in trying to quantify the latter!”

“Re the overheard conversation backing this video, this year’s juveniles will only be a max of 3 weeks old and a very few mm long – you’re unlikely even to notice them and they’ll mainly be in the marginal vegetation rather than on the water. Anything vaguely ‘middle sized at the moment will be from last year’s broods.”



“This couple are indeed a courting pair – the female is already quite gravid. The bobbing in the video is part and parcel of the courtship communication – both sexes do it. In the male it only signals intention but in the female, done (I guess) at a particular frequency or intensity. it can also signal lack of interest! Subtle stuff.”

Here is a nursery web (top right) and below and to the left is a spider. Try and spot it. If you can’t the answer is at the end of this post.



Here he is -and it’s a male. He has a slim abdomen and clubbed palps like boxing gloves -these contain sperm, ready to inseminate the female, facing him. You can see her legs between the two sedge leaves forming a triangle.

About the above videos (of the same pair of spiders as in the stills), Helen says: “This shows another courtship sequence with the male doing the classic leg-tapping to create concentric waves that signal intention to the female. This can be a very protracted business and the fact that she moved away doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s not interested and won’t accept him in the end.” Apologies for the extra noise -no one was aware I was recording!


This shot shows a female guarding her nursery. Her body is quite thin because she’s hardly eaten for weeks while carrying her egg sac but her palps are straight and not clubbed as a male’s would be.


Here the same female is being defensive and guarding her nursery. You can see one of her palps very clearly – and it’s straight, not clubbed at the end. Apologies for the focus -not a lot of control with the apparatus -my camera battery had run out and I used a camera phone held only about 18 inches away, so she had detected my presence. She is holding her right first two legs in a V-sign -very appropriate!

Answer to the spotting question: He’s at the bottom of the photo, to the right of the triangle formed by the two most right hand sedge leaves. In the apex of that triangle you can partly see a female facing him.

Study 4

Fen Raft Spider behavioural study record 004


Location:                                           Carlton Marshes: Dyke 5b, 8m South of bridge

Date:                                                   16.07.19

Time start:                                        14.00

Time finish:                                      15.45

Weather (from BBC weather app):

  • General:                  Sunny intervals and light winds. Feeling very warm.
  • Humidity:               58%
  • Pressure:                 1018 mb
  • Temp:                       21C
  • Temp feels like:      25C
  • Wind:                       N, 6mph
  • Cloud cover/sun:    V sunny with occasional cloud cover

Observational subject:

2 Balls of spiderlings in a nursery web with egg sac, adult beneath


Vegetation/macro location:

Web and spiderlings about 30cm above water surface in water soldier about 1m from east bank. Adult sitting on frogbit on water surface immediately beneath web.


14.00. Dark unbanded adult female present


Initially 2 balls of spiderlings seen in web. Little activity at this time.



14.20. Adult has moved away from me to next frogbit pad. Can only see back of abdomen and spinnarets. Contrasting light and obscuring leaf cover prevent photo.

14.40 has turned around and is facing me


15.00. Spiderlings have coalesced into a lens shape roughly facing the direction of the sunlight


15.40. Spiderlings noted to be very active in full sun


Lens formation and increased activity consistent with increased exposure to warmth from sunlight. Suggests active basking behaviour in spiderlings. No active movement of adult into sunlight does not support active basking behaviour in this individual during this study.

14.45 End.

Study 3

Fen Raft Spider behavioural study record 003


Location:                                           Carlton Marshes: Dyke 10. Same as in Study 002.

Date:                                                   09.07.19

Time start:                                        11.30

Time finish:                                      12.15

Weather (from BBC weather app):

  • General:                   Cool slight breeze
  • Humidity:                74%
  • Pressure:                 1022 KPa
  • Temp:                       15C
  • Temp feels like:       –
  • Wind:                        S, 7mph
  • Cloud cover/sun:    Cloudy

Observational subject:

Same web as in 002.

Vegetation/macro location:

As before


11.30. Web looks thinner and scantier since seen 18 hours previously. Volume taken by spiderlings seems less, suggesting either less spiderlings or that they are huddling more tightly. Two formations seen, a vertical sausage shape and a separate small ball. Both have a reduced surface area to volume ratio compared with the more diffuse shape of yesterday. No adult seen, very little activity indeed compared with yesterday.

Formation consistent with heat conservation.

12.15: No further activity noted and as I was getting cold (being unable to rapidly reduce my surface area to volume ratio), study ended.


Study 2

Fen Raft Spider behavioural study record 002


Location:  Carlton Marshes: Dyke 10, immediately by northernmost red and white verge marker post

Date:                                                  08.07.19

Time start:                                        14.00

Time finish:                                      16.10

Weather (from BBC weather app):

  • General:                Mild day, breezy
  • Humidity:              –
  • Pressure:                –
  • Temp:                     17.5C
  • Temp feels like:     –
  • Wind:                      Moderate breeze
  • Cloud cover/sun:   Intermittent cloud, mostly sunny


Nursery web with spiderlings. No adult seen.

Vegetation/macro location:

Web in sedge, about 12 inches above water, in margin.


The web in study 01 can no longer be seen. This web is further south along the same dyke.

14.00. Spiderlings in a torus formation, the right-hand half shaded, the left in sunlight. Bursts of activity noted in two forms: one as a cascade spreading over the surface of the huddle of spiderlings, the other as a simultaneous burst of activity all over the surface, with individuals at separate points around the huddle simultaneously starting movement. Does this suggest different stimuli for activity? There was no visible trigger for the activity, which always settled down within a few seconds.

14.45. Longer spells of sunlight on web and increased frequency of bursts of activity noted during this period.

14.50. Several bursts of activity occurring within the space of one minute but lasting only a few seconds. These bursts were in the simultaneous pattern.

15.00. It is possible to see now from a different viewpoint that the torus is in fact two separate balls of spiderlings. Learning point: get several viewpoints where possible.

15.30. There are in fact three balls of spiderlings, with one to the left of the others, shaded and well hidden under a broad sedge leaf. The other two are now both unshaded and bursts of activity are noted in both, when the sun emerges. The balls are beginning to join up.

15.55. Sunlight now continuous as clouds have broken up. The two right hand balls have coalesced to form a crescent concave upwards, approximately facing the direction of the sunlight. More a radio telescope shape than a lens shape.

Observed formation shape change consistent with basking behaviour to increase body temperature. This would increase metabolic rate and consequently growth rate.

Increased activity during periods of sunlight consistent with increased metabolic rate and muscular activity with increased body temperature.

Stimuli for activity bursts not known.

16.10 End.


The hidden third noted ball of spiderlings on the left, shaded by a sedge leaf. The next two are visible and partly obscured.


Same view closer in and a little later.


Crescent formation

Study 1

Fen Raft Spider behavioural study record 001

NB This is the first session and as such was experimental to assess what to record and how to record it. The template on which this record is based was developed subsequently, hence not all fields are complete for the first few records

Location:                                                         Carlton Marshes: Dyke 10

Date:                                                                 02/07/19

Time start:                                                      11.00

Time finish:                                                    12.50

Weather (from BBC weather app):

  • General:                            Fair mild day
  • Humidity:                         –
  • Pressure:                           –
  • Temp:                                18C
  • Temp feels like:                –
  • Wind:                                 Gentle breeze
  • Cloud cover/sun:              Intermittent sunshine and broken cumulus cloud

Observational subject:

Nursery web


Web amongst sedge, 18 inches off water in margin. 5m south of 10mph sign. A recently opened egg sac was reported seen on 29/06/19 -three days before this observation. No adult seen. Egg sac present, only two spiderlings seen crawling about web and on sac. Became more active when sun came out.

Impression is that the web is looking tatty -there were some strong breezes in in the area in the three days before this record.

12.05: Little activity

12.50: No further observations to make. Ended.


About the Behavioural Studies

I’ve been asked by Dr Helen Smith, the UK’s leading authority on the Fen Raft Spider, to help her answer questions she has about the Fen Raft Spider. Our starting point is observing behaviour. What this means for me is to sit in the blissful peace and tranquillity of Carlton Marshes in a chair, with binoculars, camera and notebook, and simply watch a nursery web and/or and adult spider, and observe, and note. My main job is to report the “how” of Fen Raft Spider behaviour, and where I can, I may make a suggestion or two along the way about the “why”.

The following posts will attempt to be factual and objective reporting, so I’m not attempting to provide a literary read. But some of you may find the information interesting.

Neither of us have any clear idea of where this will lead, or indeed if I’m able to contribute at all to the sum of knowledge around this beautiful and sophisticated animal. But I’m going to have a go!

Thank you for getting this far with me. Please stay on the journey.

Dogfish, sun dogs, limpets* and limping dogs.

My friend N and I had promised each other a day out in North Norfolk. N lives up that way and knows a thing or two about places to go.  In late November 2017 we finally managed to rip a day out of our breathlessly busy lives to meet and travel up to the coast, for a look around and a spot of marine birdwatching.

N is in the crystal business. Not the kind for telling your future, nor for health-giving vibrations through the ether, but the sort you fill with your favourite poison to enjoy with good food and company. He has a crystal barn. Not, as I had first thought, a magical barn built of crystal, filled with hard-working elves packing his wares in gossamer and feathers, to be delivered to his customers by hummingbirds, but a simple wooden barn housing his stock. I was so disappointed. Especially about the elves.

I had already seen the  crystal barn (I can verify the absence of elves), but on the way to the coast we dropped in on his retail outlet (one elf there). By the time we finally reached the coast it was definitely already time for lunch. We dropped into a lovely pub in Snettisham, the Rose and Crown. It’s a very quirky building where a trip to the gents involves a very long and circuitous walk that seems to never end. I got lost on the way back (not difficult) and had to ask directions from a waitress. What an idiot, I expect she thought.

Here is a fun picture hanging in the gents -charming and innocent. No doubt in our stiflingly regulated and PC age all these men would nowadays be arrested for indecent exposure as a minimum (“I was only cleaning the mud off me balls, your Honour” -concluding the evidence for the defence).


The food was excellent and I feel compelled to share the place with you here.

Replete and refreshed, we made our way to Hunstanton beach, where, N confidently assured me, there would be flocks and flocks of interesting birds to see. On that day we were experiencing the first really cold snap of winter 2017, and a freezing steady Arctic wind blew directly at us from the North, with nothing to break its flow between the North Pole and us. You could smell the polar bears on the breeze. The car park was sheltered, but as we topped the bank between the car park and the beach, the blast hit us. I am not a cold weather creature. I am a Mediterranean mammal and really dislike the cold.

Just to make things worse, it was high tide, and other than one oyster-catcher, which N saw but I missed, and a few shivering gulls in the distance, there were no birds whatsover. Not a tweet. There wasn’t really much of a beach either -the long languorous sand flats were all submerged. I just had to imagine it all. N was really very disappointed, and I felt quite sorry for him. He had been keen to share this place that he loves with me.

It was far from a wasted day though. Apart from N’s excellent company (he never runs short of stories and anecdotes which warmed me on that day better than a St Bernard with a barrel of brandy), there were some really unusual things to see.

First I’ll share some images of the landscape which may give you an inkling of the weather that day. The tall building is the old lighthouse -now a holiday cottage for hire.

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A panorama of where the flocks of birds should have been



An egg case -a dogfish or possibly a ray egg case.



I spotted a startling pattern of circles in the sand:





What could have made them? Small alien spaceships? The devil and his family out for a stroll? Very light horses? I stood and observed for a few minutes and then the penny dropped: the steady wind was blowing the stiff grass leaves towards the land, and with slight variations in its direction from time to time, the grass leaves were swinging round, causing the tips to describe an arc in the sand. Perfect circles were drawn by the wind using grass as a compass and pencil.

The most spectacular sight of the day was an apparent double sun in the sky. I blinked and for a moment wondered if N and I had been transported to a planet around a binary  star in a parallel universe. Maybe it was such a lovely day that we had died and gone to heaven. But blinking several times confirmed that Hunstanton, after all, was still there, and so were we.

Which one is the real sun? Answer below…





The real sun is on the left

This meteorological phenomenon is a sun dog -also known as a parhelion (not to be confused with parahelion or perihelion). It’s an illusion created only in very special weather conditions, by ice crystals in the atmosphere refracting sunlight. A very simple Google search reveals loads of information about them.

The day was rounded off by a phone call from my friend B who was looking after our dogs for the day. One of our dachshunds regularly subluxes (partially dislocates) a joint in one of her legs. By adapting a technique I used to use for treating a similar problem in the arms of toddlers, (pulled elbow, or slipped radial head), I have discovered how to fix the dog’s leg, and the adapted technique works.

Pooch just had to have this problem on a very rare day without me around. B noticed she was limping and unable to use one leg. The last time she did this we had just arrived at a hotel in Crete at midnight. On that occasion I had a Whatsapp video teleconsultation with our house sitter, managed to explain the technique, and Pooch was successfully treated -after 20 attempts. On this occasion I was driving at dusk on winding B roads in North Norfolk -conversation strictly on hands-free of course.  It happens that B is a radiographer so she is familiar with techniques of reducing a joint dislocation. Luckily for me, and luckier still for Pooch, instructing her was a breeze and success came on the second attempt. Much to B’s relief, and mine.

We had our fun dog back again,  after seeing a possible dogfish egg case and a sun dog -all in Sunny Hunny**. Ever get the feeling there is a theme to your day?


*”Limpets” is in the title because it kind of works there. In fact we didn’t see a single limpet that day. Keep it quiet.

**Hunstanton -the only East Coast resort that faces West.




Save the Spiders!

During a couple of very cold days in early December 2017 I trotted off to Castle Marshes in North Cove along with our Assistant Warden and my fellow volunteers and pals J and R. Our mission: to look for, and rehome in the dykes, fen raft spiders (FRS) that had been displaced by the dredging of the dykes.

Every year, the dykes need to be dredged to recreate a channel of water. A digger moves along the bank and lifts out the mud, sunken water soldiers (that the FRS lives on), and grass and sedge that has begun to encroach on the water. Without the dredging, the dyke would gradually fill, eventually becoming a continuous part of the surrounding land. The aquatic environment would be lost, along with all its denizens.

If the spiders are left in the debris, they risk being crushed by the digger, which flattens the debris the day after the dredging; they also risk being eaten by herons and other hungry predators. Our efforts would have mitigated that risk, even if only a little. Every spider saved means potentially hundreds to hatch the following year.

Save the Spider (3)

The digger starts its work

Save the Spider (4)

Picking through the debris


Save the Spider (19)

You can see the massive encroachment onto the dyke beyond the clear water, where the digger has stopped.

R was very clever and found 11 FRSs over the two days. I found not a single one, despite the the cold numbness in my fingers and the developing sciatica in my left leg. Neither did J. Harrumph!I managed to find only minute specimens of probably every other arachnid species in the dyke. I have no idea how R managed it -better eyesight and keener to throw herself into the mud than me I expect. We were not helped by the ambient temperature of 5 Celsius, causing all the insects and spiders to be very torpid -not moving around meant they were harder to spot.

Save the Spider (2)

Finding a FRS in the weeds and mud. You can see its brown legs poking out a little below the pointing index finger.

Save the Spider (1)

One for the pot. But not for cooking -he was put back into the water nearby to live on and, with luck, breed next year.

However I was delighted to find a couple of large and very handsome great diving beetles. Click here for more information on this beautiful insect, Dytiscus marginalis.


Save the Spider (8)

Hello! I think I must be having an out-of-water experience. I can see a bright light….

Save the Spider (17)

Beautiful green iridescence on his head

Save the Spider (16)

A formidable and well-equipped hunter

While we were out on Castle Marshes, a Chinese water deer was startled and ran away from us.



Save the Spider (11)

Big round Mickey Mouse ears and a pair of tusks

Save the Spider (12)

Bounding away

One of the last things we saw that day was the spectacular rise of a flock of Greylag Geese, disturbed by something or someone, wheeling across the sky and cackling en masse. I’ve tried to discover if there is another collective noun for a number of geese in flight, and can’t find agreement amongst different sources. Here is a selection -take your pick: flock, plump, skein, team, wedge, gaggle.

Save the Spider (9)

Save the Spider (10)


This video is a little shaky -no time to get my Monopod which was 20 feet away in the mud. Still, I’m pleased with my amateur efforts on a handheld bridge camera.



Not everything in conservation goes smoothly. As I am learning, sometimes there can be unexpected failure.

In October 2017 I signed up to a marine conservation project set up by the organisation of Capturing our Coast, The project, Spermwatch, involves mapping out 150 metres of beach in three consecutive segments (transects), walking along them at the low tide line on specific dates, counting lugworm sperm puddles, noting these findings and other observations, then submitting them online through a simple survey tool. The project aims to collect as much data as possible to assess which environmental factors influence lugworm spawning, about which little is known. Lugworms are an important food source for fish and seabirds.

I had seen fishermen many times on our local beach, so I felt sure I’d have success, as fishermen use lugworms as bait, don’t they? This was, as I found out later, fallacious logic. And I am not a fisherman.

I set up the transects with the help of a mapping app on my phone, printed and laminated all the information I needed to take with me, checked the low tide times and listed the dates I could manage to do the survey. I was really quite excited.

A lugworm sperm puddle is a whitish puddle, looking very similar to a bird poo. It would be found near a lugworm cast, an extrusion of sand from a lugworm burrow, on the surface of a sandy beach. A cast looks like the squiggly pile made by a cooked strand of spaghetti dropped to the ground. My Italian heritage well qualifies me to use this simile. I’ve dropped a lot of spaghetti in my time. The male lugworm comes to the surface to deposit his sperm near the entrance of a female lugworm burrow, to be washed in by the rising tide to fertilise her eggs. All very courteous, no touch, and reminiscent of some courtly fin-de-siecle salon dance. Only with sperm.

My first survey date happened to fall on a weekend when one of my sisters came to visit. I informed her the night before that we would be going on Spermwatch -hastily explaining what it was, before she repacked her bags to escape from some dark rural Suffolk ritual she’d never heard of. The next day my long-suffering and loyal wife, sister and I set off to the beach, on a cold and windy morning. We looked, and we looked, and we looked. Nothing. Zilch. Not a sausage. Not a single cast or sperm puddle. Not even a bird poo.

We returned to the warmth of home and hot tea, wondering if maybe male lugworms don’t like cold and windy weather. I’m sure I’d think twice before emerging from my safe tunnel to ejaculate on a cold beach. It’s understandable.

So, comforted by this explanation, I planned the next survey. Even more exciting as I would be doing this Spermwatch with my friend Jonny. We’re Mates you see.

Jonny and I set off along the beach at the appointed time, and again, by the end of the first transect, nothing seen. We approached the fishing line of a fisherman, stretching obliquely across our path. As we needed to walk right up to the line and continue the other side of it, and as, presumably, fishermen don’t like seeing people appear to be about to snag their lines, I went up to the elderly man at the mechanical end of the line (the rod I am told -I am not a fisherman) to explain our purpose. He was very old and it was very windy, and it took some time before he understood my explanation of our intentions -very carefully phrased in polite terms, and avoiding all use of the word “sperm”, in case Jonny and I should otherwise find ourselves having to explain ourselves to the local police.

“Lugworms!”, he exclaimed. “You won’t find any lugworms ‘ere. No lugworms between North Norfolk and Ipswich. I’ve fished this beach since the 1950’s. Terrible fishing, Look, all I’ve caught is a coupl’a small dab”. He pointed to two very unhappy looking, small dab listlessly contemplating their demise in a bucket of seawater. “Its all the fault of the Common Market”, he went on. “The Dutch came in and took all the fish away….” his bitter tirade against all things European continued. I managed somehow to close the conversation and escape, thanking him for his time, and leaving him to collect more small fish in the cold.

Jonny and I abandoned the survey and I sadly concluded there was no point in continuing the project. I love the beach and continue to walk there most days with our dogs. Still no lugworm seen. But at least I’ve avoided the headlines in the local press: “Retired local doctor with Jonny claims to be seeking sperm on beach”.






The Great British Beach Clean

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS), under its Beachwatch initiative, runs a rolling program of beach cleaning events -The Great British Beach Clean- surveys of what washes up or is left on our beaches. Organised by the MCS and manned by volunteers, it’s a really practical way to contribute to marine conservation without getting your feet wet.

I joined the event locally in September. It was a bit blowy and rainy but we managed to collect quite a lot of stuff.



Volunteers on the sandy beach at Lowestoft, bin bags and litter-pickers in action.

My eyes were opened to what I rarely notice on my frequent beach walks. Here are the results of our morning’s work. If you’re interested in finding a local event, the MCS search page is easy to use.

You can support marine conservation even if you live miles from the coast simply by joining the MCS. Your subscription will help the sum of effort to care for our Blue Planet.


Angry sun

For a few days in October 2017, the tail end of hurricane Ophelia whipped up dust into the atmosphere from the Sahara and fanned Iberian wildfires which were belching smoke into the atmosphere. The combined effect of suspended atmospheric particles was to scatter sunlight and absorb the blue end of the spectrum of sunlight, leaving only the red. So at 14.43 on the 17th of October, the sun emerged briefly from behind low clouds to look as though it was setting -but high in the sky. It was an apocalyptic vision and everyone found it very eerie. The overall light when the sun was behind clouds was still strange, and very diffuse and directionless. So much so that I noticed we were not casting any shadows. That was very strange indeed!

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Heron here and there

An elegant aviator and bane of fishkeepers everywhere. A heron looks more like a pterodactyl in flight than any other bird in this part of the world. This one was looking for snacks at a respectable distance, and a bit later in the afternoon I was lucky enough to catch him in flight and landing.



Not very clear as I was panning at full 1000 mm zoom hand held with no mono-or tripod. To be remedied soon as I now have the gear and less excuse for blurry shots. But the spirit of the movement is still there I think.


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The Neighbours

Oulton Marshes in North Lowestoft are also owned by Suffolk Wildlife Trust. As beautiful and calm a place as Carlton Marshes, but  with a little more variation in land contours and with some enclosed wooded areas that feel like a very different place all of a sudden when you arrive in them.

On an introductory walk there, we came across two very unusual neighbours


A pair of Emus!



Spider surveys

I became involved in a survey of the Fen Raft Spider (FRS) starting in July 2017 and running till October 2017.  Dolomedes plantarius is the UK’s largest and least common species of spider. It is Red Listed by the IUCN and classified as ‘Vulnerable’. It is also Red Listed by several European countries, including the UK where it is currently classified as “vulnerable” -an “under threat of extinction” category.

Our foremost UK scientific authority on the FRS, Helen Smith,  came to talk to us about it at Carlton, and I was immediately drawn to this strikingly beautiful complicated and elegant predator. The more I learnt about it, the more I wanted to know. So my hand went up when the call for survey volunteers went out. As a former mild arachnophobe I surprised myself.

Helen had bred around 6,000 spiderlings in a laboratory, and her own kitchen (!) and populated a section of ditches at Carlton marshes with them, as part of a conservation translocation programme run by Natural England. The purpose of our survey was to measure the extent (or not) of their spread and thus the success (or not) of the translocation. Translocation because the FRS is not naturally resident at Carlton. There are only three other populations in the UK -Redgrave and Lopham Fen in Suffolk, Pevensey Levels in East Sussex, and and area outside Swansea in Wales.

Our job was to amble along the dykes, covering  both sides of the ditches in a mapped area of wetland, noting the location of FRS webs, and the presence of any spiderlings in the webs, or adults nearby, using the naked eye and close-focussing binoculars. On our first survey I couldn’t see any at all, until our guide had, with great patience, pointed out the location. We all found it hard at first, but, like any skill, we improved with practice.

The technique was a bit like looking at a “Magic Eye” picture. You have to de-focus your eyes and relax. You begin to notice hazy areas, then looking at them  through binoculars in clear focus, you can see the webs and the detail. Spotting the adults was also tricky, as they camouflage well into the melee of reed, sedge and water-soldier leaves.



My first sighting of a ball of spiderlings.


To the left of centre, my first sighting of an adult Fen Raft Spider


A ball of spiderlings tight together


Are these flowerheads, or spiderlings spread out and sunbathing? It can be very hard to tell sometimes. Here the plant material  (blunt-flowered rush) is in the middle and left of the web, and a ball of spiderlings  is on the right.

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Spiderlings spreading out on a sedge leaf, warming up in the sun in the safety of their nursery web

We had to learn to spot both new and old webs as both needed to be logged. Here’s an illustration.

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I have been expertly advised that she’s a post-partum female. In a male, the two palps at the front of his head are used to store sperm in to inseminate the females. In this picture, because the palps curl under, it’s very easy to think they are clubbed at the tip when in fact they’re not; this  would mark a spider out as male. In general, adult males have a wider cephalothorax (the head/chest segment with eyes and legs attached),  a very narrow abdomen, and proportionately longer legs than the females.



Here she is again, closer in


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In the centre you can see the shed skin of an adult FRS. It was dangling in the breeze.


and again -slightly different after being moved by the breeze. It looked as light as gossamer.



The funny thing about the photo above is that we only spotted the adult after I’d taken the pic -I was interested in the widely scattered spiderlings.


The pics below show a particularly dark, handsome individual, with striking stripes, enjoying a snack. The wide abdomen marks her out as a female.





On one of the last days I wished for a perfect pose from a FRS. Within five minutes my wish had been granted and this gorgeous creature came out from his rest and posed for me in a classic waiting-for-prey pose. This is a girl.


Resting up….



…. the spider climbed onto a water soldier and is resting her back legs on the meniscus of the water, waiting to sense vibrations signalling nearby prey


Below are two shots, far and near, of a lovely example of a labyrinth spider web.

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A ditch on our last survey day of the year, a cloudless beautiful October morning. The water soldiers are scarce, most have sunk to the bottom of the ditch where they will stay till next spring. There were no spiders to see at all. No one is absolutely sure where they go, but it is thought they might go down into the mud at the bottom of the ditch with the water soldiers.



Goodbye till next year


Doing the survey yielded many positive things for me -the thrill of learning biology and botany again was invigorating -always my two most favourite subjects at school and in life. This alone made me feel 30 years younger! Then I have made new friends (you know who you are) and discovered the layout of Carlton Marshes. I’m also learning how to use my camera and a pair of binoculars properly -I thought I knew but thinking that is often  a sign of ignorance.

It’s great to be directly involved in helping the recovery of an endangered species, no matter how small it is. It has its part to play in our world, and its absence is a red flag highlighting degradation of the environment, for the FRS will only live where the water quality is good. Conversely its recovery will signal a return to health of the local water and land. Head over to the definitive resource on the FRS here if you’d like to learn more about this fascinating creature.








Chinese water deer

Very shy and seemingly nervous, this individual ran at speed from the dyke just opposite us on a ditch we were surveying, only feet away. She bounded away in one direction, then turned and ran back and away in the opposite direction, giving me just enough time to get my camera out and zoomed in. I was panning by hand at full 1000 mm zoom without support, so I was pleased to get any shots at all, but I am happy with the movement these snaps show.

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Native to South-East Asia, they are not under threat in the UK where they are thriving, but their numbers are declining in their home habitat. The UK is thought to have 10% of the world population, originating from deer that escaped from Whipsnade Zoo in 1929.  They had been brought to London Zoo in 1873.

Stonechats, not Whinchats

These little birds provoked much excitement in my walking partner on a fine September morning’s fen raft spider survey. She tends to hit people when excited but I got away lightly and unbruised. The reason for her excitement was thinking we might have seen Whinchats. Close examination of my pics confirmed they are Stonechats. Me, I wouldn’t know the difference if they flew up my nostrils. But this page should help me learn a thing or two.

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Random snaps

Here are some random images from Carlton -just things I liked when I saw them.


Two young swallows on a gate. Though they can fly, their mother was swooping down with tasty insects for them to eat. Weaning on the wing?


There are often cows on Carlton. This one was looking intently at us from a distance. In a rather sinister way, I thought.


The Pooh Bear cloud.  This perfect little cloud immediately reminded me of Pooh Bear floating up a tree, pretending to be a cloud whilst suspended from a balloon, to get to a bees’ nest where he might find Hunny.

“How sweet to be a cloud,

Floating in the Blue!”

It makes him very proud

to be a little cloud.

AA Milne  -Winnie The Pooh.

A family of swans

On my first fen raft spider survey in July, this family of swans paddled slowly past us, not in the least interested in us clumsy humans on the dyke. Feeding happily amongst the water soldiers and reeds and apparently totally oblivious of us. I love the simple beauty in the sinuous curve of a swan’s neck -a living sculpture in flesh and feather.


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Much later in the season, on the last day of the survey, in October, I saw them again. I’m pretty sure this is the same family. The cygnets are losing their youngster down which is becoming peppered with white feathers. They have grown well.








A new life in the air

Am insect transforming from larva to adult is the epitome of metamorphosis. Here’s a dragonfly that’s just left its larval skin and its life as a nymph behind. It rests whilst its wings expand and harden -a vulnerable time for this ancient creature -its design hasn’t changed for 300 million years when they first appeared. Its a voracious hunter both in the water as a nymph and out as an adult. There’s definitely a sinister predatory look about the nymph case. I wouldn’t want to be a stickleback….



and here’s a couple we made earlier…..




Its smaller relative, the damselfly. Lovely electric blue flashes amongst the reeds. By the time I had my camera out, they’d gone. But I managed one half-decent shot of this trio. I’ll work on a better image next season.


The Water Vole

What a gorgeous creature. Spotted on my first Fen Raft Spider survey by our guiding light Ellen, here it was feeding on frogbit, an aquatic plant that looks like miniature lily-leaves. Its name means “frog bite” for reasons that are not clear to me or an eminent aquatic botanist I asked. Its Latin name reflects its meaning: Hydrocharis morsus-ranae. Morsus = bite, ranae = of a frog. Answers on a postcard please!

This is a European water vole, now a threatened species in this country. Its population has declined by over 90% since the 1960s, largely thanks to a spreading population of the foreign invading predatory American mink but also due to farming and watercourse practices. It’s been protected by the UK government since 2008. Curiously in France, farmers are campaigning against the water vole, which they say is causing crop damage.

SWT is doing its bit for water voles by trapping and destroying mink and creating new wetlands and habitat for them,

Here are some pics of the ravishing rodent

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and a video clip. Apologies to wildlife cameramen everywhere for the quality. This was strictly very impromptu amateur photography on a windy day with no monopod or tripod.