War­blers, wolves and li­ons

When it comes to wildlife Dun­wich Heath is the place to find the bright and beau­ti­ful as well as the weird and won­der­ful

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: Jayne Lindill

Ex­plor­ing the won­ders of NT Dun­wich Heath

We’re sit­ting in the Look­out at the Coast­guard Cot­tages at Dun­wich Heath, above the Na­tional Trust’s de­light­ful tea­rooms, with 270° views that take in the North Sea (blue on a sunny day like this one), the cliffs and beach stretch­ing into the dis­tance and heather covered hin­ter­land as far as the eye can see. I can’t take my eyes off it.

Head ranger Richard Gil­bert, how­ever, sit­ting op­po­site me, can’t take his at­ten­tion off a nifty lit­tle gad­get he’s try­ing to con­nect to his iPad. “It’s a bat de­tec­tor,” he says, as if re­veal­ing his favourite Christ­mas present. “It’s bril­liant.” I haven’t come to talk about bats – or per­haps I have. Richard’s the expert, af­ter all, who’s go­ing to tell me what to look for at this time of year at Dun­wich Heath. That means Dart­ford war­blers, antlions, bee­wolves and night­jars. The Dart­ford war­bler ex­cepted, they’re a pretty spooky bunch of crea­tures, so why not add bats to the list? The de­tec­tor is for the ben­e­fit of Richard’s next meet­ing with some­one who re­ally knows her bats, but he’s keen to show me how it works. In fact, it iden­ti­fies bats by pick­ing up the ra­dio fre­quen­cies of the cries par­tic­u­lar to their var­i­ous species. At Dun­wich this is most likely to be serotines, pip­istrelles and noc­tules, and the best time for see­ing them is July and Au­gust. So, yes, let’s add bats to the list.

We head out for a walk on

the heath with Richard’s serene lurcher, Ghost, in tow, on the lead at this time of year, of course, to avoid dis­turb­ing nest­ing birds. We’re barely out of the car park and de­scend­ing a sandy path be­fore Richard stops to point out an area that is home to a colony of bee­wolves. There’s noth­ing to see – yet – so I have to take his word for it, but come July the bee­wolves will emerge to breed and nest in what is an as­ton­ish­ing life cy­cle. The bee­wolf is a dig­ger wasp that spe­cialises in catch­ing honey bees and stock­ing its larder with them as a food source for its young. Fe­males dig a tun­nel up to a me­tre long in soil or sand, ex­ca­vat­ing up to 30 lit­tle cham­bers and stock­ing each one with up to four paral­ysed bees and a sin­gle bee wolf egg. Paralysing rather than killing the bees means they stay fresher and more nu­tri­tious for longer. The fe­male bee­wolf also coats the bees and the walls of each cell with an anti-fun­gal sub­stance, a strep­to­mycin type bac­te­rial se­cre­tion which is ab­sorbed by the lar­vae, pro­tect­ing it while it feeds and pu­pates over winter, un­til it emerges the fol­low­ing spring. Bee­wolves, it seems to me, have a lot to teach us.

We press on. We’re look­ing for signs of antlions and soon Richard spots them – dozens of tiny ‘pits’, con­i­cal in­den­ta­tions in the warm sand at the edge of the path. Antlions are beau­ti­ful lacewing in­sects. Un­like bee­wolves they make no cater­ing ar­range­ments for their lar­vae, which have to do their own hunt­ing by wait­ing at the bot­tom of the pit for some­thing edi­ble to fall in, such as an ant. When it does, they in­ject it with poi­son which liqui­fies it, and they suck up the re­mains. A sort of in­sect juice bar. Some­times the lar­vae move to new hunt­ing grounds and new pits. Even­tu­ally, they pu­pate, and af­ter three years, pull them­selves out of the pits, emerg­ing as adults, a much more beau­ti­ful in­car­na­tion of the fe­ro­cious lar­vae they once were.

We’re run­ning out of time, so we take a short cut back to the car park, look­ing for Dart­ford war­blers (we spot one) and roost­ing night­jars (no luck) on the way. Dart­ford war­blers are de­light­ful lit­tle birds and Dun­wich Heath has a healthy pop­u­la­tion of 25-30 pairs which ar­rive from Africa each year to breed. The gorse pro­vides them with a rich source of in­sects and spi­ders for food, and the heather is per­fect for nest­ing. The best time to see and hear them is early-ish morn­ing when they’re quite vo­cal.

The strange and won­der­ful night­jar is more elu­sive by day, as its name sug­gests. The best way to see it? “In a book,” quips Richard. In truth, at dusk and dawn, you’re more likely to hear them than see them. They’re well cam­ou­flaged but the dis­tinc­tive chirring is un­mis­tak­able. Dun­wich Heath has a strong pop­u­la­tion of seven or eight pairs, so keep your eyes peeled and ears tuned and you could get lucky.

The best way to see a night­jar? “In a book,” quips Richard

ABOVE: Dun­wich Heath TOP RIGHT: Night­jar BOT­TOM RIGHT: Ant-lion at Bawd­sey Hall

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