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Webs, willows and waders: a wildlife weekend in Suffolk

As summer turns to autumn in Suffolk, fen raft spiders, willow emerald damselflies, migrant waders and otters are abound.

Award-winning nature writer and author of 52 Wildlife Weekends, James Lowen scours Suffolk’s lakes, rivers and wildlife reserves for September’s most intriguing species.

You perch sedately on a wooden platform half-a-metre above a tiny peaty pool fringed by tussocky sedges. The dawn wind has abated; the Indian summer sun cossets the Suffolk air. You bask and watch. In the pool margins, one of Britain’s rarest and most remarkable predators is doing likewise.

The fen raft spider is poised, rear legs on a stem emerging from the water and front appendages caressing its surface, tiny hairs producing the tension needed to walk on water. Among Europe’s largest arachnids, 7cm from toe to toe, this is also one of the most striking, with broad white ‘go faster’ stripes directing body towards prey. This is also one of Europe’s scarcest spiders, categorised as globally threatened.

Day one: scouting the fen raft spider

Start this weekend at Suffolk’s Redgrave and Lopham Fen. From the car park, enter the picnic area then head right along ‘Spider Trail’ to the viewing platform on Middle Fen. To find the spider, scan pool edges for hunting arachnids and surrounding vegetation for nursery webs. In early September, you may find juveniles, or even a maternal female guarding her second brood.

One of Europe’s scarcest and most striking spiders © James Lowen
Listen for breeding bearded tit © James Lowen

After enjoying the spiders, or perhaps in the cooler hours before you try for them, wander the trails of this attractive reserve. Amidst England’s largest remaining river-valley fen, there are tracts of wet heathland, open water, scrub and woodland. Check the shallows of small pools near the visitor centre for great crested newtlets, which will be preparing to hibernate. Listen for the metallic message of a bearded tit, which breeds in Little Fen’s reedbeds. As you walk the marshy areas, you may flush common snipe.

Adjacent to the River Waveney in particular, you may spy a water vole munching at the foot of the lesser pond sedge. Special plants include greater bird’s foot trefoil, hemp agrimony and devil’s-bit scabious. Among the dragonflies, migrant hawker and southern hawker remain on the wing, patrolling dykes with fierce possessiveness. These attract hobbies, Britain’s sexiest falcon, which speeds past in pursuit of flying insects.

Day two: getting acquainted with damselflies and migrant waders

One particularly special dragonfly provides your next port of call. Willow emerald damselfly favour grassy vegetation and overhanging trees (often, you guessed it, willows) flanking lazy rivers, and you can visit them at one of three sites along the A14 heading coastwards.

Just downstream of Needham Market, search the bramble-strewn banks of the River Gipping, east of Alderson Lake. Or look at Alton Water, southeast of Ipswich, specifically along the footpaths leading east and west from Lemons Hill car park, and the trail leading northwest from the south of Lemons Hill Bridge.

Alternatively, visit Candlet Farm, northeast of Trimley St Mary, examining nettles along the public footpath east of the farm pond. 

Willow emerald damselfly was almost unheard of in Britain before 2009 © James Lowen

Whichever site you try, walk slowly and check vegetation. Spend the whole of the second day of your weekend at RSPB Minsmere. This gives you time to explore fully the wealth of habitats at the charity’s most famous reserve. September is slap-bang in the middle of wader migration, and the ‘Scrape’ and North Levels Wader Trail (the latter peppered with marsh mallow and tansy) should be humming with scurrying and striding shorebirds.

Among larger waders, ruff, black-tailed godwit and greenshank predominate. Smaller fry present in numbers include dunlin, ringed plover and common sandpiper. Amongst these, look carefully to pick out spotted redshank, little stint, curlew sandpiper and wood sandpiper. Amidst the flock of teal, sullenly huddling as they moult their flight feathers, there may be a clandestine garganey or two.

Keep your eyes peeled for the wasp spider © Tiraspolsky, WikiCommons

The dunes are worth a look: the odd wasp spider may still hang at the nucleus of its frizzy orb, and passage passerines may include wheatear, yellow wagtail and whinchat. For migrant warblers such as lesser whitethroat and – if the wind is easterly – something rarer like a wryneck (a ground-loving woodpecker with a reptilian demeanour), mooch around bushes near the sluice or stroll the North Bushes Trail. 

Save some time for the Reedbed Trail to look for family parties of bearded tit, and drop into Bittern Hide for a chance of the eponymous brown heron and perhaps an otter.

Practicalities

Getting Around: Redgrave and Lopham Fen is a Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve, 8km west of Diss. Leave the A1066 at Pooley Street, following Low Common Road 1km to the reserve. Intentionally disturbing fen raft spiders is illegal.

The three willow emerald damselfly sites are Alderson Lake, Alton Water and Candlet Farm. Alderson Lake is 1km east of Needham Market. Leave the A14 on the B1078 towards Needham Market. After 500m park by the River Gipping (b TM096546). Follow the footpath southeast. Search riverside vegetation beyond the lake. 

Alton Water is 8km south of Ipswich. From the A14 junction 56, head south on the A137. After 2km bear left towards Tattingstone and use Lemon Hill car park on the reservoir’s northern shore. Follow shoreline footpaths west and east. Or cross the bridge, then explore the southern shore along the footpath leading northwest. 

Candlet Farm is northeast of Trimley St Mary. From the A14/A154 roundabout, take the A154 southeast for 800m, then turn north on Gulpher Road. Park safely near the entrance to Hill House Farm, then walk west for 500m to Candlet Farm.

RSPB Minsmere is signposted from the A12 northeast of Yoxford. Leave Westleton village east on minor roads and follow signs. The Reedbed, North Levels and North Bushes trails are open seasonally, usually from early September.

Perfect Timing: Any weekend until the end September should work. Fen raft spider occurs from April to early October. Willow emerald damselfly flies July to October. Waders are best early August to end September. Otter is resident.

More information

Discover more inspiration for a wildlife weekend in the UK with James’s book, 52 Wildlife Weekends (Bradt, £14.99).

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