Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Frankenstein's Tern

There's something rather unfeasible about a Caspian Tern. It looks like it's been put together from various other parts in a rather crude manner. I'm sure that back in the mists of time, in some dark Transylvanian castle in the midst of a violent thunderstorm there was some Frankenstein creator who was piecing together various body part trying to create a super tern. "Egor, bring me the head and neck of a Greater Black-backed, the body of a Common Gull, the wings of a Skimmer and a carrot for a beak!". A crash of thunder - "it lives, it lives!" etc.

Anyway, despite their rather unbalanced look, they are highly sought after by birders, partly because of how hard they are to twitch. They're seen each year in the country but usually as fly-throughs or short stays on some muddy lake before heading off just as the hoards of twitchers arrive. To my knowledge there hasn't been one in the county or indeed anywhere near it so it's always been one of these birds that I follow on RBA from afar. Well, on Wednesday one turned up in a roost at Cheshire which was interesting but nothing more. The next evening it was there too which was unusual but still not tempting. However, on Friday it was located during the day at Rudyard Lake in Staffordshire which was just about within my twitching range. It spent the rest of the day there before returning to its usual roost site for the evening. This pattern was repeated over the weekend though there was no chance of a twitch on my part as I was down in Gosport visiting family of my VLW who'd kindly invited us to a naval ball there. 

He'd been in the navy all his life and lives and breathes sailing. They've got a lovely house by the sea there and it was fantastic to open the curtains in the morning and to be able to look out over the Solent towards the Isle of Wight. I even indulged in a spot sea watching from the comfort of the bed! On the way back we popped in to Southampton Common to look for the Red-veined Darters on the boating pond there though there was no sign of them in rather breezy conditions so I guess that they've probably moved on. As I drove back on Sunday I thought about whether I would have the energy to twitch the Caspian Tern the next day after what had been a rather tiring weekend. I decided that I should probably have a quiet day at home and then if it was still around on Tuesday I would go for it.

This resolve lasted all of one hour the next morning. The financial markets (with which my work is involved) were turgid and uninteresting, my co-worker in Denmark was away and the Tern was reported as showing first thing. I couldn't resist! I threw my gear into the car and headed off to the Midlands. According to the Sat Nav it should take a little over two hours but even going on the M6 Toll (where one can speed to one's hearts content) the last part of the journey once one got off the motorway was frustratingly slow. What's more, after the initial report at 7:15 that morning there was ominous radio silence regarding the Tern and I stared to entertain some doubts. Fortunately towards the end of the trip there was the reassuring sound of a positive RBA text coming through and I could relax. Finally after more than two hours and twenty minutes I arrived at the rather pot-holed track that lead to the car park. A quick five minute walk down the path and I found the gang of twitchers all watching something in the air in the distance. A twitcher's worst nightmare - the target bird had just flown up and was down at the other end of the lake with a bunch of Black-headed Gulls. Fortunately that carrot beak was useful for picking it out and I managed to find it in the air before it landed out of sight behind a spit. At least I'd seen it but it had been a long drive for thirty seconds of distant flight views.

No one else of the dozen or so birders there had seen it land apart from me so I started to get ready to slog down to the other end to see if I could find it when suddenly someone picked it out flying back towards us. Hoorah! It landed back where apparently it had been all morning on the dried up lake bed near the inlet stream. There it stayed happily loafing for the next hour that I was there whilst I busied myself taking photos and video and munching on my lunch.

All jokes about its proportions aside, it was a gorgeous great hulk of a tern with an unfeasibly huge bill, a bull neck to support it and long large wings. It dwarfed the surrounding Black-headed Gulls and in flight had a large ponderous flight with only a marginally notched tail. It was apparently a first summer bird which accounted for the reduced black markings on it's head.

Frankenstein's Caspian Tern

Here is some video footage of it for good measure.

Some video of the beast

Whilst I was there Roger Carrington, whom I'd met last autumn down at Cornwall, turned up. This was fairly local for him but apparently he'd been abroad and had been sweating it until today when he got back. We had a bit of a chat before he hurried off to catch up with what had been going on at his local patch.

After a while I'd had my fill and with the prospect of a long drive back I headed back to the car. On the drive back I went through a torrential downpour which, when it reached the Tern must have pushed it off because it was last reported at Rudyard Lake at 2:15 pm when it headed off North. It was seen that evening at the usual roost though apparently it left before dark, flying high to the North East. At the time of writing this the next day there is no sign of it so that it looks like, just as for the Pacific Golden Plover, I've managed to see the bird on its last day. I don't know if there is some kind of extra kudos for doing this. It's like my friend at college who was cruising for a first in Mathematics at Oxford University but then did no work at all in his final term so he just managed to get the lowest first in his entire year, very cool! Anyway, I am just delighted to have managed to see (and to have seen well) what is normally such an untwitchable species.

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Rutland Plover

I had been thinking that at this time of year there wouldn't be much to see on the bird front. Instead there has been a surprising number of good birds in June and July though as usual most of them have been too far away to tempt me. However when a Pacific Golden Plover turned up at Rutland Water in Leicestershire it certainly piqued my interest. After all it was certainly within my self-imposed two hour limit (more a guideline these days actually) and as inland occurrences of this species are very unusual it got my attention. It was found on Monday where it spent most of the day in view but disappeared on Tuesday until the evening when it turned up again. After a full day's showing on Wednesday I felt that it was now nicely "bedded down" and ripe for a visit. Accordingly on Thursday morning after dropping off my eldest daughter at the coach station and attending my son's school assembly I was finally free to set off just before 11am. I managed successfully to navigate myself there without the aid of the Sat Nav and so it was that at a little before 1pm I pulled up at the Rutland Water car park. I paid the (rather steep) £5.50 fee for a permit and headed off in the searing heat on the twenty minute walk to Heron hide where the bird had taken up residence. It had last been reported on RBA as still present just as I had arrived so I was pretty confident that I was going to score. In the heat and carrying all my clobber I couldn't walk too quickly but at a steady pace I eventually arrived at the hide.

This was located in a wooded section so mercifully was nice and cool. There weren't actually that many people there - I'd passed quite a few coming the other way who'd already paid homage to the bird so there was plenty of space and I soon found a seat. The bird was located about 150 yards away sitting with some lapwings on the stone bund that had been constructed to form a shallow lagoon from the bay. I immediately got to work trying to photograph and video it though the heat haze was clearly going to be the main issue. After less than ten minutes the bird suddenly flew up though fortunately it didn't go very far and had only moved to the far shoreline opposite the hide to feed. There is stayed for the rest of the time that I was there, again a good 150 yards away, into the sun and often partially hidden in grass. The views were perfectly acceptable and you could see all salient features but from a photographic point of view it was always going to be rather difficult. The most striking thing about the bird was how "leggy" it was. If this was a woman you'd talk about legs that went on for ever - in some senses it looked more like a proper wader rather than a plover. It had much coarser back spangling than our Golden Plovers, a white border to the black breast that went all down the side and unlike an American GP not much primary projection. But just on it's legginess you couldn't mistake it for anything else - very striking!

The bird on the stone bund...

...and on the far shore - just look at those legs! 

I can't tell you how pleased I am with these shots which just shows how tough photographic conditions were. There was a lot of post-processing involved to get even these two shots.

This is the best I could manage on the video front, not very good I'm afraid

I passed the next hour and a half taking periodic snaps and video, more in hope than expectation and munching on my lunch that I'd bought en route. In between shots I would survey the general area. In the distance I could see the Osprey nest and indeed there were a couple of fledged Ospreys hanging out on some bare branches nearby waiting to be fed. A parent bird would occasionally fly past on a hunting trip. A Common Sandpiper flew by, calling, and landed on the shore a bit further up. There were lots of Starlings and Lapwings working their way along the near shore. All in all a very peaceful scene.

The view from the Heron hide

An obliging Lapwing

Eventually it was time to leave so I wandered back along the heat-seared path to the sanctuary of the air-conditioned Gnome mobile. Then it was back on the road heading for home. At Northampton where one normally does a one-junction hop along the M1, traffic was backing all the way up to the slip road. Having been caught out by this in the past I made a detour and went on the A508 towards Milton Keynes before nipping through Blisworth village to get back to the A43 - a very nice little detour which I shall certainly remember in future should I find myself in a similar situation. I arrived back at Chateau Gnome for a reviving cup of tea at around 5pm, very pleased with my visit.

Here's the best photo of the bird that I could find on the internet, taken by Richard Bayldon © and displayed on the Leicestershire & Rutland Ornithological Society web-site from which I pulled this copy (there are some other excellent photos of it on that site). I can only assume that that bird was briefly on the near shore when this was taken. You can see all the salient features: the coarse back spangling, the legginess and the white breast border that goes all the way down (on AGP it stops at the shoulder). A stunning bird!

As I write this the following morning the bird is being reported as "no sign" so I'd seen it just in time which was fortunate. Also it means that it can now relocate to somewhere like Otmoor. Now wouldn't that be something!

Monday, 15 July 2013

South Oxon Hairstreaks & Damselflies

One of the few of the county's butteflies that I've yet to see is White-letter Hairstreak. To my knowledge they can only be found down in the southern end of the county so I'd been meaning to take a trip down there some time over the next couple of weeks - in fact I'd even made a tentative arrangement with Peter Law and Ewan Urquhart to look for them this week. Then my younger daughter reminded me that she was going to Devon to stay with a school friend for a few days and could I give her a lift to the station. She would have to take the train from Oxford to Reading where she would change for a west-bound train. My scheming brain started to whirr into action as Reading station is only a few minutes from the Hairstreak location. I nobly offered to give her a lift to Reading so should wouldn't have to worry about changing trains etc and even took Luke with me too so my VLW, who unfortunately is rather poorly at present, could have some time on her own for rest and recuperation.

Thus it was that at around 8:45 on Sunday morning we set off in the car for Reading. Fortunately there was little traffic and we arrived in good time. Daughter no. 2 was safely seen off and then we headed back the way we'd come to the Hairstreak spot. It was getting on for 10 am now though fortunately it wasn't too hot yet. The key spot turned out to be a hedge of mixed trees including the all-important Elms (which were relatively small in size) and with some nice in-flower Bramble at the end. I wandered around staring upwards as you do for Hairstreaks and fortunately within about half an hour managed to spot one nectaring on the Bramble flower. It looked remarkably similar to the Black Hairstreaks that I'd been watching a few weeks earlier with John Chapple et al. but of course missing the diagnostic black dots of that species. I took plenty of snaps with my super-zoom until it flew off into the tree-tops.

White-letter Hairstreak

As Luke was getting impatient by this stage I decided to spend a bit of time doing what he enjoys which is rummaging around at low level for bugs, butterflies and moths. In a narrow bit of un-mown grass nearby we found all sorts of goodies including a Yellow Shell moth, a Soldier Beetle, loads of Ringlets and Meadow Browns and an accommodating Six-spot Burnett that sat on his finger quite happily for five minutes whilst he wandered around looking at things.

Yellow Shell



Luke's Burnett finger moth

After a while we decided to head on to a second destination which I'd lined up, namely a stroll along the river at Cholsey to see if I could find any White-legged Damselflies. Ferry Lane appeared to be rather busy with every man and his dog seemingly out on the river today, either swimming, boating or fishing a fishing match. This last event was particularly annoying as it meant that lots of the decent spots where I wanted to look for damselflies were taken up with anglers. Still Luke and I wandered along the bank to see what we could find. For the most part this turned out to be Banded Demoiselles - there were dozens of these delightful insects darting here and there where ever you looked. There were a few Azure's about as well, quite a few Brown Hawkers and a couple of Black-tailed Skimmers. We loafed around in one of the pretties spots and I took some snaps.

Banded Demoiselles

Try as I might though I couldn't turn up any White-legged at all. In the end we gave up and wandered back to the car. I drove to a local convenience store where I got Luke the ice cream which I'd promised him earlier as inducement to come on the walk. We then headed for home, glad to be out of the heat finally but having enjoyed a very pleasant morning admiring the insect world.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Sultry Somerset

I'd been keeping an eye on reports from Somerset of late. The breeding Little Bitterns there at Ham Wall RSPB had piqued my interest but this fact on it's own wasn't quite enough to entice me westwards. However, whilst idly reading the Collard Hill Large Blue blog I realised that the two sites were very close to each other and this dual attraction was enough to tip the balance for an official Gnome outing. With the plan hatched I had been meaning to go Wednesday of last week but work and tiredness between them contrived to intervene so it wasn't until Monday morning that operation Blue Bittern got underway. Given how hot it was going to be, I probably should have got up much earlier than my chosen 6am time in order to do as much as possible before the full heat of the day but I find that too early a start  leaves me too tired to enjoy the day properly. Thus it was that at about 9:30 I arrived at Ham Wall RSPB and parked up.

The last time that I'd been there had been in March this year when I stopped off en route to Cornwall for the Pied Grebe. The contrast in the weather could not be more complete: whereas then we were in the grips of an unusually cold and prolonged winter complete with an icy wind, today it was full-on sunshine, a hazy blue sky with just the lightest of breezes to take the edge off the heat. As I walked down the path Chiffchaffs were singing away merrily and there was a buzz of summer insects in the air. I had been thinking that the Little Bittern Watch Point referred to in the regular RBA news reports would be some kind of boardwalk or screen affair but in reality it turned out just to be a bloke on a ladder next to a portable sign about Little Bitterns.

The Watch Point

An enquiry of the official observer on the ladder revealed that there'd been eight sightings so far that morning in about two and a half hours so with any luck I shouldn't have too long to wait. I set up my scope though soon realised that it wasn't going to be much use. Apparently the flight views were brief so getting a good bin view was going to be the best I could hope for. I started watching the reedbed intently with the dozen or so other birders there. 

I soon started to appreciate just how hot it was - it was sweltering. A Common Tern flew by, offering some distraction and a couple of Cormorants did an overhead circuit. I adopted the tactic of leaning on my scope and not moving at all in order to keep cool, all the time keeping my eyes fixed on the reedbed in front of us. Periodically the breeze would start up to take the edge off things but it was really roasting. A Kingfisher was spotted nearby on a branch by the water and a Great White Egret flew over. A Eurasian Bittern flew over the reeds - nice but not the Bittern we were looking for. Somehow, despite the temperature I managed to keep my gaze fixed purposefully on the reedbed before us.

The Little Bittern Reedbed

Suddenly I spotted something which flew up from the reeds and over into the central channel. I only saw it for a fraction of a second but the pale shoulder marks were unmistakably those of a Little Bittern. It had been all been over so quickly that I hadn't even had time to call it out before it was gone. I carried on watching and the sun carried on beating down. About ten minutes later I picked up a Little Bittern again, this time flying just above the reeds away from us. I called it out and everyone managed to get on it. We watched it as it sped to the back of the reedbed and dropped down to where the nest was apparently located - it had all been over in about 10 seconds. The chap next to me who'd arrived just before me, thanked me profusely for spotting the bird - he'd been worried that he wasn't going to see it. Well, that was probably going to be as good a view as I was going to get. Thinking about what to do next I was all too aware that Badger, who'd been there yesterday for the Little Bitterns and who'd then gone on to Collard Hill (at my suggestion), had dipped the Large Blue butterflies in the afternoon. Like birds, butterflies prefer the mornings too so rather than hang around getting roasted for a few more brief views I decided to stick with my two sightings and head back to the car. This would then give me a more time with the butterflies in the late morning before the day got even hotter.

It was a very quick ten minute drive to get to the Collard Hill car park by the Street youth hostel where some helpful signs soon guided me to the hill itself. En route I met a few departing butterfly'ers who all reported having had several sightings of the elusive Large Blue though in the heat they were mostly fly-by's rather than settled sightings. The hill turned out to be a steep, south-facing chalk hillside with some light scrub and relatively short grass interspersed with lovely wild flowers.

Collard Hill

There were perhaps ten or so other people there dotted about the place and I kept half an eye on them all the time in case they started looking like they were photographing something. After a while I came across a couple of elderly gents getting in position ready to try and photograph a sitting Large Blue. For some reason the chap was insisting on a point-blank macro shot and unfortunately the butterfly was disturbed and flew off before anyone could get a photo. Still, at least I'd seen one. I wandered all the way to the east end and then started to head back. I soon came across a gaggle of butterfly'ers all gathered around what turned out to be a mating pair of Large Blues. The butterflies were so engrossed in their amorous activities that they were completely oblivious to their observers and everyone was able to have a go at some photos. A third Large Blue even flew in and tried to join in briefly before flying off. As far as the photography was concerned there was the usual problem with the autofocus but with a large F stop and by locking on something of similar distance I managed to get a few in-focus shots.

Mating Large Blues

Having accomplished my mission I started to amble back towards the car park, stopping en route by a chap was trying to photograph something. It turned out to be a pair of mating Crescent Plume moths, a common species though a new one for me personally.

Mating Crescent Plume Moths

On the way back to the car park I got chatting to another butterfly'er who turned out to be from St Austell in Cornwall. We got talking and when I said that I was from Oxford he mentioned his Cornish friend who'd driven all the way up there for the Black Hairstreaks recently. Of course it turned out that he was talking about John Chapple, whom I'd met up with that day at Bernwood Forest for the Black Hairstreaks - what a small world!

Back at the car I hungrily devoured my packed lunch before firing up the Gnome-mobile and heading back home, arriving back at Chateau Gnome about 3pm. Another successful mission accomplished and some good stuff seen on a hot and sultry summer's day.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Fen Dragons

In the summer doldrums I like to pass the time in getting to know the rich variety of insect life that abounds in our country. Butterflies, moths, dragonflies and damselflies are all of interest to me and (dare I say it) I'm even keeping lists for all of these - it gives one the prospect of a "tick hit" in what would otherwise be a lean time of the year. This also means that one gets to visit lots of different type of habitat and locations in pursuit of these insects. There is one particular type of habitat, namely alkaline fen, which only occurs in one place within the county and this of course attracts it's own particular specialist species including some dragonflies and damselflies that aren't found anywhere else within the county. The Cothill Fen, is apparently the largest surviving area of alkaline fen in central England. It is fed by underground springs from underlying limestone which gives the water it the alkalinity and ensures that the fen remains wet all year round. Fens differ from bogs in that the spring source water runs off so it is constantly flowing whereas a bog consists of accumulated stagnant rain water. In effect a fen is like an extremely shallow marshy stream. Three reserves help to preserve this rare habitat: Dry Sandford Pit, Parsonage Moor and Cothill Fen NR. Given how sunny and hot the weather was, I thought that it was about time that I visited this unique area and caught up with the specialist dragonflies and damselflies that inhabit it. Therefore it was that on swelteringly hot Sunday morning, with Luke (my seven year old son) in tow, I set off for Dry Sandford Pit.
Some interesting info about the habitat and the reserves

The first problem was to locate the pool itself within the nature reserve: Luke and I wandered about a bit without any luck before I decided to give Badger a call. He confessed that on a previous visit he'd never managed to find the pool either but fortunately Peter Law knew where it was and a call to him soon put me straight. A few minutes walk and we were surveying the area of rushes with a thin clear trickle of spring-fed water running through it in what are called runnels if I remember correctly. I wished that I'd brought wellies instead of my walking boots though fortunately Luke was properly equipped. We soon found a couple of Keeled Skimmers and several blue damselflies that turned out to the Southern Damselflies (a specialist for the area), two of the species that I was after.

Of course trying to photograph them was quite a problem as the autofocus struggled to lock on to the insect perched up on the top of a reed but instead kept picking out the background. As the light was so good (so lots of shutter speed to spare) I cranked the F stop right up to increase the depth of field and by locking the focus on things that were the same distance away (often my hand when all else failed) I was able to get some passably in-focus shots with the super-zoom.

Keeled Skimmer

Southern Damselflies

Next it was on to Parsonage Moor which was a much larger and more reedy area though again with runnels running through it and a few boggy pools. By the largest pool there were at least four Broad-bodies Chasers and a couple of Keeled Skimmers. Further round we found several more Keeled, a pair of Large Red Damsels and another Southern Damsel. We also disturbed a small Grass Snake which Luke got very excited about - he had been rather bored on the trip so far and kept asking when we were going home but the snake he found very interesting.

Teneral female Keeled Skimmer
Mating Keeled Skimmers
Large Red Damsels
Southern Damsel - the black pattern on S2 and the two blue stripes between the ocular spots help clinch the ID for males

Finally to Cothill Fen which was a know area for Small Red Damselflies and we soon found quite a few of them in amongst the boggy grass.

Small Red Damsels - unlike Large Reds, these lake the black markings on 
the lower abdomen and the large red antehumeral stripes.

So I'd managed to catch up with all the expected alkaline fen species. However, by now the heat was getting to us so we wandered back to the comfort of the air-conditioned car and headed back home, very pleased with our visit.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Black Hairstreak Hunting

I got an e-mail from Cornish birder John Chapple (see his great blog here) a few weeks ago. I've got to know him over the last few years from my regular trips down there. Indeed I first met him when he and I co-found a Greenish Warbler at Treve Common, shortly before John came up with a Melodious Warbler in the same ditch. As well as birds, John is very much into the butterflies and dragonflies (a direction I am clearly following as well) and he was very keen to see Black Hairstreak, which he'd not seen before. Here in Oxon we're blessed with several great sites for this rare butterfly close at hand so I gave him some details but told him that, like everything else, they seemed to be running several weeks late this year. Last weekend the first Black Hairstreaks were seen so it was that he decided to come up this Sunday to have a crack at them and I arranged to meet up with him to show him where they were.

Sunday dawned and he'd clearly managed to jam in on some great butterfly weather with some good periods of sun forecast for the middle of the afternoon. He was driving up from Cornwall that morning but managed to make good time so I was rather caught on the back foot and left the house rather later than I should have done. We rendezvous'd at Bernwood Forest car park at around 10:30 a.m. where he and his party had been waiting a little while. Also with him was his partner Kate Jones (a Cornish wildlife photographer - see her great blog here) and Paul Browning (I hope I've correctly remembered his surname) a very keen Cornish butterfly enthusiast. I said my apologies and we set off on the long walk down to the mysteriously-named M40 Compensation Area. En route there was little of note apart from a Ringlet and a few Large Skippers. The last part of the walk is somewhat off piste though fortunately, having been there last year I was able to guide the party straight there.

The Comp Area is a great bit of habitat though in a terrible location, being literally right next to the noisy M40. Indeed the best butterfly sites there are right next to the motorway itself so it's far from tranquil. Inside the Area there were a few other people and it wasn't long before we'd at least had our first sightings of the elusive Black Hairstreak though they were brief and rather high up. The weather was perfect and it was warming up all the time and as we worked at it we were rewarded with progressively better and better views. Paul turned out to be a bit of a butterfly whisperer and had a great knack for turning up ones resting low down and offering easy views. Unfortunately I soon discovered that my super-zoom camera battery was flat and I didn't seem to have a spare with me (most careless) so I had to resort to my old Panasonic Lumix Point & Shoot which I mostly use for my mothing these days. Still the light was perfect and though the zoom was a measly 12x I managed some acceptable shots in the circumstances.

Laying an egg!

There were also plenty of other buggy wonders to delight in, including various moths and damselflies.

Beautiful Demoiselle

Garden Grass Veneer


As the day wore on more and more people turned up and it became a bit of a bun fight at the top hot spots where by now they were showing every few minutes and nectaring on the privet blossom. Ewan Urquhart arrived and we had a natter. Apparently Badger was also on his way but he'd got lost in the woods. He called me up and I gave him directions though they obviously weren't good enough because a while later he called again, lost on the final off piste section and we had to send out a search party to bring him in.

Badger and John are both into making videos and once I'd introduced them they soon started talking shop. Meanwhile, Lissie (Badger's better half) showed me some great insect binoculars she had which can focus down to 50 cm - they were really good and Lissie suggested that Luke (my seven year old) might be interested in a pair. After a while I decided that I'd had my fill so I said my farewells and wandered back to the car with a just a couple of Broad-bodies Chasers of note on the way back. 

From left to right Kate, John, Badger, Ewan and Lissie

You couldn't really have asked for a better day of Black Hairstreak hunting: in glorious weather and great company we'd had several dozen sightings of who knows how many individuals. A grand day out!

I leave you with some superb video shot by John Chapple (c) (see his youTube channel & his blog).

...and a shot by Kate Jones (c) - more on her blog here.