Thursday, 21 July 2016

New Forest Frolics - the Sublime and the Tortuous

In my last post I was banging on about not seeing Scarce Blue-tailed Damselflies. Since then I'd been thinking that perhaps I ought to make the effort to go and see them properly at a site where they can reliably seen. To this end I started browsing and making enquiries and managed to get some reasonably good gen on a site in the New Forest for them. I was putting the finishing touches to my plans when Peter Law got in touch saying that he'd in fact been to see them at the weekend there and would be happy to go again as a guide. This seemed like a reasonable plan so despite the fact that we would be out in some remote heathland on what was forecast to be about the hottest day of the year, we decided to go ahead and so it was that at 8:30 a.m. I picked Peter up from the Redbridge Park and Ride at the southern end of Oxford and we headed off south down the A34. 

The New Forest - classic heathland habitat

The journey itself was uneventful and we eventually pulled up in a small car park on the edge of a large expanse of heathland next to a small stream. Given the hot sunny conditions, I smothered myself in sun cream and made sure I was well covered up whereas Peter went for a more light-weight clothing option. We set off along the banks of the stream, soon spotting our first Golden-ringed Dragonfly and a Broad-bodied Chaser. Beautiful Demoiselle flitted along the banks and the odd small trout would scurry away up the shallow stream as we approached. After some twenty minutes or so of walking we crossed the stream and soon found a boggy flush with a small stream running through it. There was lots of Marsh St. John's Wort growing as well as Round-leaved Crowsfoot, Bog Pondweed, Water Purslane and Water Starwort. Almost immediately we spotted a male Damselfly which did indeed turn out to be a Scarce Blue-tailed - result! The diagnostic blue tail pattern was in marked contrast to that of a Common Blue-tailed and in the flesh they were easy to tell apart. We set about taking some pictures though I had to discard a load of them until I finally thoroughly checked by camera settings and realised that they were completely wrong. Eventually things were working properly and I was able to get some shots.


Lots of Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly photos

Having been there a few days previously, Peter was soon content and sat down in the sun to wait for me to finish. I had a good explore all around the bog and managed to turn up quite a few Keeled Skimmers and some Small Red Damsels as well as a couple of Common Darters but surprisingly, apart from the one area where we'd started off, I couldn't find any more Scarce Blue-tails at all. No matter, we'd seen what we'd come for and seen it well. Time to move on.

Small Red Damsel

Keeled Skimmers
The second part of the plan was more speculative. Over at the other end of this large heathland area there was a known hot spot for Common (or more accurately Moorland) Hawker. Peter had visited the area previously and we thought that we'd try to find the area again. Normally Peter comes in from the other direction so we were hoping that we'd be able to find the area which consisted of some rather small now-flooded old bomb craters (from days when they used to carry out munitions testing on the heath). The obvious way to get there was to head along the stream and then pick up one of the main pathways there but we in our foolishness (I think that it was largely my idea) decided to head across country instead. This turned out to be a long and very tortuous slog through lots of bog. There were some compensations in that we saw lots of Silver-studded Blues and at one point when we were crossing a stream Peter thought that he saw a female Common Hawker fly past though he later decided that it might have been a Golden-ringed. Eventually we made it on to the main path and from then on our progress was a lot quicker. We heard a Tree Pipit and saw a pair of Wood Lark as we slogged our way on in the heat but apart from that it was rather quiet.

A mating pair of Silver-studded Blues

There were lots of Stonechats about
Round-leaved Sundew - a carnivorous plants that traps insects in its sticky "dew"

Eventually we descended into a wood and finally came to a place where a stream crossed the path. At this point we turned off and followed the stream until we came to a large boggy expanse. This was supposed to be the area we were looking for but the trouble was that Peter didn't recognise it at all. We floundered around in the bog and eventually located one large bomb crater pond that was occupied by a male Emperor that saw off any interlopers very quickly. One or two other large dragonflies did try to access the pond but were chased off so quickly that it was impossible to see what they actually were. In the end Peter headed off to the shade of some trees to have his packed lunch and eventually I joined him. We were both rather disconsolate at having slogged our way across difficult terrain for a good couple of hours only not to find the correct location. I got out my iPhone and checked some recent e-mails where I'd asked someone for advice on where to go in this area. It turned out that according to this other person's advice we should be a bit further north. We decided to head over in that direction to see if we could find an area that Peter would recognise.

Bog Pimpernel
Lesser Skullcap

The journey was fairly straight-forward until we came to a very boggy stream area which we needed to traverse. It took quite a bit of trial and error before we were able to find a way across and there was a fair bit of cursing and nearly falling over on both our parts. Eventually we made it over and Peter thought that this new area looked more promising. We headed around some trees looking out carefully for these mythical craters but all to no avail. When we found ourselves back at the start of a boggy area Peter decided that he really didn't know where these wretched craters were and metaphorically threw his hands in the air. "Let's work our way back along this area here that we've not yet walked and if we still can't find them we'll give up" I suggested. We'd walked for no more than a couple of minutes when we came across a nice pool. What's more there were several more right next to that one. "This is it!" Peter declared - we'd at last found the bomb craters! Now that I'd seen them in the flesh I realised that from just a short distance away you couldn't tell that they were there so you really needed to know where to go or you would miss them completely as we so nearly had.

Heath Speedwell

Having found the craters we enthusiastically went back and forth between them, looking out for the tell-tale jizz of a Hawker. One of the better looking ponds housed an Emperor and another had a Four-spotted Chaser and there were a few Common Blue Damsels and quite a lot of  Emerald Damsels but no Hawkers. Time passed and our enthusiasm started to wane. Peter went for a lie down in the sun and I kept on searching but eventually, with time marching on and conscious of the very long walk back to the car we had to give up. 

Ovipositing Emperor

Tattered Four-spot

I decided to take charge of the map reading on the way back and soon navigated us back onto a main track. For speed of walking I took us along a large wide track that ran along the ridge of the whole area and it was easy going though we were both by now very tired from being out in the strength-sapping heat all day. We found a family flock of Wood Larks and spotted the occasional Golden-ringed Dragonfly but apart from that the journey was uneventful. A little over an hour later we were back at the car, both exhausted from all that slogging around in the heat. We de-tooled and I cranked the air con up to 11 as we set off, stopping for some cold drinks at the first petrol station. There was a lot of traffic on the roads now as it was the rush hour though thankfully all the jams were in the other direction and it didn't take us any longer than usual to get back to Oxford. At the Park and Ride we parted company and I headed home to Casa Gnome for a shower and then a well-deserved cup of tea. 

There was lots of St. John's Wort at nearly every pool
Common Milkwort
Looking back on the trip, much of it was excellent, especially seeing Scarce Blue-tailed Damselflies so easily. There were also lots of lovely heathland and bog plants that I'd papped en passant which had been great to see. It was just a shame that the journey to locate the bomb craters had been so tortuous and so unfruitful. Peter said that it was the first time that he'd been to that site and not seen any Common Hawkers so we could only presume that perhaps it was a bit early in the season for them. Whether I could countenance another trip to the area again any time soon remains to be seen - it may have all been too much for me! 

A final Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Pratting About at Ham Wall

After my successful butterfly outing last week I was more or less assuming that things would be rather quiet for a while until autumn proper kicked off. However at the start of this week the finding of a Collard Pratincole at Ham Wall RSPB in Somerset got my attention as it's a bird that I've not yet seen in the UK. What's more Ham Wall isn't too far away at around 2.5 hours so it was certainly on the radar. It seemed to be being reported regularly throughout the whole of Monday so when I found myself finishing off all my work tasks for the day first thing on Tuesday morning, a bijou tripette to the south west seemed suitable reward and I duly set off at around 9:40 a.m. arriving as predicted some two and a half hours later after an uneventful journey. I parked up in the new car park, admiring the wealth of wild flowers that have been planted there and got tooled up. The weather forecast had been threatening showers so in the end I packed a rucksack with extra waterproof clothing which, along with my scope & tripod and also my bins and cameras and packed lunch meant that I was rather over-burdened as I headed off. Near the start of the path I met with an RSPB volunteer who informed me that the bird was showing well and he also told me where to go for the singing Little Bitterns which were also present on the reserve. When I asked about dragonflies he told me of all the different species that they had there including Keeled Skimmer and Scarce Chaser which I was rather impressed by. He even mentioned that someone had reported seeing a Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly in the pools behind the car park which very much piqued my interest and I made a mental note to allow some time to take a closer look after I'd seen the birds.

I yomped off as best I could given all I was carrying and soon met up with a birder from Bath who was heading the same way. We got talking and since my VLW and I idly discuss the idea of moving further west from time to time, I was asking him about good birding spots in the area. He seemed happy enough with what was available though he didn't reveal any great birding secrets that I didn't already know of. After about 15 or so minutes of walking, with just a fly-over Hobby of interest, we came to the second viewing screen. Here, much to my delight, the Pratincole was immediately on view, hawking back and forth over the pool on the opposite side of the Gloucester Canal and showing very nicely. It was in amongst a small flock of Swifts and with its rakish shape and long forked tail it very much looked like an over-sized Hirundine of some sort. It's tail streamers were nice and long and it had an obvious contrast between the paler back and coverts compared to the darker flight feathers though against the light sky it wasn't so easy to pick out the chestnut underwing or the white trailing edge to the secondaries.

The favoured pool
Twitchers watching the Pratincole
I attempted to take a photograph though bridge cameras aren't particularly good at flight shots and I soon gave up.

My puny efforts

An amazing photo of the bird taken by Timothy White (c). For more fantastic photos see his great blog
The bird seemed to have a pattern of flying around for a bit before settling down on a favoured bund which unfortunately was mostly obscured behind some inconvenient rushes though I did manage to scope it on the ground on one or two occasions. In addition to the star turn there were a couple of Great White Egrets knocking around and I managed to spot an in-flight Bittern in the distance. I'd been told that there were a pair of Glossy Ibis about though there was no sign of them presently. I enjoyed several more views of the Pratincole flying around regularly and in the warm afternoon weather it was all very pleasant. After a while I decided to move on to see what was happening at the Little Bittern location and duly set off, munching a sandwich as I went.

It was fairly obvious where the Little Bitterns were located as, after a walk of about 10 or 15 minutes, I came across a large crowd (at least as large as those watching the Pratincole) all intently staring at the reed beds. I could hear one Little Bittern barking in the distance and tried to take some video though unfortunately the song was barely audible. Apparently, the last sighting had been at 7:30 a.m. despite the number of people all watching there so it was clearly a hard job actually to see one and as I'd already seen one in the UK (here at Ham Wall as it happened when they bred a few years ago) I decided not to hang around but instead headed back towards the Pratincole at the second viewing platform.

I arrived back to find that the Pratincole was on one of its rest breaks but that the two Glossy Ibis were now on show which was a nice bonus and I took a few record snaps.

The two Glossy Ibis
Having now seen or at least heard all the rarities on offer (Pratincole, Great White Egret, Little Bittern and Glossy Ibis) I decided to head back to the car park to dump most of my stuff and then spend my remaining time rummaging around the car park ponds to see if I could find these Scarce Blue-tailed Damsels. On the way I took snaps of any interesting flowers though much of the flora was starting to look rather tired: the plentiful Hemlock was going over, to be replaced by Hogweed and there was quite a bit of Tufted Vetch and Meadow Vetchling in amongst the Nettles and I found a few Marsh Woundwort dotted about here and there.

Tufted Vetch

Marsh Woundwort

When I was almost back at the car I bumped into Dave Chown, whom I know well from my autumn Cornish birding trips. He was there to pay homage to the first Collard Pratincole in Somerset since 1858 and we chatted amiably for a while before going out separate ways. Back at the car I dumped most of my gear and headed back to check out the ponds. There were three small ponds, two which had quite a few reeds and one which was more open. There were loads of dragonflies buzzing around, mostly on the open one with several Emperors, a Brown Hawker, loads of Four-spotted Chasers, a few Black-tailed Skimmers and Common Darters all to be seen. The ponds were nice and small and there was easy access along the sides and I decided that it was one of the nicest spots I've visited for Odonata'ing. I busied myself taking snaps of the various dragonflies.

Ovipositing female Brown Hawker
Common Darter

Ovipositing female Emperor

Four-spotted Chaser
Another Four-spot

There were loads of these small Perez's Frogs along the banks - an introduction from the continent

Branched Bur-reed

Water Plantain
Despite all the wonderful dragonflies, one of the reasons why I was there was to look for rarer Damselflies. There were modest numbers of Damsels around, mostly Blue-tailed with some Common Blues in amongst them. 

Blue-tailed Damselfly
In my search for Scarce BT's was very much focused in on the blue markings of the tail and finally thought that I'd found one until I looked at the eyes and realised that it was a Red-eyed type. Later when some other enthusiasts arrived they pointed out that rather than Red-eyed it was actually a Small Red-eyed and now that they mentioned it the eye colour was different and there was indeed the diagnostic different pattern to the tail segments that had got me thinking of Scarce Blue-tailed in the first place.

Small Red-eyed Damselfly
I'd soon got several other people interested in looking for the Scarce Blue-tailed Damsels and someone took a photo of what they though might be one and as we all crowded around looking at the back of the camera it did indeed look good though now that I think about it back home I think that it too was a Small Red-eyed. Despite a good deal of searching on my part I couldn't turn up anything that wasn't just a regular Blue-tailed and in the end I had to admit defeat and I headed back to the car. Still I couldn't really complain: I'd got a new UK bird tick, seen three other scarce birds and indulged in a great bit of Odonata'ing. I fired up the Gnome mobile and headed back on the long slog towards Oxfordshire, arriving back at around 5:30 for my usual celebratory cup of tea. It had been another great day out.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

East Blean Woods

Regular readers will know that I'm trying to finish off my UK (or GB more strictly since I'm not doing Ireland) butterfly list this year. Having already ticked off Swallowtail and Mountain Ringlet, next on the list was Heath Fritillary. This species is sadly becoming all too rare and is now confined to a few woods in Kent and Essex as well as some heathland habitat in the South West. Part of the reason why it is so scarce is because of it's rather picky requirements. In the South West it colonises open heathland (hence the name) whereas in the East it prefers woodland. However, it likes warm clearings within the woodland so as clearings get too overgrown the butterflies move on. In this way they are know as the "woodsman's follower" as it moves from clearing to clearing. What's more it requires Common Cow-wheat or Foxglove as a larval food plant so was restricted to areas where these plants grow. Recent conservation efforts have been directed at maintaining numbers of reasonable clearings for them at existing sites and introducing them to the new woodland sites in Essex though they are still on the decline in general.

Anyway, I'd been keeping a keen eye out for sightings news at East Blean Woods in Kent which was the site that I'd homed in on. A couple of weeks ago they started to emerge (perhaps a bit later than usual) and last week they were out in good numbers. This meant that I didn't have that much longer before they would start to decline and so I decided that it had to be this week that I tried for them. The trouble was the weather. This summer has been very tricky for insect trips as there has been no prolonged spell of sunny weather. Instead we've had lots of rain and lots of cloud with occasional (and rather unpredictable) sunny intervals. The weather was forecast to be dry and calm all this week though almost entirely cloudy the whole time. Initially Tuesday seemed to have some sunny intervals forecast though come the morning itself these seemed to disappear from the forecast so in the end I decided on Wednesday instead. There was supposed to be one hour of sunny intervals late morning and apart from that I'd just have to hope that it was warm enough for them to be out and about anyway. It was going to be a bit of a gamble but at least there would be no wind to speak of.

On Wednesday morning I awoke to find that the forecast had improved to sun or sunny intervals all morning - hurrah! Needing no further encouragement I went and woke up our eldest daughter who'd said that she'd be interested in tagging along. We got ready, knocked up some packed lunches and then by around 8:30 we were on the road. The traffic was rather heavy going around the M25 with the usual stop-start action in the usual places but once we were past the A3 the roads were nice and quiet. The weather looked if anything to be better than the forecast as it was bright and sunny with just a few light clouds - perfect for butterflying! I knew the route quite well as my sister lives near Canterbury so it was only right at the end that I had to switch the sat nav on. Finally we were off the main roads and exploring some very dinky little villages before turning off a very narrow road along which the East Blean Wood car park was located. I turned in to find one other car parked up in the famous car park that I'd read so much about during my pre-trip research trawling through various blog entries. One was often supposed to be able to find Heath Fritillaries in the car park itself and there were certainly plenty of flowers about though in a quick trawl all we could turn up were Ringlets. We therefore got ready and headed off along the main track, looking out for nearby clearings which I'd been told were the best place to look.

We'd walked no more than thirty yards or so before we came to a small clearing that I instantly recognised from some of my blog post swotting up.

The first clearing
Encouragingly, I found some Common Cow-wheat in the shady areas right on the edge of the clearing. I was clearly on the right track.

Common Cow-wheat
We'd walked no more than a few paces into the clearing when we spotted our first Heath Fritillary. In fact there were quite a few flitting about actively in the sunshine all in a relatively small area. I set about taking some snaps


Lots of Heath Fritillaries
After a while another butterfly enthusiast turned up and as it was a relatively small clearing we decided to leave him to is and to move on to explore the rest of the wood a bit further. He mentioned that some White Admirals had been reported elsewhere in the wood and after a brief chat we headed off.

We found some freshly cut coppices that were too bare for the plants to have colonised yet though in a few years they'll become active. In other clearings we found modest numbers of Heath Fritillaries though never in the same numbers as the first clearing. Still it was nice walking through the woods and I snapped away at any interesting plants that I saw. There were loads of Wood Ants about and we were continually coming across their vast nests piled up in corners of the clearings. In fact the ground seemed almost alive with ants and my daughter got mildly freaked out by them - she's not great with spiders either.

Heath Bedstraw

Lesser Spearwort

A Ringlet


After a while we came to a clearing along the path where we spotted a couple of White Admirals dashing across the path. They seemed to be fighting each other and we watched as they battled for territorial control before going their separate ways. Well, at least we'd seen them though there had been no photo opportunity. Further along the the path we hit a T-junction and decided to head back at this point. 

Back at the White Admiral spot we found another one flitting about and this one looked like it might settle so we watched a while. Eventually it did and I was able to get some great shots of it

White Admiral

We wandered back to the main clearing where, now that the sun was stronger, there were even more Heath Fritillaries around. We told the other chap about the White Admirals and he was suitably envious of my photos. After a final look around we headed back to the car park. There we even managed to find a few Frits flitting amongst the flowers that bordered the car park area itself. I all I reckon that we might have seen about 30 or 40 Heath Fritillaries in total during out visit. We both felt that we'd done the place justice and seen all that we wanted to see so we climbed back into the car and headed off for part two of our trip.

I'd mentioned that my sister lived nearby in Canterbury. She and her partner had recently had a baby girl and we'd yet to meet her so it seemed like a great opportunity whilst we were in the area to drop in for a cup of tea and to get acquainted with my new niece. It was only 30 minutes away from where were were and we were soon pulling up at their large detached house near Littlebourne. There we passed some very pleasant time getting to know the latest addition to the family as well as catching up with my sister's news.

Two cousins!
At around 2:30 I decided that it was time to hit the road in order to avoid the rush hour traffic. Sadly despite my efforts we ended up being stuck in near-stationery traffic on the M25 for about half an hour though eventually we made it on to the M40 and we arrived back at Casa Gnome at around 6 p.m. where my VLW had a nice meal was waiting for us. It had been a great day out and most successful on all counts.

A final Heath Fritillary