Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Suffolk Purple Patch

I'm sure that all birders have been aware of the news of a Western Purple Swamphen that was showing all last week at the RSPB's flagship reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk. This species was originally just called Purple Gallinule (the latter meaning "chicken-like" apparently) though was recently split into a number of different species and renamed, hence the rather cumbersome new soubriquet. This group has a rather chequered history with the rarities committees in the past and indeed it had yet to make it onto Category A of the British List with a number of birds having been rejected due to concerns about escapes as some of the species are often kept in captivity. So what was so interesting about this particular bird? Well, for starters, there's a severe drought in southern France and Iberia where they breed which had subsequently lead to a massive dispersal with birds seen in at least half a dozen parts of France north of their usual breeding area in the last few weeks so the Minsmere bird's arrival fitted in with this dispersal pattern. The icing on the cake though was that this particular species wasn't generally kept in captivity. As people on Bird Forum were saying this was about as good as it was going to get and indeed the Gnome Rarities Committee had been very quick off the mark and had already accepted the bird.

So, the Swamphen was very much on my radar but as it was a fair distance away and I had various work commitments, it wasn't clear if and when I might get a chance to see it. Finally a small window on Saturday morning surfaced but in order to fit in such a trip I would have to do one of my overnight stays. I'd originally intended to leave after work finished and endure the rush-hour traffic in the long slog over to Suffolk before making a dawn raid on Saturday morning but in the end I finished work early and managed to depart at 3:45. The traffic was terrible of course and with the internet reporting delays of one and a half hours around the M25 I elected to go the long way, via the A43 and A14. This route too was awful with delays out of Oxford, along the M40, A43 and on the A14 and my Sat Nav was reporting an ETA of about 8 pm. There was nothing I could do about it so with Radio 4 to keep me company I slogged my way westwards. It had crossed my mind that I'd be arriving whilst it was still light and with Rails and their ilk generally showing best at dawn and dusk there was an outside chance that I might get to see it this evening. After all it had been reported on RBA regularly at last light this week. In previous accounts that I'd read, the bird would only show occasionally as it made it's way along the edge of the reeds and would spend large amounts of time out of view but there was a chance that I might be able to luck in on a late showing if I didn't get there too late.

As I neared my destination I found that the A12 had been closed and we were all diverted though fortunately this was more or less where I needed to turn off anyway and it didn't seem to affect the sat nav ETA at all. Finally I was turning off the main road and down some very narrow lanes. The last minor road that lead into Minsmere itself seemed to go on for ever but eventually I arrived in the car park at just after 8 pm to find just half a dozen cars there. Hurriedly I tooled up and set off though I wasn't entirely sure where to go but fortunately someone was just leaving as I arrived and they gave me directions. I yomped off in a hurried walk, passing the West Hide and then seeing what must be the location in the distance. There were only three people there, one guy looking through his scope and two other people talking and looking over the reeds. I hurried up to the scope person and asked: "Any sign of the Swamphen?". "Actually, it's in my scope now" he replied. I couldn't quite believe it but a quick peep in his scope and sure enough there was the Purple Swamp Monster preening away in a gap in the reedbed and looking very contented. I hurriedly set up my scope and soon found it for myself though by now it had tucked its head down and looked to be going to sleep.

Sleeping Swamphen - thankfully you can see its bright red legs
I waited to see if it would wake up again and whilst I did so the other two people came over. They were asking about the bird and apparently weren't aware that it was actually on show as they'd been viewing from a corner where it wouldn't be in view. I let them look through my scope and we chatted for a while before they left. After a while the Swamphen woke up and had a preen and I was able to get a bit of video though the light was fast fading by now.

After it's preen it went back to sleep. I had a bit of a chat with the only other person there now, a Yorkshire man, judging by his accept. He was staying over locally tonight and was going to come back tomorrow morning. Having now managed to see the bird, I was much more relaxed about arrangements for tomorrow and was thinking that I no longer needed to get up at first light but instead could have a bit of a lie in. I wandered back along the path in the half light in a very contented frame of mind, with all the troubles of my journey now forgotten. In the wood a Tawny Owl hooted nearby - a lovely finale to the day.

The South Girder pool in the fading light
I fired up the Gnome mobile and let the sat nav guide me the short distance to my accommodation for the evening, an Air B&B house nearby in Leiston. In general I find accommodation in this area is rather expensive (perhaps because of Sizewell) but I'd found a shared house for just £25 that I'd been assured I would be the only person in though in the end there turned out to be one other person though he was so quiet that you wouldn't know he was there. The room was functional but clean and comfortable and did the job nicely. I watched a bit of telly, phoned home to check in and then settled down for the night, most pleased to have the Swamphen already under my belt but looking forward to more views tomorrow morning.

Not having to be up at first light, I'd set my alarm for 7 a.m. but in the end I awoke at around 5 a.m. anyway. After a quick cup of tea I got dressed and was out of the house and heading back to Minsmere at around 6 a.m. There was a marked contrast in the car park this morning which was now nearly full - this was after all the first weekend since the bird was properly found so there would be good numbers here today. Back down at the South Girder pool there were at least a hundred birders there, four deep in places and it was in fact hard to get along the path. I found a less busy area where I spotted a couple of friendly faces in the form of Andy Last and Dave Lowe from God's Own County. They'd apparently come down the previous night, had slept in the car park and were on site at first light though they informed me that sadly there'd been no sign of the bird at all so far. Given that it had been seen every morning at around 5 a.m. since first being found, this didn't look too good and quietly I thanked my lucky stars that I'd been able to get a last gasp sighting yesterday evening. We whiled away the time whilst we waited for the bird to show with the usual conversations that birders have: we discussed listing, my increasing interest in plants, butterflies and dragonflies, about previous birds that we'd seen - all the usual stuff. Dave managed to find me several Bearded Tits in his scope on the far side of the pool that I needed for a year tick and we passed the time photographing the Water Rails that were showing quite well.

Adult Water Rail - there was also a rather showy juvenile
Time marched on but there was no sign of the bird at all and at around 8:30 I decided that I would start to make a move onto the rest of my itinerary for the day which involved a number of dragon and damselflies that I'd been researching. To start with though, I popped over to the other side of the reserve near where the Sand Martins nest where, according to Andy, there were some rare bees to be found. I soon found them as well as the chap who'd been at the pool yesterday evening and we remarked on how the two of use had been the last people to see the Swamphen.

Bee Wolf - actually a type of Wasp
Pantaloon Bee - so called because of it's baggy pollen basket trousers
Naturally I kept an eye out for interesting plants and managed to find a few that piqued my interest

The very-prickly Bugloss
Common Centaury
Common Cudweed

Then it was back to the car park to fire up the Gnome mobile and to head just a few minutes up the road to Thorpeness for my first Odonata appointment. I'd been given the boating lake at Thorpeness as a site for the rare Willow Emerald Damselfly, a recent colonist of this country which is presently only restricted to the eastern parts of East Anglia. It only took ten or so minutes to get there from Minsmere and I was soon parked up and crossing the road over to the boating lake. I'd been told that the trees near the boats was a good place to look but I found that there was only one rather grotty island there with almost no bankside vegetation. Further around the lake it looked more promising but there were forbidding "Private"signs up everywhere so I decided not to bother. I'd been told that searching some of the islands on the lake itself by boat could be productive but that looked like it could take a bit of time and given that there was a rather off-putting stiff breeze blowing anyway I decided to give this site up and hurry on to my back-up Willow Emerald site, a reservoir called Alton Water some three quarters of a hour's drive away.

The traffic was rather heavy on the way south but eventually I arrived and parked up. Whereas the last site seemed to have too little vegetation, if anything this had too much and it wasn't easy to access the shoreline at all. I hacked my way down to the shore by the car park where I found that the water had a plentiful number of small Willow trees and lots of reeds about. After getting my eye in I started to spot reasonable numbers of Odonata with Black-tailed Skimmer, red Darters and lots of blue Damselflies but nothing emerald. I decided to explore along the shoreline to the east first and here found some fishing swims where it was easier to access the shoreline though this side was all very much in the shade at this time of day and there weren't any insects to be seen at all. So next I tried in the other direction though there was no proper access to the shore at all. There were occasional half paths running down through the vegetation and when I followed these down I'd always be rewarded with some decent sightings: more red Darters, Brown Hawker, a Migrant Hawker and plenty of blue Damsels though still nothing emerald. In the end I had to give up as I was running out of time. I returned to the car and set the sat nav for the next site which was Wat Tyler Country Park - a site that is now famous in odonata circles for one particular dragonfly, namely the immigrant Southern Migrant Hawker.

Alton Water Migrant Hawker

This next leg of the journey should have taken about an hour though in the end the heavy traffic meant that it took a little longer. I eventually reached the gates of the country park, which were familiar to me from my Streetview pre-trip research, and headed down the road towards the car parks at the far end. Eschewing the usual car park I went right to the end towards the marina car park, passing en route a group of three or four photographers all actively papping something in one of the pools just past the toilet blocks. That looked encouraging! I parked up, grabbed my bins and cameras and hurried around behind the buildings to the first pool with the concrete ramp. There I found just a single photographer who told me that whilst there had been no Southern Migrants seen at this pool they were showing well just along the boardwalk so I hurried on. All along the boardwalk it was a fabulous riot of colours with lots of flowers blooming everywhere you looked. It was mostly Goat's Rue though there was a large clump of White Melilot and various Vetches, it all looked great! 

Goat's Rue
I soon arrived at the pond where I'd seen the photographers and sure enough there was a male Southern Migrant Hawker patrolling this pond continuously with an occasional interloper appearing only to be chased off. Apparently there'd even been a mating pair earlier on in the day so they're obviously becoming quite well established here. I watched the Hawker for a while though it hardly settled and when it did it was usually out of sight. Superficially, the colour on these dragonflies of green thorax and blue abdomen might lead you to mistake them for Emperors though in the flesh the Hawker patterning along the abdomen was very striking and there was no mistaking them for what they were. Given how much I was behind schedule already I didn't really have the time to wait for a decent photograph so in the end I opted for a quick in-flight record shot and then went back to the car.

male Southern Migrant Hawker record shot
The last item on my itinerary was Scarce Emerald Damselfly for which I had a couple of sites. The first was just at the other end of the country park back in the first pool along the entrance road so I drove the short distance and went to take a look. The pond was over-grown, which is supposedly how Scarce Emeralds like it, but to such an extent that it was impossible to see anything at all. There were several narrow channels into the otherwise impenetrable reeds which to me looked very much like someone had gone in and that was going to be the only way to see anything here. As I was neither equipped nor inclined for such a venture I decided to give it a miss and to move onto my second site for this species, just a few minutes up the road at Bowers Marsh RSPB.

The impenetrable pond
Some New Zealand Pigmyweed found growing by the pond, a tiny invasive pond plant
Bowers Marsh RSPB was right next door to Wat Tyler CP though it involved a five minute drive back to the main road to get there. Whereas Wat Tyler had been full of people doing all sorts of family activities, Bowers Marsh was empty with just two other cars in a large car park. There was a large field being harvested next to the car park and it all looked very brown and dry compared to the rich colours I'd been enjoying along the Wat Tyler boardwalk. I got my gear together and set off on the walk of a few minutes to the pond. This was a small affair just a few metres across in a corner of a ploughed field along the path and there I found another damsel seeker already installed. It turned out he'd been there just five minutes but hadn't seen anything so far. This pond was over-grown as well though not nearly to the same extend as the last one and one could at least get views across the water through the reeds though in the strong wind the reeds kept moving across ones field of view. It only took me a couple of minutes to find an emerald Damsel and as a male it did indeed seem to lack much of the blue on the second segment that is diagnostic of Scarce though try as we might neither of us could get a photo due to the swaying reeds. Eventually I found another one on our side of the pond and after some trying we both managed to get some shots which at least clinched the ID.

Scarce Emerald Damselfly - you can see that the lower half of S2 (the bulge at the base of the abdomen) is green rather than blue, distinguishing it from Emerald Damselfly. At this angle you can't see the anal appendages properly which are also diagnostic

A more aesthetic photo though it's harder to see S2 on this one.
It was a shame that I didn't have time to hang around long to get some better photos but with the ID finally in the bag I bade my companion farewell and headed back to the car.

The last leg of the journey back home to Oxford was slightly under two hours and fortunately the traffic wasn't too bad so I texted my VLW my revised ETA and headed off. Back home I had my usual celebratory cup of tea and a chance to catch up on family news. It had been a very productive trip with a nice slice of luck ensuring that I got my Swamphen tick just in time, some new Odonata ticks under my belt and just Willow Emerald letting me down, all in all it had been a good outing.

Since posting this, some doubt has been expressed about the identify of the Damselfly in the photo and doing further research myself I'm now not so sure about it either. The first one that I didn't photograph had markedly less blue at the base of the abdomen so I'm more confident about that one. I'd still like to get a confirmed sighting though so another trip is clearly called for.


Marc Heath said...

Do you have any more photos of the Emerald. I'm not really seeing the less blue on S2. May be the photo but thought I would ask.

Marc Heath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Hartley (Gnome) said...

Hi Marc, thanks for your comment, I've sent you an e-mail.