Thursday, 29 September 2016

Earlswood Emeralds

Regular readers will remember how on my way back from the Friday night Purple Swamp Monster dash to Minsmere I tried for but failed to see Willow Emerald damselfly at Alton Water in Suffolk. Now this species flies until at least the end of September so in principle I had time for another go but in truth the prospect of slogging all the way over there again was too much so I was resigned to leaving it until next season now. However, I recently discovered in the excellent Facebook group "UK Dragonflies and Damselflies" that there was a large colony in Surrey on the lakes on Earlswood Common which would be only about an hour and a quarter away. So, armed with some detailed instructions on where to look courtesy of some kind people from the Facebook group, I took advantage of the relatively nice window of weather on Wednesday and set off shortly after 9 a.m.. The journey was uneventful and so at around 10:30 I pulled up in the car park and got ready. There were two lakes there, the lower one by the car park was relatively open with few bank-side trees whereas the further upper lake was densely surrounded by overhanging trees on three sides and this was where the damselflies liked to hang out because of their breeding habits. Willow Emerald lay their eggs in the stems of trees that overhang still or slow moving water with the trees developing distinctive galls as a result. The eggs overwinter and then hatch in the spring whereupon the larvae drop down into the water to complete their life cycle within just three months. So dense overhanging bank-side vegetation was ideal for them.

I'd been given some specific instructions on the hot-spot area to look for them so I wandered over there, scouring the trees as I went. It was still relatively early though and most of the lake was surrounded in deep shade so it seemed a near impossible task to pick anything out as I went. The hot-spot consisted of a single Oak tree which I soon found but it too was in deep shade by the lake side. So I moved around to the far side which was by the edge of a gold course and therefore not being shaded by any other trees. Here this side of the tree was bathed in lovely golden sunshine. I scanned up the tree and found several Hornet Mimic Hoverflies before catching a glimpse of a flying Damselfly - that had to be one! Eventually I picked one out sunning itself on the top of a leaf and took a record shot photo.

My first Willow Emerald
With the target already successfully acquired my next task was to try and get some decent photos. Near the Oak tree there were some Brambles and some smaller trees including an Elder Tree and some small Willows. I scoured this area carefully and soon found another one. This was much easier to photograph and I settled on this area as the place to watch. I would regular see one flitting about, surprisingly ephemeral and difficult to see but if you kept your eye on it you could see where it landed and I was able to get some decent shots.

After a while I decided to explore the other side of the upper lake to see if I could find any away from this hot spot. I found the same problem as before: the bank-side vegetation was so thick that it was impossible to see much at all. The lake-facing sides of the overhanging trees along the north shore were bathed in lovely sunlight and I'm sure that there were loads of Willow Emeralds three but it was just impossible to see them - perhaps I needed to hire one of the boats there. On the south side of the lake I met a man with binoculars who asked me what I'd seen. I explained that I was actually looking for Willow Emeralds and he got quite interested. Like me, he was a birder who did Dragons and Damsels in the summer and although he didn't have long in the end his interested was piqued enough to follow me back around to the hot spot where I tried to pick one out for him. Sadly, at the age of eighty his eye sight wasn't so good but in the end I found a nice close one for him to see and he left very content.

Time was marching on for me too so I decided to head back. With the sun now higher, there was one spot on the south east shore which the sunlight was now reaching and I did indeed manage to find a Willow Emerald there. Out by the southern shore there were several Migrant Hawkers and Common Darters about and I even found a few Common Darters back at the lower lake. Very pleased with my trip, I climbed back into the Gnome mobile and set off for home, arriving back in time for lunch.

Willow Emerald is rapidly colonising westwards and has indeed been discovered in several new inland sites already this year. I'm sure that it won't take too long before it reaches Oxfordshire but in the mean time this was a very convenient location with which to acquaint myself with these delicate little insects.

There wasn't much to report on the botany front. I did find this Pickerel Weed, a garden escape, by the lake side.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Chasing Welsh Dragons

As Autumn approaches, at this time of year I start to think about the University run and what to do on the way back. Actually this year I had not one but two of them to think about as our younger daughter was now also starting her Psychology course at Swansea University. Whilst the Durham trip has various obvious appeals in terms of east coast birding in the autumn, I wasn't so sure what south Wales was going to have to offer me. With the Wales trip now upon us and with the weather forecast at the start of the week looking rather uninspiring I was at a bit of a loss to know what to do. Fortunately the forecast improved so that there was now the promise of bright sunshine and with that my thoughts turned to dragonflies. Regular readers know that I had a failed attempt at seeing Moorland Hawker (I refuse to call it "Common" as it's anything but that) earlier in the year in the New Forest. A bit of random Googling revealed that there was an excellent site for this species on the Gower Peninsula no more than half an hour or so from Swansea so I resolved to give it a go. I did a bit of pre-trip research and contacted the county recorder there to get some more info and suitable prep'ed up I waited for the Friday excursion.

Friday duly came and I woke up far too early at 5 a.m. I've been having problems about waking too early quite a bit of late, mostly to do with work which is rather busy at present but I also seem to suffer from Pre-trip Early Waking Syndrome whereby I often wake up far too early whenever I'm going on a trip of some kind. Anyway, it couldn't be helped and my daughter and I got the car packed and set off into the busy rush hour traffic along the familiar route westwards. Actually the traffic wasn't too bad and we made steady progress. Once over the border into Wales I started to explain to my long-suffering daughter how I thought the Welsh place names were pronounced, having read a book on it once. To her credit she put up with my nonsense with good grace. The two and a half hour journey passed smoothly enough and just as the scenery started to get more interesting with the first sign of some mountains we were pulling off the motorway towards Swansea or Abertawe as they like to call it in Wales ("Aber" meaning "mouth of the river" in the same way as "Inver" does in Scotland and Tawe being the name of the river that flows into the sea there). My daughter had never actually been to Swansea before and I got the impression that the rather industrial landscape that we first went through wasn't so far overly impressing her. We crawled through the traffic along the main drag looking out for glimpses of the sea but that too was apparently "the wrong colour" (she's been rather spoilt by the beautiful coastal scenery of Cornwall I feel). Anyway, finally we turned off the main road and up the hill towards the student village that was to be her home for the next term. There an efficient army of people marshalled us through the induction process and we drove past row upon row of purpose-built student house until we found her one. There were countless other cars dropping off students so we had to park a little way away and make several arduous trips to unload the car but eventually all her stuff was piled up in her modern but clean and functional room and we said our goodbye's. I'd already been through this with Daughter no. 1 but I still felt quite emotional about it all. I left her to sort out her room and I headed back to the car.

My dragon site was a place called Broad Pool (located here), in the Cefn Bryn area (Cefn meaning "rear" or "ridge" and Bryn meaning "hill"), which is a central strip of moorland running up the middle of the Gower peninsula. The pool was at the start of the moorland area and after a drive of a little less than half an hour I arrived. I parked up on the side of the road and as it was past 1 p.m. already I decided to have my lunch first. The weather was nice and sunny as forecast though there was a stiff breeze blowing and I did wonder whether it might be too windy for any dragons to be flying but I needed have worried as I saw a couple hunting along the edge of the pool just whilst I ate my sandwiches.

Broad Pool
Suitably refreshed I got tooled up and decided to explore around the main pool first. I headed over to the upwind side where the bank-side vegetation offered some shelter on the surface of the water and where perhaps there might be some lurking insects. As good as this theory was there was nothing to be seen apart from a small patch of Fringed Water-lily which I'd read about as part of my trip preparation. Apparently this had at one stage completely overrun the pool and had had to be managed. Also present was some White Water-lily and various usual marginal plants.

Fringed Water-lily - not looking its best at this time of year
Having explored half the main pool shore-line without seeing any dragonflies at all I decided to head off to one of the numerous satellite ponds that were scattered about around the main pool. From my previous experience in the New Forest I knew how problematic it could be trying to find small heathland pools in terrain like this because you can't see them at all until you're right upon them. Fortunately however I'd already loaded up a map of the area into my phone Google Maps app and as there was a reasonable 4G signal I could track where I was in relation to the pools so it was really straight-forward to navigate around. I headed off due North to the largest satellite pool which I soon found.

One of the satellite ponds
To my excitement I immediately spotted a Hawker hawking away over this pool. Now, having only previously seen Moorland Hawker on one occasion down in Cornwall back when I was a beginner at dragonfly ID and which I'd only retrospectively identified, I was keen to see how I'd get on now that I was much more experienced. I'm pleased to report that I was immediately able to tell that it was a Moorland. For a start the long thin yellow ante-humeral (shoulder) stripes really stood out and it's jizz was very different. It was much more "in-your-face", being very inquisitive (even more so than a Southern) and would often fly really close to me. It was constantly on patrol, never once stopping as it endlessly did circuits of its pool and a smaller one nearby. On a few occasions another male Moorland would appear and there would immediately be a loud clash of wings as the interloper was quickly seen off the premises. 

I spent quite some time trying to get some photographs but I was armed only with my superzoom bridge camera which is very bad at flight shots so it was largely a fruitless effort. I tried a bit of video as well as staking out one spot on its circuit with the focus pre-set but all to no avail. In the end I did somehow manage to fluke one half-decent shot and in the circumstance I was more than happy with this.

Moorland Hawker - the one flight shot that came out
Pleased with having had such good success, after a while I headed back to the main pool where I did a bit more botanising though of course at this time of year there were few flowers about and it was all about leave shapes. In passing I saw a couple more Moorland Hawkers as well as a smaller Darter species that I couldn't get a decent view of.

Ivy-leaved Crowsfoot
Time was marching on and having finished at Broad Pool I pondered what to do. I was feeling really tired from my early waking and somehow hadn't managed to shake it off all day. Still, it seemed a shame to head home so soon and I had prepared an optional bonus exploration of a nearby salt marsh where a couple of Lapland Bunting had been reported recently. After weighting it up, in the end I decided to take a  quick look at this second site before heading home. Now the exact location was a bit vague but it seemed like an interesting little spot so whilst I wasn't holding out great hopes of actually finding the birds at least it would be a different bit of habitat to explore and there were bound to be some interesting plants to look at. So I duly set off for Landimore, a small village some twenty minutes away on the north coast of the Gower peninsula.

I'd done some pre-trip research and had found a bridleway which gave access to a track along the edge of the salt marsh and thought that this was probably the spot that was mentioned in the reports. I parked up and, still feeling very tired, walked the short distance down through a flock of sheep and onto the salt marsh. This turned out to be a large flat expanse extending almost as far as one could see with the sea a long way in the distance. The nearer region consisted of grass and lots of Rushes but in the distance it was all very close-cropped grass and very flat. It was rather all striking.

Looking towards Weobly Castle
Looking out across the extensive salt marsh - it's actually very close-cropped grass all the way out
I'd read that the Lap Bunts had been seen "at the start of the track" with Linnets and there was a spot where a stream ran out over the path where Linnets were coming down to drink regularly but despite waiting quite a while I couldn't see any other birds in amongst them. I wandered along the track some way towards Weobly Castle though there didn't seem to be any obvious spot where one might find a Lapland Bunting. There was of course the vast expanse of the Llanrhidian Marsh out there where a Bunting could easily hide unseen so it was a bit of a needle-in-a-haystack task. There were lots of Linnets and Meadow Pipits and out on the marsh were a few distant gulls but little else of note. Still, I rummaged amongst the plants there and came up with some interesting salt marsh specialities. There were lots of gone-over Sea Aster and I found a few things that I didn't recognise so there was something of interest to keep me occupied. I even ventured a bit out onto the marsh to see what it was like and the ground turned out to be very firm with this very close-cropped grass - not at all the boggy terrain that I was expecting.

One of the Glasswort's, I'm not sure which one
Sea Milkwort
A rather tired specimen of Sea Wormwood
I was starting to feel increasingly tired now so despite the lack of any Bunting sightings I decided that it was best to head back to car and to set off for home. I steered the car along the minor roads back up to the M4 and joined maelstrom of the rush hour traffic. Actually, apart from slowing to a stand-still on a couple of occasions it wasn't too bad and the main problem was my increasing tiredness. I really had to focus hard on staying awake and did even contemplate having to stop for a power nap. In the end I perked up and the rest of the journey was uneventful. I made it back to the bosom of my remaining family, now with one less daughter, at a little after 7 p.m., exhausted but still pleased with my first Uni-run excursion to Wales.

Monday, 19 September 2016

A Wander Around Farmoor

When there are no flood waters on my beloved local patch at Port Meadow the birding gets rather tough. It's the waters which are the main draw for birds so in their absence there's not a lot to see and whilst I still make the effort to go out regularly and check it, in truth it can get rather samey and if I don't add a bit of variety to my routine it can "do my head in" after a while. Anyway, so a couple of weeks ago I decided for a change to have a wander around Farmoor Reservoir. This site is probably the top site in the county for birds: it regularly tops the county site year list league table (Port Meadow usually manages to come third, which I think is a great achievement given it's relatively small size and it's proximity to the city) and has an impressive historic rarity list. Whilst there were no proper Rares there to tempt me on this occasion there were a couple of rarer Grebes on offer in the form of a juvenile Red-necked Grebe and an adult Black-necked Grebe. In addition with a juvenile Black Tern to be seen there seemed plenty on offer. So it was that mid morning on a Monday I set off on the short drive to the reservoir.

The weather was pleasantly sunny with a gentle breeze as I got ready and made my way up the bank towards the reservoir. There I met with a couple of returning birders who informed me that the two Grebes were still present over by the "bus shelter" in the south west corner of F2 (the larger of the two reservoirs) and that the Black Tern was hanging out in the north east corner of F2. I decided to start off with the Tern and to walk the length of the causeway and all the way around F2 thereby as a bonus getting a good walk in. The Tern was on view almost immediately working its way back and forth across the corner of the reservoir though for some reason as soon as I got my camera ready to try and take a shot it decided that it had had enough and headed off up the causeway. I decided to wander off in pursuit, passing en route the long-staying moulting drake Pochard that was holed up in amongst the boats.

The drake Pochard, looking rather bored
As I wandered along the causeway I did the usual zig-zag to check the shoreline on either side and I was rewarded for my efforts with a juvenile Ringed Plover though nothing else apart from a few Pied Wagtails. I came across the Black Tern again though it moved off towards the centre of the reservoir before I could get too close. There were quite a few Yellow-legged Gulls of various ages dotted about the centre of the reservoir and towards the western end of the causeway I came across a fine specimen standing on top of one of the buoys.

Yellow-legged Gull

As I wandered along the west shore of F2 I scanned the fence-line for chats but there were none today. The west shore-line itself was comparatively empty of birds but as I approached the south west corner bird numbers started to increase and I soon came across the Red-necked Grebe though it was having a power nap at the time and wasn't looking very photogenic. So I went on another twenty or thirty yards to near a pontoon where the very showy Black-necked Grebe was hanging out. It was having lots of success catching Sticklebacks and was happy to have its photo taken.

The Black-necked Grebe
After a while I went back to the Red-necked Grebe which was now at least awake though by no means as showy as it's Black-necked Cousin.

The more shy Red-necked Grebe
There was also a few Little Grebes about as usual. Now, I don't do proper national year listing at all but I do happen to keep a record of what I've seen and remarkably this was actually the first of this species that I'd come across this year - quite an achievement! In fact that was also true of the Pochard that I'd seen earlier: clearly I need to make more of an effort to get out to gravel-pit or reservoir locations during my birding year.

A Dabchick year tick!
Continuing my journey back towards the eastern side of the reservoir, all the fly fishermen seemed to be congregated down in this corner. I had a narrow escape when one of them starting casting just as I was walking behind him but fortunately he didn't snag me and I yelled out to stop him in mid flow. There were quite a few Migrant Hawker dragonflies along the shore, hunting near the trees though none would settle for a photo. I kept scanning the trees and bushes along the shore, hoping for some warbler action but there was not luck. Back by the car park shore a trio of Common Sandpipers were bobbing their way along the shoreline - always a pleasure to see.

Three Common Sandpipers
I headed back to the car in a contented frame of mind and headed back for home. It had been a very pleasant stroll around Farmoor - I really should do it more often!