Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Windsor Hill Red Helleborine

Any serious orchid hunter at some point has to go on an organised trip to see Red Helleborine. This plant, whilst relatively common on the continent, is right at the northern edge of its range in this country and there are only three sites where it grows here. The nearest one to me is Windsor Hill Nature Reserve, a permit-only BBOWT reserve where this species is still just hanging on. Having learnt about it earlier in the year I sent an e-mail asking if I could be informed of the next open day there. I was told that whether an open day would happen at all would depend on if there was actually a flowering spike but fortunately a few weeks later I got back news that there was one flower on show so a visit was on. Initially arranged for the 7th July, the date was brought forward some two and a half weeks as the sunny weather had brought it into flower earlier than expected. Thus it was that on Tuesday of last week I made my way into deepest darkest Buckinghamshire to rendezvous at 2 p.m. with a small band of orchid enthusiasts. There were a little more than a dozen people there and it was interesting to see the contrast with the people whom one would normally meet on a birding trip. In general there was less of a variation in age (I was actually one of the youngest people there!) and there were far more women than you'd expect on a typical bird twitch. They were quite a chatty bunch and I was soon talking plant ID's and orchid hunting with a couple of them whilst waiting for our guide to start things off. The guide was a relatively young chap called Mark who knew his stuff and seemed to be as obsessed with nature as I am. He guided us along the track until we came to a halt in the middle of a wooded section. It seemed that we were going to go severely "off piste" as the next bit involved a scramble up a rather steep bank with no obvious path at all. Mark explained that it was deliberately kept like this to stop orchid stealers finding the spot too easily. There was a rather elderly lady in our party who needed quite a bit of help in getting up the slope but somehow she managed it. We then skirted along the slope for a short distance until we came to a fenced off area which was where the orchid was located. Here we split up into two groups: one half walking a few yards down the steep slope to photograph the Red Helleborine, whilst the others stayed a bit higher up listening to the guide talk about it. After a while we swapped over though there was no real issue with viewing at all and everyone had plenty of time. The Helleborine was just about the only flower on view in the enclosure apart from a single Nettle-leaved Bellflower. It was a few metres from the fence edge but thankfully with my superzoom camera I was able to get some reasonable shots though it was a bit of a balancing act keeping upright on the steep slope whilst trying to take a photograph.

The Red Helleborine

We were told that this was actually the only Red Helleborine flower in the entire country this year with the Gloucestershire site not having any flowering spikes and the Hants one not having produced any plants for a few years now. BBOWT were still trying to work out what conditions the plants ideally like and were experimenting with shade and cutting back the surrounding foliage. With just one flower in the entire country it was a definite rear-guard battle though I hope that they manage to get it sorted in the end.

Trying to photograph the orchid on a steep slope

The view

After a while we moved on to some unimproved grassland in a more open area and spent a while doing some botanising there. It was full of the usual plants and had I been on my own I'd have spent some time there rummaging around but all too soon it was time to head back to where we'd parked.

On the way back our guide pointed out some Hairy Rock-cress

Back by the roadside there was a Common Spotted Orchid, tucked in amongst some tall grasses
Back at the cars we said our goodbyes and headed off. On the way home I nipped into Sydlings Copse as I'd been told that morning that the Lizard Orchid was now in full flower. A quick yomp across the fields brought me back to what is fast becoming one of my favourite places to visit. The Lizard Orchid was indeed in full flower and very striking it looked too!

As time was marching on I didn't linger but just did a lighting tour of the grassy area before heading back to the car and home for a celebratory cup of tea.

A rather striking Sainfoin, just starting to go over

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Cornwall at the end of May 2017

This is a rather belated summary post taken from my sister blog Pendeen Birding.

Tuesday 30th May: Hayle
As this year we are not letting out our cottage to the wider public, but instead just allowing  friends and family to use it, this has meant that we've had more opportunity to come down and stay in it ourselves. Whereas in the past we'd never have come down for the summer half term week, partly because of our two daughters having to revise for exams and partly because it would  have been booked anyway, this time with the two daughters both being off at University we thought that we'd take advantage of the situation and come down for at least some of the week. L, our son had just been getting over a really nasty cold and I had work to do so in the end we didn't head down until Tuesday. As usual, general family inertia meant that we didn't even leave Oxford until well after 11 a.m. though the roads were reasonably quiet and at around 3:30 pm we arrived at the Hayle roundabout. Here I dropped the other two off at the shops so that they could visit the cafĂ© whilst I sped on to the next junction and on to Ryan's Field at Hayle. The reason for this was that a Temminck's Stint had been frequenting this spot for the last few days, a species that I needed for my fledgling Cornish list. Now this isn't that rare a wader nationally and in fact I've even found them on my local patch at Port Meadow but it seems much less common in Cornwall so I was keen to see it. I'd been sent a suitably gripping photo by P&H this morning so I knew that it was still around. On arrival I didn't have to guess as to where it was located as there were three people on the road-side, looking over onto Ryans' Field intently. The Stint was indeed located here and what's more was nice and close enabling me to take some reasonable photos both with my superzoon and via some digiscoping.

The Temminck's Stint
I was just crossing the road to have a quick scan of the estuary (nothing of note) when I spotted this rather striking Easter Gladiolus growing in the central reservation.

Eastern Gladiolus
I hadn't seen this species growing in the wild before but after return to Hayle to pick up the others and then resuming our journey I noticed quite a few of them along the road-side so it's obviously a local speciality. Indeed, in general I was really struck by the great collection of wild flowers growing on the verges. I even spotted a Pyramidal Orchid by the Hayle roundabout.

We nipped into  Sainsbury's for the usual shop and I took the opportunity to catch up on a quick cup of tea which I'd missed out on whilst twitching the Stint. Then it was over the hill to Pendeen to boot up the cottage. As we drove down the Lighthouse Road I was once more struck by the wonderful flowers and started to realise what we'd been missing out on by not coming at this time of year. We had a quick wander down to the lighthouse to stretch our legs and then settled in to the cottage for the evening. I noticed that I had a rather ominous sore throat which had been coming on during the drive down and I very much hoped that a good night's sleep would see it off.

Friday 31st May: Pendeen
As feared, the sore throat had developed into a fully-fledged cold, no doubt the same one that our son had been sufferring from. What's more it seemed to be a real stinker and I felt like I had very little energy to do anything. I did have a very gentle wander about in the morning, rummage about in the plants to see what I could find. A lovely Green Hairstreak was a nice find, several Painted Ladies flew by and I had a close encounter with a Hummingbird Hawkmoth though I wasn't able to get any photos before it flew off again. There were a couple of very vocal Sedge Warblers having a "sing-off" in the valley and I watched for a while, marvelling at how energetic their songs were.

Green Hairstreak

Dyer's Greenweed
After my walk and some elevenses I took to my bed for much of the day, catching up on back episodes of podcasts and generally resting. We did manage a stroll down to Boat Cove late afternoon which was nice and sheltered from the prevailing southerly breeze and was in fact a nice sun trap. On the wildlife front, apart from a single seal and a family of Stonechats there was little of note. Then it was back to the cottage for more dozing and resting before turning in for the night.

Rock Sea-spurrey, growing by the cottage

I didn't bring the moth trap down (partially as I'm rather losing interest in moths) though the porch light did attract this Common Swift before I went to bed tonight.

Thursday 1st June
I passed much of today wrestling with my cold, mostly bed-ridden or dozing on the sofa. I did venture out for a brief walk which gave me the chance to see some of the local bird life. The resident Ravens seemed to have at least three juveniles in tow now. As well as the two adults there appeared to be another bird around as well, perhaps one of their offspring from the previous year. I managed to get a photo of the Sedge Warbler, which seemed to have seen of its rival and had sole claim to the territory. Apart from that it was all the usual stuff though the weather was better than forecast and much appreciated. My VLW and son when out for a walk in the afternoon whilst I rested. I would have loved to have gone with them but I simply had no energy. I can't wait for this cold to be over.

Two of the Ravens
The victorious Sedgie


Friday 2nd June
I was feeling much better when I awoke this morning though with a classic Pendeen fog lingering first thing I didn't hurry to get up. Mid morning my VLW and our son went for a walk up to the village whilst I had a catch-up nap and then before lunch I managed a little wander about, seeing the six Ravens again and a few other bits and bobs.

After lunch I was feeling up to a little sortie so we decided to head over to Penzance and then Marazion. I dropped the other two off in town and then went to check out Jubilee Pool and the bus station whilst I waited for them. At the first location there were about a dozen or so each of Turnstone and Dunlin roosting on the rocks but I found a Common Tern, initially on one of the yellow buoys before it flew to the rocks just offshore from the pool. This species is actually rarer than Arctic Tern down here so it was nice to get reasonable views. There was nothing of note over by the bus station.

The Common Tern on the rocks

Over at Marazion we parked up at Jordans and bought tea and snacks which we ate whilst staring at the sea. I nipped over to the marsh to see if I could spot anything though to start with all I could find were a few Grey Herons and Canada Geese with a Cetti's and a few Reed Warblers to be heard singing. Overhead there were a couple of soaring Buzzards but after a while I spotted what I'd secretly been hoping for: a Hobby! This has been a bit of a Cornish list bogey bird for me for a while. They don't breed down on the Penwith peninsula (as far as I know) so you'll only catch them on passage and usually I'm not around in May so I'd yet to see one. This one soared about for a bit catching a dragonfly on the wing before landing in the Cheshire Homes trees for a preen where I was able to take a crappy record shot of it.

Hobby record shot

After a while my VLW gave me a call to summon me back and it was time to head off for a spot of food shopping. We'd promised our son that we would get fish & cnips one evening so we decided to head over to St. Just for this. First we nipped into Kenidjack to say hello to the donkeys. I tarried higher up the hills rummaging about the various flowers to see if I could find anything of interest but it was all the usual stuff. Still, at this time of year there was lots to look at.

Then it on to St Just to pick up some fish and chips before driving down to Cape Cornwall to eat them whilst staring at the sea. It was such a beautiful evening that we decided to have a little wander about and once again I was very taken with all the flowers. I even discovered a huge "hanging" of Hottentot Figs down one side of the cliff, which I've only seen before at the Lizard. I also found what I think is some genuine Western Clover

NOT Western Clover! I mistakenly thought this was Western but have been corrected on this (see comments section)
Then it was back to the cottage for the evening where I was soon fast asleep, dreaming of soaring Hobbies.

Hotentot Fig - purple form & yellow form, draping the Cape Cornwall cliffs

Saturday 2nd June: Back Home

This is a very belated (three weeks late in fact!) catch-up post to finish off this visit. I awoke very early, with an unsettled stomach, seemingly fall-out from my cold and it took several cups of tea to get settled again. I only briefly fell asleep again after that so I was feeling extremely tired as we packed up to leave. As usual we stopped off en route to pick up some sandwiches and I took it nice and easy on the journey back, even stopping off for a break and some refreshments on the way. We arrived back in Oxford in time for afternoon tea and a chance to catch up with our cats who'd both been missing us greatly.

Below are some photos which didn't make the previous posts.

Large Skipper

Some of the Raven family

Rock Sea-Spurrery

Singing Stonechat

Mullein Moth Caterpillar

Looking back on the trip, of course it was somewhat marred by my illness but in between I'd managed to see something of interest. Indeed it was nice to be down at Cornwall at this time of year - usually it's all booked up by guests so we don't get the chance to enjoy it for ourselves. What's more I'd managed to get a couple of new Cornish ticks for my list in the form of the Temminck's Stint (which had disappeared the day after I saw it - phew, just in time!) and the Hobby. There'd been plenty of plants to see and whilst we hadn't managed a trip over to the Lizard for the great botany rarities it had been pleasant enough. Our next trip down is in August when with any luck there will be some sea watching to be had. I can't wait!

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

An Elegant Tern of Events

Anyone who is remotely connected with the UK twitching scene will know of the discovery of an Elegant Tern down in West Sussex recently. It was first discovered on Wednesday last week at Hayling Island in Hants. though it only stayed for about an hour before flying off. "That's was that" we all thought, but we were wrong! Two days later it was seen again off Hayling Island though once again it didn't linger. On Saturday morning however, it was relocated at Church Norton in West Sussex, loitering at the local Tern colony there and this time it hung around. In fact in all probability this is where it had been all along and it had been seen at Hayling on one of its periodic feeding trips. Through most of Saturday and Sunday it was reported on RBA regularly though it did seem to go missing for up to three hours at a time when it went off on a feeding trip. Now the thing about Elegant Terns, which should normally be on the west coast of the American continent, is that they hybridise with various other species so that whilst various good candidates have been seen in this country over the years, it's always very difficult to know if they're genuine Elegants rather than some mongrel hybrid. However, this particular bird had been ringed in France where it had been loitering earlier on in the year and what's more it had been DNA tested and confirmed to be 100% pure Elegant Tern. This bird basically came with its own certificate of authenticity!

Of course I was stuck at home with our son L as my VLW (as I reported in my previous posting) was away so there was no possibility of my making a trip to see it. However, with it still being around on Sunday evening I made tentative plans to go and see it the next day. It seemed to me that unless one was prepared to be there at first light (which was pretty early at this time of year and not really my thing) then there was always the possibility of it being out feeding on arrival so I decided to head over fairly promptly as long as there was news of it still being present, aiming to arrive around mid morning and being prepared if necessary to hang around for a while if it was out.

This was the plan and so it was that some time after 8 a.m. the next day I set off, fighting my way through the maelstrom of Oxford commuters before heading south along the A34 on the familiar route towards Church Norton. I'd visited this location once before for the Hudsonian Whimbrel so it was a fairly straight-forward trip right up until the end where I had to make a decision about where to park. RBA were giving the RSPB visitor centre as the official location but that would involve a long old slog around the estuary to the twitch location so in the end I gambled on being able to find somewhere to park at Church Norton itself. There were some places along the lane towards then end but I decided to stick it out until the very end of the road. I found the car park predictably jam packed but managed to squeeze the Gnome mobile into a dodgy space in front of a barrier gate - result! I quickly got my stuff together and hurried along the familiar path to the estuary where I was greeted with a line of birders who all seemed to be looking at something rather intently.

Just part of the twitching line that greeted me on arrival

The view over towards "Tern Island"

I hurried up to find that the bird was indeed on show on the mud flats in front of us so I quickly got set up and started to take some video.

The Elegant Turn having a wash and brush up

I then decided to take a few still photos though at that point a Sandwich Tern plonked itself down right in front of the star of the show which was somewhat annoying!

A bona fide 100% DNA tested Elegant Tern

After about five or so minutes of watching it, it flew up, made a circuit and then landed right on the top of Tern Island out of sight in amongst the rather tall grasses there. On enquiry of my birding neighbours in the twitch line it turned out that this had actually been the best view of the morning and that most of the time it stayed in its preferred hidden spot on top of the island, only making occasional sorties out around the harbour before returning to the same spot. This had been the first time that day that it had come out into the open so I'd been extremely lucky to have arrived when I did. In order to wind down after all that excitement I had a general scan around which revealed a surprisingly large number of Med Gulls, plus Sandwich, Common and Little Terns, all which were breeding on the island but there was little else of note. After this great showing of the star attraction there was a modest exodus from some of the twitchers who'd been there a while and had finally got a decent view so I took advantage of this to head back to the car park and park up in a more legitimate spot as well as to get something to eat.

When I returned back to the estuary I debated whether to go back in line to wait for another fly-by or to have a bit of a botanical explore. To be honest it was no contest really as I was keen to rummage around on the shingle beach by the estuary mouth. So I headed off towards the beach and soon came across a wonderful area of shingle which was surprisingly packed with various plants of all sorts of different species. As this wasn't a habitat that I'd explored much in the past I had a good wander around, taking snaps of anything of interest though sadly I later realised that I'd left the camera exposure two notches down so everything has come out a bit weird.

The Shingle area

Biting Stonecrop

Common Centaury

Sea Kale
Trailing St. John's Wort
Wood Sage
Yellow Horned Poppy
Over towards the estuary mouth I found a couple of birders camped out surveying Tern Island from this higher vantage point though even here they couldn't see the bird whilst it was ensconced in its hiding place. Whilst I was chatting to them the bird took flight and flew all the way out to sea and looked set to head off into the distance on a feeding trip until abruptly it turned around again and headed back to the estuary and back to its favoured spot.

Hare's Foot Clover

I decided to head back to the main viewing area where I spent a bit of time watching the island and was treated to a couple more fly-out sorties. At this point I'd felt that I'd seen the bird well enough and my thoughts started to turn to home so I wandered back to the car, fired up the Gnome mobile and headed off. I was feeling quite tired now after all the excitement was over so I had to concentrate hard on my driving. Thankfully the traffic was fairly light and I arrived home at around 2 p.m. for my usual celebratory cup of tea.

Sydlings Copse Revisited

My VLW had been away all last week, taking her turn at looking after her now rather elderly mother and this had meant our son L and I had been left to fend for ourselves all week. We enjoyed a somewhat slovenly bachelor-like existence all week, eating less than healthily and not doing much exercise though the lack of excursions was also partly down to the weather which was very unsettled all week. Finally, come the weekend, I'd had enough and needed to get out so I proposed a walk to the Sydlings Copse, a BBOWT reserve that I'd only visited for the first time earlier this year. Still, it wasn't too far away, there was a nice straight-forward walk across fields to get to it and there was a variety of different habitats to explore and L seemed amenable enough so off we went.

Whereas last time I'd dawdled in the farm fields, looking at all the arable weeds, this time with L in tow I didn't want to get him bored right at the start of the walk so we yomped across the two fields to the turn off for the copse. Once inside we headed over to the open grassland area where the Early Purple Orchids had been on my last visit. Entering the grassy area I was immediately struck by the contrast with the previous visit. Whilst there had been some wild flowers about then, this time there was a veritable riot of colour with flowers everywhere. It was all the usual stuff with Yellow Rattle, Salad Burnett, Rough Hawkbit, various Knapweeds and Field Scabious etc. but it was just great to see it all there in such profusion. In years gone by I'd have been rather dismissive of reserves such as this as they didn't seem to have much in the way of bird action, but now with my expanded interests I'm really coming to appreciate the habitats and flora.

Over in the second, larger field area I immediately came upon a clump of (Chalk) Fragrant Orchids which I really wasn't expecting. There was no mention of this species on the BBOWT reserve website and in my general orchid enquiries from other locals I'd not been told about them. Not that I was complaining as this saved me a much longer excursion to catch up this species which was very much on my "hit-list" for this year. There were about twenty spikes of this delightful orchid all in one small area.

Fragrant Orchid
What I had been expecting at this site were Bee Orchids but after looking over in the area where I was expecting them I couldn't find them so I gave my local go-to orchid expert Wayne a quick call only to be told that there weren't any this year. Oh well, at least that meant I wasn't just being useless in not being able to find them! He did tell me that there was a Lizard Orchid flowering around there and gave me instructions on where to look though it did take a second call before I managed to home in on what was a very well-hidden flower. It was only partially out but still nice to see.

Lizard Orchid - not fully out yet

I spent some time taking photos of all the abundance of wild flowers until with L getting restless we headed back across the fields and then home for a well-earned cup of tea.

Common Spotted Orchid
Fairy Flax
Mouse-ear Hawkweed
Rough Hawkbit
Wild Liquorice