Saturday, 28 July 2018

Rare Emeralds

Regular readers may recall that a couple of years ago on the way back from the Western Purple Swampmonster I made a detour (see here) to see the Southern Migrant Hawkers at Wat Tyler CP and that I also tried for the nearby Scarce Emerald Damselflies at Bowers Marsh RSPB but came away without a definite sighting of the latter. Accordingly I've been meaning to go to try for the ScED again but never quite got around to it last year so this year I decided to make a bit more of an effort. Since my last attempt a resident breeding colony of ScED and also Southern Migrant Hawkers has become established at Canvey Island in Essex so I decided that this month I would pay a visit. With the weather forecast not being an issue in the prevailing heatwave I was just waiting for a convenient gap in my work schedule when I stumbled across some news on the British Dragonfly Society sightings page of a colony of Southern Emerald Damselflies in Buckinghamshire of all places! Now Southern Emerald is even rarer than Scarce and to my knowledge there were no public locations where this species could be found so I was keen for more information. The BDS report was rather vague on details so I started to do some investigation and eventually got all the gen. There seems to be some ambiguity as to whether this should be public information or not: I was told in confidence so I shan't give away any more details though it won't take much effort to find out all you need to know if you explore the BDS sightings pages in a bit more detail. Anyway, I elected to pay a visit to this location first and asked PL if he'd like to come along. He was keen so it was that we rendezvous'd just east of Oxford and in light traffic we'd soon arrived at the location. In the extreme heat we walked slowly down the footpath towards the general area where I'd been told they could be seen and it wasn't long before we'd found our first one in amongst some brambles. As we moved further down the path they became more frequent and near the hot-spot by the hidden pond we met a familiar face in the form of fellow Odonata enthusiast WB. With plenty of the SoED to be found, including lots in pairs, PL and I whiled away the time taking loads of photos.

Southern Emerald Damselfly is normally to be found, as the name suggests, in the southern countries of Europe though there is an established breeding population in the Netherlands now. As the climate in this country changes species such as this are increasingly going to colonise and this is surely just the first of many such finds. In terms of identification it can easily be picked out by the bi-coloured pterostigma (the dark wing patch towards the front tip of the wing) which is unique to this species for European Damselflies and which can easily be seen in the photos.

With theses bonus rare Emeralds in the bag, a few days later an opportunity arose to pay a visit to my original target, namely the Scarce Emerald Damselflies. My VLW was due to take her turn looking after her elderly mother in Surrey so I offered to drop her off on Sunday and then to nip around on the M25 to Canvey Island for my target. I say "nip" though in the end it was anything but that. With it being the first weekend of the school summer holidays, the traffic was very heavy and around by the Dartford Crossing it was crawling along and I spent some three quarters of an hour in a stop-start queue. Finally I was across and almost immediately was turning off towards south Essex where in much lighter traffic I made good progress and a little while later I was pulling up by the famous ditch which housed the first proper UK resident breeding population of Southern Migrant Hawker and also Scarce Emerald Damselfly. 

The normally water-filled ditch turned out to be almost completely dry though this didn't seem to matter to the SMH's and a patrolling male could be found every few metres along the ditch. The ScED on the other matter were much harder and it was a while before I found one skulking in the vegetation - I think that the rather overcast conditions meant that they weren't flying very much. As I worked my way along the ditch I managed to find quite a few more though I saw no where near the 50+ numbers that had been reported on-line. Still it was nice to see them and I whiled away the time trying to get some decent photos. I did manage to find a SMH actually perched and so get a proper non-flight photo and eventually also manage some reasonable ScED shots as well. 

Scarce Emerald Damselflies

This happless Hawker has been caught by a huge Wasp Spider

A couple of perched Southern Migrant Hawkers
Contrary to its name, Scarce Emerald Damselfly is actually one of the most widely spread species in the northern hemisphere, occurring in Europe, Asia and North America. However, it's never become well established in this country and various colonisation attempts in recent years have had mixed success. In terms of identification the males are distinguished from the similar Emerald Damselfly by the fact that the blue colour is missing from the low half of the S2 segment at the top of the abdomen. Other than that you have to get to grips with the differing shapes of the anal appendages. As far as breeding is concerned, like SoED, ScED lay eggs in vegetation which remains dormant over the winter before hatching in the spring so the fact that the ditch has completely dried up shouldn't matter to them at all. For the SMH on the other hand I think that their breeding cycle may well require the constant presence of water so it's possible that this colony might die out this year which would be a terrible shame.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Summer Orchids

I've been on a couple of Orchid trips over the last few weeks which I thought I'd write up in a single post here. The first was a brief spur of the moment trip down to Warburg NR in the south of the county specifically to see Lesser Butterfly Orchid which I'd not seen before. I'd recently learnt that this species could be found here so I got in touch with the warden there via e-mail and got back a reply telling me exactly where to go. So armed with this information I made the surprisingly long trip down to the reserve - the narrow winding lane at the end seems to go on for ever! In the warden's office there was a helpful map showing where various orchid species where to be found though I noticed that they hadn't actually marked up the LBO on it. I took a photo of the map on my phone for reference and then headed off to follow my e-mail instructions. It wasn't too long before I was looking at a couple of very much past their best LBO's.

Lesser Butterfly Orchid - note the rather delicate jizz...

...the diagnostic near-parallel pollen masses...

... and the extremely long straight spur

The open paths of the reserve were a riot of colour everywhere and I could have spent a long time rummaging through the flowers there but I was on a bit of a tight schedule so it was just a quick whistle-stop tour of the rest of the area before I headed home.

Bee Orchid

Greater Butterfly Orchid - a more robust species, with angled pollen masses and shorter spurs

Pyramidal Orchids were everywhere

My next trip was a long overdue one down to Noar Hill NR in Hants. This is a well known site for butterflies such as the Duke of Burgandy but is also a top site for various orchids, including Musk Orchid - the target of my visit. It was going to be another scorching hot day so set off reasonably early in order to try to avoid the worst of the heat. The journey down was uneventful and I was soon climbing the steep path up to the reserve. I'd been studying the location on various maps beforehand but it turned out to be a completely different layout to what I was expecting. It was all so compact with lots of mini hills and ridges one after another. 

Noar Hill
It was a riot of summer flowers of all sorts there including loads of Pyramidal Orchids, plenty of Chalk Fragrant Orchids though they'd almost all gone over and just a few Common Spotteds. Fortunately I'd been given some very detailed instructions by IE and soon found the Musk area where someone with a camera pointed them out to me. This species is similar to Fen Orchid in that it's a small light green orchid that you really have to look out for carefully though there was a nice clump of them close to the path which made it a lot easier to spot.

A clump of Musk Orchids. You get a sense of just how small they are from this photo
Musk Orchid
Having  quickly found my target I had a general wander around where I managed to find a few more individual Musks tucked away in the grass as well as lots of other lovely flowers. I had been told that there were some Frog Orchids nearby but couldn't find them.

Common Spotted Orchid

Pyramidal Orchid

A past it's best Chalk Fragrant Orchid
On the way back home I decided to stop off to have another crack at the Burnt Tip Orchids at Ladle Hill - long-term readers may recall that last year I'd gone there but had failed to find this species. A bit of a navigational cock-up meant that I drove around in circles for a bit before eventually arriving at the familiar layby where I was soon off and yomping as fast as I dared in the heat along the path towards the ancient hill fort. Once there I scoured in minute detail the grass along the southern edge of the fort where I'd been told they were to be found but after a good three quarters of an hour I'd not managed to find a single one. 

There were quite a few Chalk Fragrants but they'd almost all gone over apart from this single specimen
I called IE (my orchid guru guide for this site) up on my phone. He was down in a bog in Hants looking for Bog Orchids but he talked me through which areas they grew (close to the path that runs along the top of the fort on the fairly flat areas) and also what they looked like. Armed with this information I resolved to have one final look and walked slowly the entire length of the southern part without any success at all. Having got into the groove of looking I decided that I might as well push on further around the fort perimeter and finally right on the bend I found what I was looking for. 

Burnt Tip Orchid - small but very striking

Once I'd actually seen one and noted the deep dark purple of the tip then I knew what to look for and I soon found plenty more in that general area. The colour was darker than anything else growing there and they weren't as tiny as I'd been imagining. They were such a striking species that I starting to think that this might be my new favourite orchid species.

Flushed with success and now with my eye in I worked my way back along the original area that I'd been looking but still no luck -  I'd clearly just been in the wrong area to start with. I found one more clump of three or four a bit further around on the bend in the south east corner of the fort but that was it. By now I was tired and hot so I headed back to the car where I soon had the air conditioning cranked up to 11 to cool off as I headed back home. It had been a successful day out.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Kenfig Revisited

About this time last year I went to pick up Daughter Number Two from Swansea University and had decided to stop off en route at Kenfig Nature Reserve to see if I could see any Fen Orchids. This rare and diminutive orchid only grows in two places: in Norfolk and in the dune slacks of south Wales at places like Kenfig. That time I'd not seen any and had presumed that I'd been a bit too late but there had also been the nagging possibility that I'd been looking in the wrong place. This year my daughter wanted to be picked up a bit earlier, in fact right in the middle of the peak season for Fen Orchids so my thoughts naturally turned to having another go. This time, to be on the safe side I got in touch with someone in the wonderful Native Orchids of the UK Facebook group to ask for directions and he kindly said that he would meet me there to show me himself. So it was that a couple of weeks ago I found myself heading west on a gloriously sunny Sunday morning towards the Severn bridge and over the River Severn into Wales. Given the hour and the day of the week there was little traffic and I made good time, indeed arriving a little early for my rendezvous with AP, my guide for the day. He turned out to be a wonderfully amiable and extremely  knowledgeable orchid enthusiast. Together with another friend of his who was doing some reconnaissance for a field trip that he was running that afternoon, we wandered along the sandy tracks towards the main dune slack enjoying the sights and scenery on a beautifully sunny day. I was pleased to note that the slack was the same one that I'd been to the previous year so at least I'd been in the right general area last time. The slack itself was awash with orchids, mostly Southern Marsh though with several Early Marsh in amongst them, including the beautiful red coccinea subspecies.

Early Marsh Orchid - past their best now

The coccinea sub species of Early Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid - by far the commonest orchid there

We started off not looking for Fens but instead Northern Marsh Orchid. There'd been a bit of debate in the FB group about whether NMO actually occurs at Kenfig. AP was sure that it did as he'd seen some a couple of weeks ago on his last visit but he wanted to show his friend to make sure. Eventually we found several specimens as well as some Common Twayblades. We even managed to find a hyperchromic subspecies with extremely rich colouring.

Northern Marsh Orchid

Hyperchromic NMO, with the very rich colouring
Common Twayblades
Having satisfied themselves about the NMO, the companion had to leave for his field trip so AP and I went in search of the elusive Fen Orchids. I'd been keeping half an eye out for FO as we'd tramped about the slack but hadn't spotted any. AP told me that the wardens had been getting worried about the decreasing numbers of FO over the last few years so had intervened to create some new habitat. Apparently there is a natural cycle with the dunes: a fresh sand scrape is gradually colonised and as it starts to get stabilised by grasses etc the vegetation gets thicker and there's more competition so it's harded for the more diminutive plants such as Fens to survive. So they'd dug a few fresh scrapes to create a sparsely vegetated area and this was where we were headed. As soon as we got there we could see loads of Fen Orchids. Over the relatively narrow area of the scrape there must have been at least fifty. I thanked my stars (and also of course AP) that I'd thought to ask for guidance as otherwise I'd probably never have found them in this small strip.

Fen Orchids at last!

Orchid Hunters paying homage to the Fens

Dark Green Fritillary on a Meadow Thistle
Time was marching on and I had one eye on the clock, thinking that I still had to get to Swansea, load up the car and then get all the way back home again. However, AP had mentioned in passing that right by the shoreline one could find Sea Stock, a rare coastal plant that is only to be found along the southern coast of Wales so I waited patiently until he'd finished his photography and then he took me over to see them. There were loads of dragonflies buzzing around in the pools as we went (mostly Broad-bodied Chasers) and as we neared the beach suddenly there were Pyramidal Orchids everywhere. AP soon found some Sea Stock though it was far too early for it to be in flower.

Pyramidal Orchid

The elusive Sea Stock - nowhere near in flower yet
Kenfig was a wonderful place and truly one could spend all day there but as time was marching on we then turned around and headed back to the car park. I thanks my companion profusely for all the help that he'd given and we went our separate ways. I headed back onto the motorway and within half an hour I was pulling up at my daughter's student accommodation. She'd got everything already packed and ready to load in the car so it was a relatively quick turnaround and we were soon on our way back home. The return journey was uneventful and the time passed quickly enough as we caught up on each other's news. It had been a good day out and I'd finally got to see some Fen Orchids.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Catching Up

Readers may well have noticed the distinct lack of posts here over the last few months. The reason for this has largely been that I've been tied up on the work front and haven't been able to go out on many trips at all. That's not to say that I've not done any, just they've mostly been relatively minor ones or alternatively unsuccessful ones (which one always feels less inclined to blog about). So I thought that I'd do a round-up of what I've done over the intervening period, partly just as a personal reminder though of course I hope that readers also enjoy them.

Hunting Yellow Stars
Back at the end of March I went on a relatively local trip to look for the elusive Yellow Star of Bethlehem (Gagea lutea) which I'd recently learnt from the very informative Hooky Natural History blog could be found locally at Whitehall Woods along the backs of the River Evenlode . It had been a very wet early spring and I arrived at the location to find that the river had burst its banks and at first it looked completely hopeless. Fortunately however, the bank on the footpath side of the river was very steep so it was still possible to work my way along it and to look out for this plant though according to the aforementioned blog source there weren't any actually in flower this spring so it was a matter of looking out for the subtle pointers that marked this species out from the similar Bluebell leaves. Fortunately I managed to find a few specimens as well as some emerging Toothwort. It would be nice actually to see some in flower so I'll try again next year.

The flooded River Evenlode
Toothwort just coming out
Yellow Star of Bethlehem, munched by deer (presumably)

That Chiffchaff and Bittern Dipping
Much has already been said about the "Iberian" Chiffchaff that turned out to be something else. The morning the news broke I was just about to leave to spend a day over in Suffolk to have a crack at the American Bittern that had appeared at Carlton Marshes and a quick detour around the ring road to get a cracking county tick was going to be a great bonus. Suffice it to say that the song (which you could hear from the car park) seemed good enough to me as well as quite a few other county birders. To his credit it was the Notorious LGRE who first cast aspersions on it's identity and gradually over the coming days as we all learnt more about what constitutes a bona fide Iberian the horrible truth dawned on us all. For me the most interesting part was the three parts to a true Iberian's song which Ian Lewington describes as ‘jip jip jip jip jip weep weep weep chitachitachita’; this bird on the other hand was going ‘jit jit jit jit jit juda juda juda juda’ without any middle "weep"-ing. I'll know what to listen out for in future. An educational bird as they say (grrrrr).

Superb video of the Chiffy from video genius Badger

Anyway, I didn't even get to see the American Bittern. Despite spending five long hours staring at the reedbed with a number of other birders (including master lensman JH) there was no sign of it that day. Lots of Marsh Harriers, a pair of Whimbrel, a heard-only Eurasion Bittern and a close Yellow Wagtail were quite frankly poor compensation for a long and ultimately fruitless day and even my consolation county tick was later snatched away from me. Gah!

Farmoor Bonxies & Terns
After the excitement of the Green-winged Teal back in January and apart from the bitter disappointment of that Chiffchaff, it has been a rather quiet spring in the county. I've been working away diligently on the patch (see Port Meadow Birding for those who don't know about it) but when a pair of Bonxies turned up at Farmoor I thought that I'd have a change from the daily patch routine and decided to go and pay a visit. They were immediately on view when I arrived albeit a long distance away and I couldn't be bothered to slog all the way up the causeway so contented myself with very distant views from the bank by the car park.

 Distant misty Bonxies

For me the highlight of the visit was the presence of both Arctic and Common Terns flying really close in just in front of me. It was a wonderful opportunity to compare and contrast the two species. Despite being able to rattle off by heart the list of the field guide differences there's nothing quite like seeing them side by side in the field for getting a feel for the two species and I came away much more confident in being able to tell them apart from flight views.

A fabulous set of photos taken by camera legend Roger Wyatt who was there watching the Terns with me.
Top two Arctic and bottom two Common

Patch Mega
I mentioned my patch birding earlier, well it's been a reasonably good year there so far with decent amounts of flood water (always a critical factor) lasting all the way into June. We've had a good selection of species though it's been a quiet spring for waders. So, after having had a very busy day with work, when I decided to pay an evening visit to the floods I was pleasantly surprised to find 20 or more Ringed Plover right at the start of the floods - a record count for the year so far. Conditions were very gloomy and overcast as I worked my way northwards up the floods but I kept finding more birds with a pair of Redshank, some Oystercatchers, a couple of Greenshank and a few Sanderling to add to the total - it had been a real fall! The highlight however was to be found right at the end. I spotted someone on the north shore with a pair of bins looking at something very intently. "What could he be looking at?" I wondered as I scanned over the northern section of flood water. I soon found the answer when an adult summer plumage Red-necked Phalarope came into view! I recognised it instantly from the one at Bicester Wetlands that I'd seen a few years previously so I busied myself with taking some video footage and then putting the word out. Most of the Port Meadow locals came to see it as well as a few county birders from further afield though with this being the third record in the last four years it wasn't the draw that it used to be.

The best I could manage on the video front given the distance and the gloomy conditions

I watched it until dusk in the company of various fellow admirers and as I was leaving four out-of-county people arrived to see it so in the end more than a dozen people came to pay their respects. As to be expected for a migrating spring bird, there was no sign of it the next day.

As a matter of interest (thanks to JU for the info), past records of this species are:
Shotover (found exhausted) Winter 1884
Sandford Sewage Farm Sep 1944
Marsh Baldon June 1960
Stanton Harcourt June 1969
Farmoor May 1974
Farmoor June 1974
Dix Pit  Sep 1995
A "probable" at Balscote Quarry June 2014 Bicester Wetlands: May 2015
Farmoor: Sep 2017

It was nice finally to find something good on the patch again - it's been a while personally though thankfully we now have a good team of dedicated birders who are collectively finding stuff to keep the patch rare list ticking over.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Cornish Teaser

I've been in two minds of late as to whether to bother putting the condensed version of my Pendeen Birding exploits here on my Gnome Birding blog as well. Especially as there's often not a great deal of interest in the posts apart from very localised stuff. So this time instead I'm just going to do a few teaser photos and if you'd like to delve deeper into the birds, moths, flower and of course teas that were seen down in the far South West at the start of this month then follow the link here. Do let me know in the comments below if you prefer the full thing posted here instead.

Willow Warbler


Red Chestnut