Sunday, 27 July 2014

Warren Heath

As it's mid July we are still very much in the summer insect season so when I started contemplating a bijou tripette somewhere I found my thoughts turning to dragonflies. As I'm rather new to Odonata there are a number of species that I've yet to see so I thought that I'd try Warren Heath in north Hampshire which was supposed to be one of the top sites in the country. Consisting of two reservoir pools, a stream and some heath pools, it was an acid based ecology and so attractive to many specialist species that one wouldn't find in Oxon. According to the excellent Hampshire Dragonflies web-site there were a total of 22 different species of dragonfly and damselfly that could be seen. All very appealing so I made plans to head down there on Friday morning and spent the evening before doing my background research.

Friday dawned rather cool and cloudy as it had over the last few days but I knew that this would soon burn off once it started to warm up so it was with an optimistic frame of mind that I set off at around 9am from Chateau Gnome, arriving about an hour later on site. The first problem was where to park as there was no where obvious. In the end I tucked the Gnome mobile off the road hard up against the undergrowth and got my gear together.

One of the great charms of this site is how wild and untamed it is with only a few forestry tracks and no footpaths at all. It needs a good head for direction or map reading so I'd taken a snap shot on my phone of the relevant part of the OS map and which I consulted carefully as I started out. It was great to be out in heathland habitat once more with Bell Heather and Harebells lining the track as I set off. Almost immediately I came across my first dragonfly, a female Keeled Skimmer which seem to have strayed away from any pools that I could see.

Bell Heather
Female Keeled Skimmer
I walked along, enjoying the relative coolness of the shady path, listing to the high-pitched calls of Coal Tits in amongst the pines and within about ten minutes I arrived at the reservoir pools. There was no one else there at all and it was peaceful and quiet. In fact apart from a couple of dog walkers I'd not seen anyone else on my journey here at all. The western pool was a lovely bit of water running west to east, tree-lined and shady along the southern shore with a more open and sunny aspect along the northern shore. The water was dark brown and peaty and was covered in several large patches of White Water-Lily as well as being home to pond weed of various types. The eastern pool by contrast was completely devoid of water plants, more tree-lined on both sides and generally far less appealing. I therefore chose to start off on the western pool.

I'd only gone a few yards when in the first shady corner I came across one of my target species for today, namely an Emerald Dragonfly. However, as both Downy and Brilliant Emeralds were known to frequent the site which one was it? The trouble was that it was so shady and dark where I was that it was impossible to make out the relative brightness and shininess of it as it flew about. For readers who aren't aware of the subtle differences between the two species, Downy are a duller green colour whereas Brilliants, as their name suggests are a brighter green colour. The males both have a waisted look with a bulge on their abdomen though with Downy it ends with a club-like tail whereas for Brilliant the bulge is more half way along the abodment. There are other subtle differences which are best discerned in the hand or at least on a stationary insect but this one was constantly on the move hunting away low down along the shore. There were supposed to be differences in jizz as well, with Brilliant generally flying further out and higher up but given where it was hunting it was difficult to tell. In the end I decided to try to take some video footage of it as it darted about and managed to get a single grab from it where it appears in the bottom left hand corner of the video for a matter of moments. However, it was going to have to wait until I got home though before I could analyse it.

Back home and after consulting the resident county experts it was decided that 
this was a Brilliant Emerald, with the more central abdomen bulge, the yellowish 
tinge to the wings and the brighter colouring being the main pointers as well as
reports from previous recent visitors to the site of what was located where

I decided to work my way around the pool slowly where I soon found several more Emeralds all hunting away in the deep shade though many of these were female without the shaped abdomen and it was so dark here that there was no hope of filming them. In the north west corner I found a ruined building and another Emerald hunting along the shore. This area was actually in full sunlight and I managed to get a decent look at this one with its relatively dark green colouring and its club-tailed abdomen pointing to a definite Downy Emerald.

Continuing along the more open north shore there were Brown Hawkers and Emperors starting to hawk across the main pool with electric blue Damselflies darting low over the water's surface. Back where I'd started I did a second circuit and came across more species with Ruddy and Common Darters, a Four-spotted Chaser and a Golden-ringed Dragonfly all noted. On the Damselfly front there were Blue-tailed, Common Blue, Large Red and Emerald all to be seen. I busied myself taking snaps where I could and enjoying the richness of insect life.

female Common Darter
male Common Darter
Emerald Damselfly
Four-spotted Chaser
After spending far longer than I'd originally intended at this first pool I decided to have a quick look at the second pool before exploring the stream that runs east of these two pools and which was supposed to hold plenty of Golden-ringed Dragonflies. The eastern pool was relatively empty of insect life and I soon gave up on it, turning my attention to the stream instead which turned out to be extremely overgrown, indeed one really had to fight to make one's way along it at all. Banded Demoiselles and Golden-ringed Dragons would zip past as I struggled my way along looking for a more open viewing area. After a while I came to a clearer area where someone had carefully placed a few perching sticks in the middle of the stream. Sure enough after a few moments the first Golden-ringed Dragonfly arrived and helpfully settled on the perch. I snapped away greedily at near point-blank range though sadly my pocket camera and my super-zoom in no way do justice to what was a superb photo opportunity. In fact I've come to realise that in general it's hard to get anything half way decent from my humble equipment but I really don't want to start off down the DSLR route if I can help it.

Golden-ringed Dragonflies
After a while I left the Golden-ringed's to enjoy the sunshine in peace and hacked my way further eastwards until I came to another track that intersected the stream. To the east of this was open heathland with some pools supposedly at the east end of the area. The trouble was how to get to them. I started off trying to follow the stream but it was so overgrown and rutted underfoot that in the end I gave up and headed southwards up to where according to the map there was a proper path. I figured that I would walk along the path until I was level with the bull rushes that I could see in the distance (which presumably marked the pool area) and then I'd hack my way back down at that point. I struggled in the midday heat towards the path but then became distracted when I came across a series of boggy pools just before the road. Here there were loads of Keeled Skimmers and Large Red Damselflies. It was also much easier to walk along this boggy area than on the overgrown heath so I worked my way eastwards here, enjoying the insects as I went.

Keeled Skimmer

Round-leaved Sundew
After a while I was level with the rushes and struck north again towards them. The ground was very uneven and it was hard work in the heat but I made it to the rush area. I was expecting a single large pool but it turned out to be a few small pools with the stream having spread out to run through the grass in a secret and treacherous manner. I say this because on at least two occasions I took a wrong step and found myself knee deep in water and on one occasion I nearly toppled in completely. Fortunately as it was so hot I didn't mind the wetness.

one of the heath pools
There were more Keeled Skimmers here and also a couple of Black Darters, one of the other target species that I was after. After some floundering around in the bog I managed to take a few shots that I was happy with.

Black Darter
Black Darter with a Keeled Skimmer
Eventually I decided that I'd had my fill and struggled my way back again, stopping periodically to view the insects or local flowers. Back at the main track I decided on one last look at the western reservoir pool before heading off home and struck off down a likely looking path that was heading the right way. Sadly this petered out and I had to work my way through the thick undergrowth along the eastern reservoir pool where there was no path at all before coming out at the western pool again. Another circuit revealed nothing that I'd not seen before though there seemed to be greater numbers of everything now that it was even hotter.

Marsh St John's-Wort
Hunger was now starting to get to me so I decided to call it a day and headed back to the car stopping to admire a Silver-washed Fritillary that wouldn't settle for a photo and to take snaps of any flowers that caught my attention as I went.

Common Centaury
Back at the car I got out of my soaking boots and greedily scoffed my snack that I'd left behind in the car as well as gulping lots of water to recover from my efforts in fighting through the undergrowth and bogs in the hot midday sun. Then I fired up the Gnome mobile and pointed it in the direction of home, arriving back later than expected due to some traffic problems on the A34.

It had been a very interesting trip to what felt like a true heathland wilderness which (apart from the two dog walkers first thing) I'd had entirely to myself - something that's not so easy to say these days in this crowded country. I'd also managed to see all my target species which I was really pleased about. I've read (see here) that Warren Heath isn't the great site that it used to be and indeed I only encountered relatively modest counts of the various species but as it was all new to me I was more than happy with my trip.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Shellingford Dragon Pit

Having gone for my bijou twitchette last week for the Cheltenham Night Heron my twitching urges hadn't yet grown to the extent of demanding full blown outing. Still, I felt that another local excursion would be a good idea to keep the beast sated. Of course at this time of year it's usually insects that occupy my attention and there were two species of Damselfly that was supposedly resident in the county which I'd yet to see. One was Variable which I was probably too late for now and the other was Small Red-eyed Damselfly which should be out. The only location for this second species was Shellingford Pit near Faringdon, a former quarry that has now been allowed to revert back to nature. This seemed like a reasonable outing and one which shouldn't take too long so as it was a sunny Monday morning and there wasn't much for me to do on the work front I decided to give it a go. I sent out a few text enquiries to local birders as this wasn't a site that I knew at all well and fortunately Barry Hudson came up trumps with some access directions. Thus it was that a little after midday I sped off in the Gnome mobile towards Faringdon along the A420.  A little over 30 minutes later I arrived and after a false start managed to find the correct gate to park in front of though it was rather a small space given the bulky size of the Gnome mobile. Still I managed to get it off the road and struck out down the very overgrown path that lead down to the pit. 

Shellingford Pit
I had no idea where to go so I just followed my nose and soon found myself overlooking the pit with some very overgrown bankside vegetation on my side of the pit. I struggled down to the shoreline through the wonderful array of wild flowers that were buzzing with butterflies and insects. With my new found interest in flowers just starting to blossom I could easily have spent all day there trying to work out what the various species were but I decided to be focused and therefore limited myself to just one new plant on my visit. In the end I chose a pretty pink dangly flower to photograph which I later found out was Russian Comfrey.

Russian Comfrey
Eventually I struggled my way to the rocky shoreline and had a look about. Little Grebes were whinnying away noisily and Coots and Moorhens were hurrying about their business. In the distance were a couple of Tufted Ducks and a Great Crested Grebe and a Grey Heron took exception to my presence and flew off squawking loudly. Over the water there were loads of Black-tailed Skimmers zooming about though only a few Damselflies. I managed to pick out a single Red-eyed Damsel though it was of the standard large variety. I worked my way along the shore for about 50 yards as best I could given all the vegetation until I came to a small backwater. Here one could get closer to the Damsels and I soon picked out quite a few Common Blues, a few Blue-tailed and even a couple of Emeralds.

Common Blue Damselfly
Emerald Damselfly
Over by the mouth of this inlet there was a patrolling Emperor Dragonfly, looking impressively huge as he careered about, bossing the whole area. Try as I might though I couldn't find any Red-eyed Damselflies of either the small or large variety apart from my single sighting earlier. It was all rather frustrating.

I contemplated giving up and heading home as I'd already spent quite some time scouring just this small section. Back up near the car I noticed that the path forked off and decided to have a quick explore to see if perhaps I could get around to the other side of the pit which looked much more accessible. The path took me along the side of a Wheat field which I was pleased to see was also full of wild flowers of various types. I soon came across some more Dragons and Damsels along the path including a fine female Common Darter.

Female Common Darter
Eventually I found a gate that lead down a slope to the far side of the Pit. This looked much more promising. For starters it was more sheltered: there'd been a bit of a breeze on the other side. Also one could easily access the shoreline without being ripped to shreds by brambles. I started to have a look around and soon began to see lots of Damselflies. I soon came across a Red-eyed Damselfly though it was the standard one. Still it was nice and close and one could easily see the red eyes and the neat blue tail segments that were confined to S9 and S10 on the abdomen (the last two segments).

Red-eye Damselfly - note the blue is confined to S9 & S10
I soon spotted another Damselfly loafing around on a weed raft. This one had it's abdoment curved upwards as it rested which I knew from my swotting up this morning to be a characteristic of the Small Red-eyed Damselfly. What's more even through my bins I could see that there was more blue on the tail section. A quick snap with the super zoom soon confirmed my suspicions, it was indeed a Small - result! I managed to find another one or two and did my best to take some photos though sadly they were always rather distant.

Small Red-eyed Damselfly - note the upturned abdomen & the blue on the lower half of S8
Blown up view of Small Red-eyed Damselfly showing the blue on the lower half of S8 and also on S2
I worked my way around the far shore but all the Red-eyed and Small Red-eyed seemed to be confined to a relatively small area of shoreline at the beginning, after that it was all Commons and a few Emeralds. I flushed a couple of Common Sandpipers which flew off indignantly at having their haven disturbed. I retraced my steps and spent more time in the hot spot trying to improve on my photos of the Smalls though frustratingly they were always right on the far side of the weedy area that lined the shore. 

Small Red-eyed Damselfly
Small Red-eyed Damselfly

In the end it was time to head back home but on the way back I treated myself to a bonus plant which turned out to be a Musk-mallow.

I got back to the Gnome mobile and checked the time. It turned out that I'd spent nearly three hours there in end, I couldn't believe it! Still it had been worth it, I'd found my target Damselfly which I'd had to work for so it was a well-earned tick. Feeling rather thirsty now, I pointed the car in the direction of home and sped off, spurred on my way by the thought of a celebratory cup of tea and perhaps a scone waiting for me back at Chateau Gnome.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Cheltenham Night Heron

I couldn't help but notice that the Night Heron that had been loitering in a Cheltenham park last month had come back again over the last few days. Now this species isn't one that I "need" as I'd seen a self-found juvenile bird in Kenidjack Valley down in Cornwall a couple of years ago. However as that had been only 10 seconds of flight view I thought that it would be nice to see a more co-operative adult bird. I had intended to nip down there on Monday but it was L's sports day which took precedence. However today the builders were back and were going to do a bit more drilling so it was the perfect excuse for a bijou twitchette. Thus it was that at around midday, having dropped my VLW and B (daughter no. 2) off somewhere I sped off along the A40 west towards the well-heeled town of Cheltenham, home of the Ladies College and the much more sinister GCHQ.

Almost exactly an hour later I pulled up at Pittville Park, a medium sized public park to the north of the town which boasted two lakes, divided by the main road. According to the Gloster Birder web-site the bird was on the upper (east) lake towards the east end. As I headed over in that direction it was soon obvious from the small gathering of mega lenses where the bird was and I wandered over to join them.

The upper lake in Pittville Park
The bird was hanging out on the opposite bank where there was some good cover and some helpful low branches that it could perch on. The water was nice and shallow under the bushes and it would spend a long time standing motionless in the water before suddenly pouncing. Apparently it's usual habit was to work its way back and forth along this section before retiring behind the thickest cover to rest and at night it would climb up into a yew tree to roost. It looked a great spot for it with good cover, a fence to keep out predators and lots of fish in the pond to catch. There was no path where it was so it wouldn't be disturbed by people walking by. It was on show as soon as I arrived and I took a few digiscoped snaps and just spent some time admiring what was a very handsome bird.

After about an hour I reluctantly tore myself away and headed homewards, stopping en route for a (rather unpleasant) petrol station sandwich. It had been a very nice little outing to see what was a lovely bird. All we need now is for one to turn up in Oxon.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Sandwich Supper and a Wild Eagle Chase

It had been a good couple of weeks since my last excursion and I'd started to feel the urge to get out again. It being June of course there wasn't so much choice and normally at this time of year I have to turn to insects as the focus of my outings. However there was the small matter of the Short-toed Eagle down in Sussex which now looked very much like it was here for the summer despite my giving it every chance to leave before I went to see it. Now for some reason birds of prey don't really do it for me in the way that other species do. Me, I love warblers, waders, gulls and exotic colourful stuff like Rollers and Bee-eaters but BoPs (and geese) not so much really. Still, it would of course be a tick and it wasn't too far away. What's more I found out that there was a reasonable dragonfly site literally three minutes down the road. The combination of these factors in the end pushed me over the edge so it was that I planned to head out on Monday down to Ashdown Forest in Sussex to see what all the fuss was about. However, in an uncanny echo of my last trip, the night before a county Red Alert intervened. Whereas last time it involved a dawn raid on the day of my trip, at least this time it consisted of a mad post dinner dash to Farmoor.

I was lounging on the sofa, contemplating an evening of watching the Glastonbury highlights on telly when I got a call from Badger, the hub of all county birding information. It turned out that Dai John had found a couple of Sandwich Terns at Farmoor which were flying up and down the causeway. Now, regular readers will know that this is my county bogey bird. We get a few records at Farmoor every year but they are always fly-throughs so that unless you happen actually to be there they are impossible to twitch. I've lost count of the number of failed attempts that I've made to see this species in Oxon. It looked like I was going to have to add another sortie to that list. Still, nothing ventured. I checked in with my VLW who was less than impressed at the timing as I was supposed to be putting our son to bed. She reluctantly agreed to do it for me and I hastily got my stuff together and sped off.

A mere 35 minutes after having received the initial call I arrived in the Farmoor car park, sped up the bank and gave Dai a call to get the latests. Miraculously he said that they were still there, sitting on a buoy on F1 half way along the causeway! I had deliberately put on my trainers for this trip and I put them into use now, running as fast as my out of condition fitness would let me. I could see Dai and Dave Daniels in the distance and they appeared to be watching something. Spurred on I made it up to them and lo and behold there they were, a couple of Sandwich Terns not more that 75 yards from me. One was sitting on a buoy and the other was on a green barley bale. They both looked very settled like they were there for the evening. Dai and Dave soon departed and I took some digiscoped snaps and revelled in the triumph of finally having seen this elusive species in the county. After a quick fifteen minute photo shoot I too wandered back along the causeway at a more leisurely pace this time and drove back to Chateau Gnome a contented bunny.

At last!
The next day was Eagle day. It seemed like the Eagle was normally first seen at around 9:30 in the morning and whilst on paper it should only take a couple of hours to get down to Ashdown Forest, given the inevitable rush-hour traffic I decided to add on half an hour to the journey time. Thus it was that I left at 6:30 a.m. and steered the Gnome mobile into the torrent of commuting cars that was the motorway. There were the inevitable stops and starts when the traffic built up too much but eventually I was passed the worst and into the Sussex countryside, finally pulling up in the tranquillity of the Long car park as planned at around 9 a.m. Having done my research it seemed that usually the bird was first seen in this area before later moving on to the Gill's Lap area to hunt so this was what I planned to do as well. 

There were only a handful of cars in the car park and I wandered along the main track with not another person in sight. The habitat was classic sandy soil heathland with heather, gorse and a scattering of widely spaced pine trees with occasional denser copses. It's a shame that we don't have anything like this in Oxon. There were the usual bird species to look out for in this area and I'd soon added Tree Pipit and Stonechat to the day list. At the end of the track where it converged with a couple of others I found four other birders, staking out a view point. This turned out to be the spot where the Eagle was first twitched in Sussex and indeed I recognised it from the photos. One of the ladies there had seen it on Saturday from the same spot so this seemed like as good a spot as any. The ground fell away from us down to a clearing which looked like a good snake hunting area and one could cover a reasonable area of sky from this vantage point as well. Time passed and we watched a Whitethroat family, lots of Linnets coming and going, a Green Woodpecker family and listened to an insistently calling Goldcrest in the trees behind us. A Large Skipper or two would flutter about in grass nearby. All very idyllic but there was no Eagle. A Sparrowhawk taking to the air gave a brief flurry of excitement until it was properly scrutinised. Gradually the others left to try Gill's Lap until it was just me alone in these peaceful surroundings. After about an hour in total I too decided to try my luck at the other site. To be honest I wasn't holding out too much hope for today as the bird hadn't been reported since lunchtime the previous day, a suspiciously long absence all afternoon. It wouldn't surprise me if the bird had moved to one of its alternative sites again, as it had done before. Still it was nice to be out in the morning sunshine in the Sussex countryside and I wandered back to the car in good spirits meeting various other birders coming the other way, the next shift of Eagle hunters.

A Stonechat on the track from the Long car park
A short 10 minute drive over to Gill's Lap found a very different picture from the calmness of the Long car park area. There were about 30 birders dotted about the place and there seemed also to be some kind of hiking jamboree taking place (perhaps Duke of Edinburgh) with scores of teenagers with huge backpacks either arriving or departing constantly. The word from the birders there was that there'd been no sign of the Eagle at all. I set up my scope overlooking the valley and got out some food to munch on. I soon discovered from a plaque there that this whole area was the inspiration for A.A Milne's Whinny the Pooh books and that many of the places in his books were based on sites in the area. For example, the wood to the left (actually called the 500 Acre Wood) was renamed the 100 Akre Wood and the valley that we were overlooking was the basis for Eeyore's Gloomy Place. As there was no sign of the Eagle, the sun had now gone in and it was in fact threatening to rain, I could well concur with this name. 

Eeyore's Gloomy place (and mine too!)
After a while of seeing precious little at all I decided to give up for now and instead head a couple of minutes up the road to the Sussex Wildlife Trust Old Lodge reserve. After all if the Eagle came up on the pager I could be back there in a very short space of time. So this is what I did. The Old Lodge turned out to be a great little reserve, set on a hillside it encompassed the basic heathland terrain in miniature. There was plenty of bird life about with trilling Woodlarks, a singing Yellowhammer by the car park and plenty of Tree Pipits. My main interest here was dragonflies, specifically Golden-ringed Dragonflies which love this sort of habitat and acid soil environment. I followed the path downwards and eventually came to a small stream at the bottom of a rather steep valley. Here there were a series of three small pools which all looked great. The only problem was the weather: it had rather clouded over and got a bit cooler, not ideal for dragonflies. Still I thought that I'd have a good look around.

Old Lodge Pool
At first I couldn't find anything of note but gradually I started to pick out Common Blue Damselflies resting in the foliage and I also found a single Large Red. Suddenly a large dragonfly zoomed into view and made a couple of very fast circuits of the pool. Wow betide anything flying about there - it would have soon been snapped up by this Large Emperor as it checked out the margins. A short while later another large dragonfly made an appearance and it too did a couple of quick circuits. However this one was clearly a Golden-ringed Dragonfly, there was no mistaking the gold rings, nor the slightly waisted look that marked it out as a male. Sadly it soon shot off again. At least I'd manage to see this lovely dragon, which is not to be found in Oxon at all.

After a while I started to wander up the hill to check out some more pools higher up. On the way I found more Tree Pipits, saw a couple of Crossbills fly over, saw a family of Woodlarks and a family of Common Redstarts. All good stuff. The pools turned out to be completely deserted. Even though it was clouding over more and more I decided on one more quick check of the original stream and pools though this time I found nothing apart from a few more Damselflies. As it started to rain I hurried back up the hill towards the car park. There it was a quick drive back to Gill's Lap where I soon discovered that I'd not missed anything at all. I positioned the car so I could overlook the valley through the windscreen and sat there munching on a sandwich. It was by now fairly clear to me that the Eagle wasn't going to show. A chap next to me postulated that it might be in hiding due to the gloomy weather as all the snakes would be hidden. However, first thing this morning it had been bright enough so I didn't quite buy his theory and was starting to think more and more that it had re-located again.

As I was now feeling a bit sleepy I decided on a final quick walk to stretch my legs. Accordingly I went down into Eeyore's Gloomy place where I was told there were a couple of small pools. I duly found these though apart from resting Damsels there was nothing else of note. On the way back I snapped this yellow flower which is a Bog Asphodel. I get the feeling that I'm going to start getting into flowers over the coming years. It has a sense of inevitability about it.

Bog Asphodel
Back in the car I'd decided that I'd had enough. I wanted to get home before the evening rush hour started anyway so I headed off. There were a couple of moments of excitement when my RBA text service which had been depressingly silent on the Eagle all day suddenly sprang to life. The first message was a "no sign all day" message that someone had put out for Gill's Lap. The second one was a "I've been watching the Eagle for the last hour and a half here in the New Forest" message. I cursed the b*stard observer out loud from within the confines of my car. Why could he not have put out the message when he first found it? Anyway it would have been too far to have gone all the way to the New Forest even if he had done so as I had to be back home in good time to take my daughter to her martial arts lesson. Oh well, it was just one of those things - my suspicions about the eagle re-locating had sadly proved correct.

As I drove home I contemplated my day out. I'd visited some nice habitat that I don't often get to see, seen all the local specialities that one might expect and I'd even managed to see a Golden-ringed Dragonfly in less than ideal weather conditions. Surprisingly I wasn't too upset about the Eagle. I may even get another crack at it at some point should it stay for the rest of the summer.

Who needs a mega Eagle anyway when you can have this!