30 NOVEMBER 2018 – BURWELL FEN
The news was encouraging; Short-eared Owls were back at Burwell Fen, and apparently showing well. John suggested a trip as the weather had calmed down considerably, with a good amount of sunshine forecast, and winds winding down too.
There was little point in getting there too early, so John suggested picking me up at 11.00 am, which gave us plenty of time to get to the fen for the late afternoon ‘show’. We arrived in good time, which allowed us a chance to walk around the fen first, before returning for the owls. But there was very little to see, except for large flocks of Lapwing (with some Golden Plover amongst them) and impressive numbers of Fieldfare (estimated at up to 1,000 in total throughout the day).
Luckily for us, although initially there was a keen westerly breeze, the winter light was exceptional, which allowed me to test my photography skills for the first time in the best part of a month.
We already knew to expect a larger contingent of birdwatchers, from the number of cars in the car park (which had overflowed to the margins), but we were taken aback by the actual numbers, which we could see from a distance, congregating where the owls had been seen - possibly as many as fifty or so, which John thought might restrict our chances of seeing the owls well. So, by 3.00 pm we were ensconced with the rest, waiting for the Owls to show. We didn’t have long to wait.
Suddenly, a Short-eared Owl appeared from seemingly nowhere, hawking the fields in front of us; initially at some distance, but occasionally drifting past near to where John and I (and others) were stood, allowing some excellent views. To the left, another was seen (though I wasn’t convinced it was a separate individual). But then, the first owl re-appeared and flew across the road to begin hawking again, when a second owl joined it for a while as both continued to hunt in ever failing light. It was at this point John saw a male Hen Harrier hawking in the distance, so everyone’s attention was drawn to that for a while, until that too faded into the dusk. In total I think four owls were seen.
I have tried late afternoon photography previously when I was attempting to get Barn Owls at Thorley Wash, and I was largely beaten by the rapidly failing light, even though I’d tweaked my camera settings to allow for that. It was the same on this occasion, and I missed several potentially good shots attempting to tweak the settings again. But I was largely unsuccessful, with one or two exceptions shown here, which were better than I’d anticipated. But I also took time to actually watch the owls too, and they were wonderful, beautiful creatures. I did feel sort of privileged. I’m sure John did too.
5 NOVEMBER 2018 - A ‘MOOSE’ IN THE ‘HOOSE’
Fireworks of a different kind occurred this afternoon, when, looking through the kitchen window, I discovered something moving in my newly planted wild flower bed. At first, I thought it was a leaf shaking in the wind, but then I realised that there was no wind, so what was it?
A minute or so watching this ‘thing’ shaking amongst the new growth, and then it dawned on me that it was a mouse. I immediately charged upstairs (although, at my age it was a more sedate charge) to get the camera - and after changing the settings accordingly - I moved into the back garden only to see the mouse disappear out of the flower bed like a bat out of hell. But it came back within seconds and went back to what it was doing previously; and then it heard the shutter go and it stormed out of the bed again. This time it didn’t return, but I followed it over some bricks and underneath a trellis where it stopped to clean itself.
Even then the
light conditions were very poor, but I fired off a couple of shots, which
caused the mouse - by then I’d identified it as a Wood Mouse - to disappear back into the shadows, only to
reappear again beside a couple of waste cooking oil bottles - as it peaked out
silently - only to return to the shadows as I fired off more shots. And
then it was out again, this time tracing the wall to the house, right round to
the drain (maybe 15 metres or so) - and under the back gate. Another couple of
shots as it did so - but none of them turned out well, because of the
combination of bad light and the storming speed of the Wood Mouse.
But I was glad I tried, as I like most mice, and Wood mice in particular; they certainly have character.
22 OCTOBER 2018 – NORFOLK
It was a 6.30am start, but the advantage that might usually give was soon frittered away due to unusually heavy traffic, and we arrived at Titchwell just over two and a half hours later.
I’m not quite sure how we came to go to Titchwell first, as the consensus (2 to 1) between the three of us (Mike Harris joining John Slee and myself) was that Cley might be the better choice as one didn’t need to factor in the tides quite so much on that part of the coast, and in any event Cley is usually a better place to do a sea watch from. But it turned out to be a bad decision.
We had initially timed our arrival to coincide with the high tide at 9.15 am, so with a slightly late arrival that had already happened, but the tide was just on the turn, so we made our way to the beach. Before we got there, we couldn’t ignore the activity of passerines around the car park, with Goldcrests; Chiffchaffs; Chaffinches and two lovely male Bramblings to whet our appetite. We largely ignored the reserve to get to the beach, where several birdwatchers, along with their telescopes already ensconced on the dunes. Of course, we’d missed some activity – five or so Little Auks, and a couple of Pomarine Skuas out on the horizon – but otherwise not a great deal of activity, so we hadn’t lost out too much.
There was a lot of activity along the tide line with a plethora of Sanderlings; Oystercatchers; Turnstones; Brent Geese (further down the beach to the east) and a sprinkling of gull species – and with the gorgeous morning sunlight everything glowed. But activity on the sea was not so obvious.
We had glimpses of a Red-necked Grebe bobbing up and down on the swell; several guillemots, and Red-throated Divers, with the odd movement of Wigeon; Common Scoter and a few Kittiwake. But that was about it. A stranded Guillemot was seen on the beach which was just about to be picked off by a Great Black-backed Gull, so Mike set off to see what he could do. The bird didn’t seem to be injured as such so presumably it was recovering from the high seas of the previous day - but as we approached (but not before I’d taken some photographs) it flapped off along the beach into the sea, where it was in its element, and dived and splashed where it was clearly in a more comfortable environment; and more especially away from marauding gulls. And then we found out what had been seen at Cley that morning!
Well, we’d missed some real goodies. A White-tailed Sea Eagle had flown in off the sea, heading inland (and was later reported at Strumpshaw); a few Little Auks; a mixture of Skuas, including Great and Pomerine; and a White-billed Diver. So, John didn’t need to be persuaded to head for Cley, though of course, by the time we arrived there (and having to pay the £1.80 car park fee) there was very little movement on the sea. That was when we found out that a Red-flanked Bluetail had been reported at Titchwell - apparently at more or less the time we’d left for Cley!!!
However, before returning to Titchwell (as there was no further news of the Bluetail) we headed off to Salthouse a little further east along the coast, where a Stejniger’s Stonechat had been showing well for the past few days. We didn’t have to wait very long before the said bird came out on top of a bramble (luckily after a Female Sparrowhawk had passed over) and showed well off and on for a while, enabling me to get some distant photographs. I cannot comment at all on the bird’s status, as I have not got the experience with races of Stonechat, all I can say that it was sufficiently different in plumage from a ‘normal’ stonechat - this was apparently a juvenile male Stejniger’s Stonechat, normally found in Eastern Europe. But I guess its true status has yet to be determined.
And then it was back to Titchwell to try for the Red-flanked Bluetail, which was last seen at 2.45pm; it was now 3.30pm. Along the path to the coast, almost to the beach, there was a crowd of about twenty or so birdwatchers, eagerly waiting for the bird to come out again on top of the suaeda. Someone claimed it briefly on the northern edge of the suaeda, but the sighting could not be confirmed, and no further movement was noticed whilst we were there. We left at 3.50 pm as the light was fading fast, and I had to be back home by 6.30pm anyway. John tried in retrospect to claim the Bluetail because he’d apparently seen the movement that someone had said was the bird, but there was no way that Mike and I were allowing in that; not in a million years! I guess John was only joking……………………………. but I wonder?
As with the problems with traffic on the journey up, we had similar but worse delays - especially around Kings Lynn - on the journey home, which meant that we didn’t arrive home until almost 7.00 pm. But an interesting day's birding nevertheless.
18 OCTOBER 2018 – NORFOLK
We didn’t have to start out very early because the weather conditions for North Norfolk were not really conducive to a good sea-watch, with the winds a light N Easterly and a clear sky; so John arrived just before 07.00 hrs and two hours later and some slow traffic in places, we duly arrived, quickly settling down with a small number of birders already ensconced by the shelter.
I could never really get used to the fact that in the mid 1970’s-1980’s birders often slept overnight in the shelter when the conditions were favourable for sea-watching; but now, the sea has claimed much of the beach with the demise of the coastguard building (which housed a tiny and very popular café and outside toilet), with the beach reaching over halfway to the roof of the shelter. But when the wind howls (which it often does at this time of year) it can still provide some form of protection, which of course is essential if one sets up a tripod to watch over the waves. But that didn’t really help this time round.
Although the sea was a little choppy, it was tame in comparison to what it had been like only two days previously, with the consequence that there was a significant drop in seabird numbers. Way out on the horizon lines of Gannets could be seen moving west to east, with the occasional Great Skua (or Bonxie) joining them. Other species at that distance were just not distinguishable, even with the aid of a telescope. Somewhat closer, more lines of Gannets (almost all were adults) were continually moving east and were impressive in the sunlight. There must have been upwards of 100 Gannets seen in the 90 minutes or so we were there. Some Wigeon; Shelduck and attractive Brent Geese moved westwards. Red-throated Divers were hard to see as they were lost in the waves, but the occasional one came close. There was a single Shag seen perched on part of a groin just off shore, and several waders such as a single Ringed Plover; a singleton Sanderling, and a few Turnstones, all whizzing west or east. Some auks came into view, the consensus being that they Guillemots (though one individual gave excellent views as it sidled along the shore). But that was about it.
We were told that several Snow Buntings were seen the day before slightly east along the beach, but we only found a single female; but it was remarkably obliging and gave me the opportunity to get some decent close-ups of this attractive winter bunting.
We were hoping that positive news would come through about a Two-barred Greenish Warbler and Red-flanked Bluetail seen at Holkham Gap over the previous two days; but it was in the negative, as it seems only Yellow-browed Warblers remained in the area. But we left for Holkham anyway, on the basis that better news would be had when we got there.
Those of you who know Holkham, are aware that from the car park in St. Ann’s Road it is a very long walk indeed to Holkham Gap, which was where the Greenish was seen; and although I certainly wasn’t keen (mainly because I didn’t think my legs could take it) I reluctantly agreed to try. But from the car park, a Red Kite was seen being harried by a gull; about 1000 or so Pinkfoot Geese - which came up in a cloud of birds and the mass sound of ‘honking’ that was almost deafening as a helicopter came over, disturbing everything in sight, and two very distant Great White Egrets.
On the long trek to Holkham Gap we were constantly on the lookout for birds - any birds - in the woodlands straddling the path; but there was very little to see. A long way down we did find a group of birders who were looking for Yellow-Browed Warblers, and we joined them in the search for a while. Luckily, John was on form with his knowledge of birds calls and after a while he successfully located at least one Yellow-Browed in a flock of various types of titmice and Goldcrests; and he claimed a second, which I missed. But at least we had that species on our lists for the day (in fact neither of us has seen a Yellow-browed for almost a whole year, so we were pleased about that).
All the way down to Holkham Gap, there were only momentary glimpses of that could have been Yellow-Browed, but nothing of any note. And when we got to the very end, the news of the Greenish and the Bluetail, was very much in the negative, so we assumed both had moved on. Even the numbers of Yellow Browed were considerably down on previous days, but at least those that were here still, were being seen.
We walked out onto the dunes, looking towards Burnham Overy (which was about 2 miles away); but there was no sign of much in the way of migrant birds. But suddenly, John picked up a distant bird that we knew to be at Burnham Overy (which was another long trek away from a different starting point) - a Great Grey Shrike - which despite being extremely distant could be seen reasonably well through John’s telescope. We did attempt to get nearer but the bird was eventually seen to fly a long way off inland, so we decided not to pursue it further. It would been nicer to have had a closer view, but it was nevertheless good to see the species.
On the long hike back to the car park, we had reasonably close views of possibly four Yellow-Browed Warblers at different places, and a wonderful Short-eared Owl which flew high over our heads, then was seen to quarter the marshes, where the geese had been earlier.
It was getting late in the day (around 2.30 pm) and following a bite of lunch and some welcome fluid, we moved off to our last port of call at Titchwell RSPB reserve. But when we arrived several, people we met said that it was very quiet, so we took tea and a cake at the Café before going for a Jack Snipe (which was the only decent bird on show). We had reasonable views of the snipe, though it was difficult to see at times amongst the vegetation of the mud, and after a quick look over the marsh - the Golden Plover in particular looked stunning in the failing sunlight, and a close encounter with a Little Egret – we called it a day, and made for home.
25 SEPTEMBER 2018 – THORLEY WEDGE and SOUTHERN COUNTRY PARK
I needed exercise, so I thought I’d take to Southern Country Park as I hadn’t been there for a while; and anyway, any excuse to use the camera which, apart from a recent spell, had been largely redundant in the past few weeks.
I had to pass through Thorley Wedge - a smallish area of parkland just five minutes from my house – where on the way to Southern Country Park, there is a conduit with a path next to it, lined on one side by shrubs and (mainly) hawthorn bushes. Along the path is a Buddliea which I always check for butterflies (sadly none on this occasion). Shortly past this, I heard a whimper (reminiscent of a puppy), and I looked round to see what it was. I looked around expecting to see a dog behind, but instead through a small gap in the bushes I saw a fox looking at me; and then a second by its side; both appeared to be lounging in the sunshine. I think they might have been cubs.
Taking out the camera carefully, I continued to watch the foxes watching me, and trained the lens on the one I could see best (as there was a lot of vegetation to contend with, which almost framed the foxes). I fired off several shots, before the second fox moved away; and then the first fox did the same.
I looked for a way I could access the area where the foxes were located, but it was quite obvious that there wasn’t any, so any ideas I had of approaching what would likely be an earth, was out of the question. Luckily, nobody passed nearby whilst I was watching the foxes, so hopefully I didn’t give anything away. But I guess I was very privileged to see foxes in broad daylight (it was around 14.30 hrs when I first saw them); indeed, contrary to the situation only three years ago, any sighting of a fox locally is a rarity these days.
Southern Country Park was disappointing, the pond area lacking any Common Terns and with only a handful of Common Darters and one Migrant Hawker. A(family?) party of mallards was amusing to watch, and a (possible) Wood-eating Wasp; but that was it. I had hoped to look for Wasp Spiders to photograph, but the Maze area had been mown with little if any remaining vegetation. I will need to investigate the circumstances here as I feel it was far too early in the year to mow the Maze area. The same thing had occurred at the Sheep Pen. To my mind if we have a good, warm, autumn, butterflies; grasshoppers; crickets and Wasp Spiders would utilise the grassland areas for shelter etc. I am angry that this has happened again; and it tended to spoil my afternoon.
21 SEPTEMBER 2018 – WELNEY
I couldn’t go when John initially contacted me about going out birding; I’d been unwell and had suffered a horrible week of stress, virtually all concerning changes of account information on several of my internet contacts including my internet provider, and I’d had enough of dealing with the implications both over the phone and on line. But John came back for birding on Friday and quite frankly I jumped at the chance.
I’d visited Welney, Norfolk previously several years ago, and it was expensive then, but as I hadn’t been birding in a while I bit the proverbial bullet and paid the concession rate, which saved me a little on the entrance fee, whilst John had to pay the full rate (Being a pensioner does occasionally have its benefits you see). But as we left the visitor’ centre and crossed the bridge to the main public hide (and compared to most it was pretty ‘luxurious’) I think we were both disappointed with the scene that met our eyes, with the fen spread out for seemingly miles around. Oh, there were plenty of birds all right, but they were comprised mainly of Teal; Gadwall; Wigeon, and Grey Lag Geese, with no waders in sight, and more importantly no sign of the Pallid Harrier or Common Cranes we’d come to see. I guess it was going to be a case of patience; lots of it!
We waited around, but nothing much changed, so we began the slog to the next hide. And here, our luck began to change a touch, but it wasn’t down to the birds, but insects, namely dragonflies and a couple of species of butterfly. The path to the hides was lined with willow, and other low scrub, which in the very strong south westerly wind, gave some shelter; and because the sun was strong at that time, the warm rays attracted lots of dragonflies and other insects. The first was a very worn and tatty Wall Brown (the first either or us had seen this year); then lots of Common Darter and a lone Ruddy Darter, and more than a few Migrant Hawkers, with one pair in tandem.
Up to the Lyle Hide and still no sign of the Pallid Harrier or the Cranes. A couple of Ruff, with Redshanks and a few Dunlin, were with lots of Teal, but otherwise for twenty minutes or so, little else stirred apart from a couple of female Marsh Harriers, and a couple of Kestrels. Suddenly, shouts of Hobby came up, with at least one, possibly two, over the distant tree line. And then the cry of ‘cranes’ came up and three superb birds flew very close to us in front of the hide, making the trip here very worthwhile, as the views were better than either of us had ever experienced. On the way out of the hide, a brief scan of the fields to the south revealed where the cranes had ended up – seemingly out in front of the main hide; so off we went to get even better views hopefully.
On the way back along the path, another Wall Brown was found in an aerial tussle with a male Small Copper butterfly (very strange behaviour in our view), and several more Migrant Hawkers. Further down I found a singleton Willow Emerald Damselfly, proving that this species is now well established and spreading fast.
So, back in the main hide and immediately, the cranes could be seen in front of the hide at sort of mid-distance, but at least they were out in the open, and not amongst deep vegetation, with only their heads visible. Initially, there were the original three, but as we watched several more joined them, giving quite good views in decent light for a while. And then, they were up and away, giving excellent flight views too. We couldn’t complain. We waited around just in case the Pallid Harrier showed, but there was no joy, and more importantly, no news at all.
So, we decided then to take a break for a coffee etc back at the visitors’ centre. Whilst we were there John was scoping the open fields on the East side when nine cranes flew in (though again at quite some distance); three groups of three individuals each comprising two adults and an immature bird. We were privileged indeed, seeing more than we’d ever hope for.
As a bonus bird (so to speak) there was a feeding post outside the visitors’ centre where Goldfinches, House Sparrows and Tree Sparrows were busily gorging themselves on grain. Tree Sparrows generally are a rare commodity in our neck of the woods (SE Herts), but here seemed quite common, with at least twenty birds feeding (males; females and juveniles).
After our break we returned to the main hide where the original group of three cranes were still out in front of the hide, so concluding that we’d seen as many as twelve individual cranes. Whilst viewing the cranes John saw a raptor streaming low across the fen, which he identified as a Merlin (we think a juvenile female), which an excellent find and helped us get over the disappointment of missing out on the Pallied Harrier (though in fact John hadn’t really missed out as he’d seen another Pallied at Therfield earlier in the week).
1 SEPTEMBER 2018
I was recently clearing out weeds from some of my pot plants, when I discovered an Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar amongst the roots of a small Rose-bay Willow Herb (the food plant); I assumed it had recently buried itself to begin the process of turning into in adult moth. I was horrified to learn that I’d disturbed it and attempted to bury it again in the soil – but a few minutes later it had emerged into the light again, so I thought it best to leave it alone to see what it did. A few hours later it had disappeared, so I’ve assumed it has found its own plot in the soil to bury itself again.
I’d never seen an adult Elephant Hawk Moth adult or larvae in my garden before, so was delighted to find evidence that the species had in fact visited. But I know I’m going to have to have a lot of luck on my side the see the adult moth when it finally emerges.
Tonight, I visited Thorley Wash in the hope that I might finally be successful in seeing the Barn Owl(s) that I knew had been seen on the reserve for at least the past three years. Up until tonight I’d always failed, despite being down on the reserve at the appropriate times of the morning or evening. I was beginning to wonder If I would ever see them. But as the sun set and the light began to fade fast, my dream finally became a reality.
I’d set my self down on the Water Vole seat on the northern rim of the north section of the reserve, when approaching 7.45pm I saw a white ‘vision’ at the far end; it was a Barn Owl. I waited a while to see it again as the bird approached about halfway up the northern section, and then turned back. So, off I went, back in the direction of the public footpath which divides the two sections, when I saw a second bird flying in from the south to join the first initially; and it was this bird which gave me the best views as it hunted back and forth between the public path and halfway up the northern section, occasionally giving very close views. The first bird tended to stay between the public path and the southern section, hardly ever reaching further into the northern section. I was watching them for at least 20 minutes when they both disappeared, as suddenly as they’d appeared.
I did try and tweak the camera to take account of the very low light conditions, but in all honesty the results were disappointing. But at least now I’ve seen the Owls which for me over the past three years had been largely ‘phantoms’ in my mind.
23 AUGUST 2018 – CHOBHAM COMMON
John had been cajoled into taking his daughter Carla and a friend to Staines for their annual (?) pilgrimage to Thorpe Park, and invited me along for the ride, in the hope that I could come up with places to visit in the area which could suit our appetite for natural history and photography.
In fact, the only places that appeared to be what we might be looking for were Bookham Common and Chobham Common, both of which were relatively close to Thorpe Park; and if those didn’t fulfil the brief, then we could fall back on Thursley Common (which we’d visited earlier in the month).
So, having dropped the girls off at the car park (having agreed to meet them back there at 1800 hrs) we set off for Chobham Common which, according to the AA Routeplanner (on line) was 12 minutes away. Yet it took us considerably longer to find than we’d anticipated, I think because the SATNAV in John’s car initially confused Chobham with Cobham.
Of course, we found that when we got to the relevant car park, the march to progress meant that car parking charges had been introduced (apparently quite recently we learned later). I guess one cannot really complain because lack of Central Government funding has effectively forced local councils to take such action as otherwise these areas of Common could not be maintained properly and might even be lost; and that just mustn’t happen. So, we paid our £5 (for all day parking) and took to one of the many trails.From what we could see, the Common was a mixture of heath and woodland (with the emphasis on the heathland, comprising large expanses of Heather; Gorse and Bracken interspersed with (mainly) smaller stretches of Birch and Aspen, and was a real treat for the eyes.
For the first hour or so, there was in fact little in the way of wildlife to see, but after returning to the car for a spot of lunch, followed by a welcome Capachino, and a slice of Orange cake in a small café in Chobham village, we drove to another area where the true extent of the Common could be seen. The Common was massive - looking out from the car park located high on a hill - for almost as far as the eye could see – large expanses of heathland, with attendant conifers; heather; gorse; bracken – spread out before us. And the colours, with the beautiful hue of purple heather, were superb in the sunlight, which by then was beginning to appear, following a cold front which had moved through earlier. Even so, wildlife as such, was hardly much in evidence.
Walking steadily along the sandy and stony trails, we encountered several Common Lizards; Digger (or mining) wasps; Fox Moth caterpillars; with butterflies represented by a single Holly Blue; several Small Heaths (and a few of these were larger than I would have expected but simply could not have been other species), and lots of Speckled Woods. But, by far the most prevalent were Grayling, and we must have seen over 30 individuals, the majority continually flying strongly before us and settling on the sandy ground. It was extremely interesting watching these insects because what was particularly noticeable was when they settled, and immediately drew their upper wings down (so the ‘eye’ was invisible) turning to face the toward the sun; it was behaviour that I hadn’t witnessed previously with any other species of butterfly.
Along on of the trails John started to get a bit excited over a bee which he said looked a little bit different, thinking that it might be a more uncommon type of Carder Bee. Suddenly, the air was filled with the sound of his camera shutter firing away a plethora of shots, for identification later in the day. The species was eventually identified as a common Red-tailed Bee; - a detailed explanation can be found here at: http://dorsetdipper.blogspot.com/
Finally, bird life was not much in evidence until about mid afternoon when the activity increased noticeably along a line of mainly conifer trees. Chaffinches; Blue, Long-tailed, and Coal Tits; Willow/Chiffs (it was impossible to tell which); Goldfinches, and possibly Goldcrests all moving rapidly among the trees. In additional, one bird gave us the run around, as from a distance, it appeared to have a white wing bar; though eventually, binocular views showed it to be a Spotted Flycatcher, which certainly wasn’t expected, and was undoubtedly the bird of the day so to speak. However, I think we both felt that seeing so many Grayling Butterflies was the highlight of the day.
A better day than either of us had predicted, and a new venue to consider for spring next year.
8 AUGUST 2018 – THURSLEY COMMON and OAKEN WOOD
I feel that maybe, John and I had mistimed our visit, as the number of species available to see was sadly quite low (maybe a mid-July visit would have served us better).
The pond/lake by
the car park was almost deplete of any dragonflies, other than Common Blue
(which were plentiful along the western edge); a singleton Brown Hawker, and a
lonesome Emerald Damselfly. Out onto the
marsh itself, and it immediately became obvious that we were going to struggle.
Despite being quite warm, with sunny periods, it was quite windy, so that
didn’t help. Anyway, through the morning we eventually got our first Keeled
Skimmer (good numbers too) and shortly after that our first Black Darters
(which initially were mainly males, and then we saw several in tandem, with
females ovipositing). There were quite a few Emerald Damselflies too. Here it
was blatantly clear that the hot Summer had had a detrimental affect on the
marsh as the water level in the various pond and ditches was almost
non-existent in some places – which might have explained the general lack of
species. We took a tangent path, through the trees, which led us to an area of
marshland, which looked in slightly better condition, despite also being very
dry, and here (whist I was attempting to photograph a Four-Spot Chaser) John
discovered a male Small Red Damselfly - which are still something of a rarity,
even here) - with another male very nearby. The photograph illustrated here
is John’s as my efforts were not at all successful (mainly I think because (a)
I didn’t quite have the correct lens and (b) I was unable to get down into the
ditch as John could!! Other species seen included Banded Demoiselle; Common and
Azure Damselflies; Migrant Hawker; Southern Hawker; Brown Hawker, and
Whilst we were at this location a male Redstart showed itself briefly, with a possible female in tow; and later another female was seen not too far away.
As we’d had such success here last year, we thought a visit might be worthwhile despite being a bit late in the season. But I was anxious to test the possibility of seeing Wood White butterflies (which would be in second brood). And, so it proved to be, as we saw at least 6 adults (with a female seemingly laying eggs) in the long grasses that edges the trail. We were really pleased seeing this species, but especially as it was a new one for John (and co-incidentally I’d seen my first down in Devon in June this year). There were lots of Common Blues, and some exceptionally small ones which I thought might have been Silver Studded Blues (although later our photographs proved inconclusive, so, sadly, the species doesn’t appear on either of our tick lists). Others seen included Comma; Holly Blue; Brown Argus; Silver-washed Fritillary (notably, very worn individuals); Meadow Brown and Small Heath.
25 JULY 2018 – MINSMERE, SUFFOLK
The prospect of doing any sort of birding in 32 degrees C of heat didn’t sit well with me at all, but I hadn’t been out properly for a couple of weeks so, I had to bite the bullet and hope the heat wouldn’t affect me too much (as being a diabetic I have to be very careful). John (Slee) had three options – Minsmere; Titchwell (RSPB Reserve in Norfolk), and Oare Marshes (Kent). All three had their attractions, but when John gave his preference for Minsmere, I went along with that without challenge. Unfortunately, due to family (ie taxi) commitments John wasn’t able to get over until shortly before 08.30 hrs, which meant that we wouldn’t arrive at Minsmere until around 0010.30 hrs. Luckily, the roads were not as busy as normal with commuter traffic, so we didn’t really miss out much on timing our arrival.
It was hot when we got there; very hot indeed. But there was a welcome cooling southerly breeze, which was a saviour in these extreme conditions. And as it happened, we would be spending most our time out of the sun - in hides sporadically placed around the reserve, and later, more time in the woodland area to the east of the reserve neither of us had previously visited. So, although the conditions were still extremely hot and dry, being mostly in shaded areas helped enormously; and it seemed to favour the butterflies and other wildlife too.
Our first port of call was the ponds outside the visitor centre, because the habitat was rife for dragonfly species. To be truthful, the reed patch was far too extensive and needed cutting considerably; the area of exposed water restricted as a consequence, but with some patience we eventually arrived at a decent 12 species of dragonfly :- Emperor; Southern Hawker; Brown Hawker; Four-spot Chaser; Emerald Damselfly; Red-eyed Damselfly; Blue-tailed Damselfly; Azure Damselfly; and Common Darter. We were to add three more species to the tally throughout the day :- Migrant Hawker; Ruddy Darter and Black-tailed Skimmer (although we apparently missed a Southern Migrant Hawker which was recorded here; that would have been special because the species is slowly finding its way up the east coast having been seen in Essex and Kent (and other locations too) over the past three years or so).
We decided very quickly to take the eastern route to the coastal path, then visit most of the hides on the way back; have a break for refreshments at the visitors’ centre; then take a walk into the woodland north east of the centre looking for butterflies and dragonflies.
Before we reached the coastal path, along the trail is an area known as ‘Digger Alley’ where several species of Mining Bee could be seen. It was truly fascinating watching these stunning, tiny insects making their burrows, and taking live prey (flies and wasps etc) down, where they would lay eggs on the prey until the eggs hatched into larvae (to feed on the prey) before hatching into adult bees. These in fact were the lone highlight before birdwatching properly from the hides.
The east hide was probably the best for general bird species, but there was a lot of activity over the scrape, although some of the more interesting species were not always near enough to see well, even with the aid of a telescope. Two Juvenile Mediterranean Gulls (one of John’s favourite gull species) swam in front of the hide, giving excellent views; Two beautiful juvenile Kittiwakes (one of my favourite gulls); Black-tailed Godwits and Avocets were seemingly everywhere; a small party of Dunlin with a lone Curlew Sandpiper; Little-ringed Plover; Common, Sandwich Terns and a couple of Little Terns; Two Green Sandpipers and a solitary Common Sandpiper were difficult to make out on the far side through the heat haze, and a Water Rail. Other, adult Mediterranean Gulls could be seen sporadically around the scrape, and it was clear that this species had enjoyed a good breeding season. Out along the beach, we looked in vain for Grayling butterflies, but there were good numbers of Common Blue; Brown Argus, and Small Copper butterflies. Back into the reserve, and the second hide in revealed more Little Terns (up to six) and a good number of Little Gulls (up to 20 or so Juveniles with a few adults not viewable from the East Hide). From the same hide John picked up two female Garganey (although the views were awful, and of course the birds were in eclipse plumage). Along the trail there were excellent numbers of Red Admiral and Comma butterflies, along with several Brown Hawker dragonflies.
After a welcome break for lunch at the visitor centre, we took a trail through the woodland north and east of the centre, looking for a pond where we were told by staff at the centre were good numbers of dragonflies and butterflies; but we failed to locate the pond.
The trail was through an area of woodland little used by the public, and which looked excellent habitat for spring migrants such as Common Redstart and Wood Warbler, so from that point of view alone, we’d already made plans to return at the right time of the year.
We did connect with an area of woodland in dappled sunlight, where Silver-washed Fritillaries and White Admiral butterflies could be seen. This area was alive with lots of Common Darters; Brown Hawkers; Black-tailed Skimmers, and Migrant Hawkers; but soon we were seeing Silver-washed Fritillaries (although for some insane reason I initially mistook them for Dark Green Fritillaries – as they were seemingly smaller than the Silver-washed I was used to; and most were females anyway – thankfully, John put me on the right path!!) sailing along the ride, and later, several White Admirals, one of which was ovipositing on Honeysuckle. There were lots of Gatekeepers; Comma; Meadow Brown and some late Ringlet, but the most surprising species was Grayling of which we saw two, since we didn’t see any along the beach, their normal habitat.
All in all, an
excellent day with some wonderful species of all sorts.
2 JULY 2018 – SOUTHERN COUNTRY PARK
Nothing much had changed much when I made another visit on 2 July.
However, on the way to the park, I happened to see Andy White (Warden of Southern Country Park) outside his house, and he told me excitedly that he had seen a male Purple Emperor butterfly in the park that morning, and he showed me photographs taken with his mobile phone. There was no question about the identity. He also gave me a quick view of the pond he’d built in his back garden, which attracts several species of dragonfly, and of course I was suitably impressed. I promised to return later in the morning if I was successful in locating the Purple Emperor, but after a good search, I’d nothing to report.
Similarly, there were surprisingly few species of dragonfly seen from the walkway, although surprisingly more Broad-bodied Chasers than previously. At the ‘Maze’, the number of Marbled Whites was considerably down on recent visits at around 30 individuals – my theory though was that because of the heat, butterflies of most species were keeping way down in the tall grasses, as it was cooler there. The Great Crested Grebe was still on show but keeping mainly to the middle of the lake, thus making photography a touch more difficult than it might otherwise be; but I was still reasonably satisfied with the results.
29 JUNE 2018 - LANGLEY PARK and CANVEY, ESSEX
John Slee had heard about sightings of Purple Emperor and White Admiral butterflies at Langley Park, and in addition sightings of Southern Migrant Hawker and Scarce Emerald damselflies along a ditch located on the north side of Canvey Island; so, we thought we’d attempt to kill several birds with one stone, so to speak. But, as it transpired, it wasn’t going to be at all easy.
Firstly, arriving at Langley Park Centre, we very rapidly discovered that centre was a considerable distance from where we needed to be as the Park was massive; so rather than walk round to Marks Wood (where the Purple Emperors had been seen) we were advised to drive to the eastern end where (behind a well-known eating establishment) we would find a car park from where to begin our search. The problem was that nobody at the centre knew the exact location to see the Purple Emperors, so we were sort of flapping about right from the beginning.
Anyway, consulting the map which we had to purchase from the centre (and which we both thought was ludicrously confusing) we just wandered off thinking that we could find our way around; but it certainly wasn’t easy, and indeed as we realised after walking a couple of hours in the heat, that we’d found our way back to the car park, we decided to call it a day here and go straight to Canvey for the dragonflies. But it certainly wasn’t a waste of time here as through the morning I’d glimpsed a White Admiral as it sped over the grasses, and John glimpsed a Silver-washed Fritillary, although, from what I saw of it as it stormed away low over the field, the flight pattern and size was more consistent with a Dark Green Fritillary. But we just couldn’t confirm the identification. There were plenty of Ringlets; Meadow Browns; Marbled Whites; a few Small Heaths and Common Blues, with Dragonflies represented by lots of Common Darters; perhaps two or three Southern Hawkers, and another species which resembled a hawker - the size of a Black-tailed Skimmer - and was bright yellow on the Thorax. I later concluded form guides that they were probably female Black-tailed Skimmers. I’ve seen females previously, but none have been so brightly yellow. Other species can be eliminated as they have not been recorded in the UK. Unless……………………………???
After parking the car behind the station at South Benfleet (there didn’t seem to be any choice, as we could hardly park on the busy road to Canvey) we eventually found what we were looking for. John had already gone on ahead (I simply couldn’t keep up, and it was only good fortune that led me to the correct site, and when I got there I could see John in the distance, in company with other interested parties, so I knew they probably had something good. On the way I met a keen photographer who, when I asked if he’d been looking for dragonflies, simply couldn’t hold his obvious excitement as he’d not only seen Southern Migrant Hawkers and lots of Scarce Emeralds, but had found his own Southern Emerald Damselfly, which have only recently started to show up in counties bordering the south coast, including Canvey over the past two years, but which are still extremely rare. So that spurred me on.
Although the terrain was rough grassland, it was also very uneven, which made progress more difficult than I would have wanted, but eventually I caught up with John on his way back. He’d already seen a single male Southern Migrant Hawker and several Emerald damselflies which he’d assumed were the Scarce Emeralds, but he hadn’t seen any Southern Emeralds, which by the time he’d reached the site they’d been seen, had seemingly moved to another location along the ditch.
John showed me where he’d seen the Southern Migrant Hawker, and sure enough a male was still surveying and quartering his territory, in a nearby ditch. But what a stunning insect, it’s eyes as blue as blue can get, it’s abdomen segmented bright blue, and black. It continued to buzz around our heads and ‘hover’ in front of us, until it alighted in some grass below our line of view. It took a bit of juggling, with a potential for falling into the mud along the edge of the ditch, but contorting my frame accordingly, I pointed the camera towards this lovely insect, and fired the shutter; the noise of which made the dragonfly take to the air again. It wasn’t until I processed the photo, that I discovered I’d been lucky with just the one shot. Nearby John drew my attention to a small collection of Emerald Damselflies which he thought were The Scarce Emerald, which they indeed were; the species was a new one to him; as was the Southern Migrant Hawker.
Along the ditch, towards the gated entrance, John found a species of Emerald Damselfly, which he thought might be the Common Emerald; but I ruled that out straight away as there was no blue on the thorax and the abdomen was slim; slightly longer, and metallic green in colour. I was thinking Willow Emerald, but it wasn’t until later when I processed the photos (which were nowhere near the quality I was after) that I realised it didn’t quite look right for that species, and further investigation revealed that it was in fact a male Southern Emerald, which of course delighted us both, despite being slightly baffled at the time. A good end to a reasonable day.
24th;28th JUNE and 2 JULY 2018 – SOUTHERN COUNTRY PARK
This park is located west of Bishop’s Stortford Town, so is readily accessible for me, without my own transport. On both days it was very warm and sunny with a light easterly breeze, so it was just the thing for seeing dragonflies and butterflies; well that was the aim.
I headed straight for the marshy area at the northern end of the lake and the wooden walkway which had been constructed by the Friends of Southern Country Park (a completely Voluntary organisation – under the auspices of the local Council) two-three years ago, and which was perfect for viewing the wildlife which utilises the lake, including birds and dragonflies.
It was immediately obvious that dragonflies were going to be hard to get. In the 45 minutes or so I was on the walkway, I recorded a single Four-spot Chaser; a single male Emperor Dragonfly, and a couple of Black-tailed Skimmers. I did marginally better on 28th adding at least two Broad-bodied Chasers, and more BT Skimmers.
The park is full of wild flowers at this time of the year. At the northern end along the marsh was an impressive stand of Ox Eye Daisies, with lovely blue Knapweed hiding in the grasses. To the south, bordering the highway, beautiful Scabious stretched alongside the path, with the odd patch of Ox Eyes, and the myriad grassland species looked stunning too, especially in 'the maze' which is fenced off in it's entirety, with access via several gates. In past years, this area in particular had been good for Bee Orchid, sadly missing this year (except on the verges of the highway - if you wanted to take a chance with the traffic!! But there was a sprinkling of gorgeous Pyramid Orchids, with several Spotted Orchid too, sadly passed their prime.
(well one species in particular) were so much more in evidence. Entering the
area known as ‘the Maze’ (which is a fenced area, crammed with beautiful
grasses, where dog owners are not allowed to let their dogs roam) it is no
exaggeration to say that there were literally clouds of truly immaculate
Marbled Whites, and through the morning throughout the park I recorded 86
individuals, which was surpassed on 28th when I counted 91. Amazing! In addition, over the two visits, I recorded
3 Common Blue; 10 Ringlet; lots of Meadow Browns; a single Brown Argus; a
Comma; a couple of Small Tortoiseshells; a Red Admiral; Both Large and Small
White, and several Green-veined Whites (taking minerals from the mud at the
side of the lake). House Martins too were taking mud for their nests.
Taking the way back vis Thorley Wedge, I couldn't resist attempting to photograph a Greenfinch, not only because it is a declining species in our area, but because I don't often get the opportunity to photograph them.
19 JUNE 2018 – THERFIELD HEATH and AMWELL DRAGONFLY SANCTUARY
Thanks to John Slee who provide the transport………………and a good eye!!
It was a beautiful morning, with a light to moderate easterly breeze; potentially perfect for butterfly ‘hunting’ on Therfield Heath, near Royston Hertfordshire. Fortunately, I’d been at this location previously (in July 2017) but whilst it was a warm, sunny day then, the wind was extremely strong, thus restricting views of Dark Green Fritillary and Chalk Hill Blue butterflies as they kept mainly deep down in the long grasses, and only occasionally took to the wing.
But today, we were here to see newly emerged Dark Green Fritillaries, and it wasn’t long before we had our first adult in pristine condition feeding on Knapweed on verges by the golf course. I guess we might have seen up to twenty individuals that morning – and it really was a privilege to see them so bright and orange. There were lots of Marbled Whites too, most in prime condition. A few Small Heath butterflies were also seen, as well as singleton Common Blue and Large Skipper with several Small Whites and Meadow Browns. A Red Kite flew over as we returned to the car.
12 JUNE 2018 – MINSMERE and DUNWICH HEATH.
John Slee and I had talked about returning to Minsmere later on in the spring, and whilst we knew bird migration hadn’t taken off in any meaningful sense, we thought we’d give it another try. Apart from the lack of birds and insects such as butterflies and dragonflies, there was a distinct lack of people as we came into the car park - with just one coach and a sprinkling of cars - so we knew right away that there was nothing especially rare about. But the lowish numbers of birdwatchers was an advantage in our eyes because it meant that we wouldn’t be scrambling for places in the hides.
Rather than begin at the Sand Martin colony we agreed to start at the Island Mere Hide, because of the possibility of hearing the Savi’s Warbler that had been around for a while, and getting an early otter, but it didn’t quite work out that way, although we gained impressive flyby views of a Bittern, with another later on in a different part of the reserve; Marsh Harriers (3 females and 2 two lovely males), and a stunning Hobby which gripped all in the hide with a relatively close view as it hawked dragonflies in front of the hide (albeit at a distance).
The best of the rest as we took in the remaining areas included: - 2 superb summer plumaged Spotted Redshanks; about 40 breeding Mediterranean Gulls; about 30 Kittiwakes (presumably some from the breeding colony at Sizewell, down the coast a bit, and which I’ve never on the reserve previously); a very impressive flock of Black-tailed Godwits (said to be 550 or so in number), most in full summer plumage; and a singleton Greenshank. We also saw a pair of Stone Curlew in fields outside the reserve.
Later in the afternoon we tried out luck at Dunwich Heath on the lookout for Woodlark and Dartford Warbler, with only the latter showing well (an adult at first, then another with a juvenile). A Stonechat also graced our binoculars. But the Woodlarks never materialised.
And, aren't those bunnies cute?!!
8-10 JUNE 2018 – DEVON
The main reason for having a small break in Devon was to give my friend Dan some ‘me time’ (which, with a family of three kids and a wife, he hardly ever manages to do) – staying with my sister Val in Monkleigh, near Bideford.
On the way down on the Friday we called in at Cheddar Gorge as Dan had never been there before and it was my first visit for getting on for 40 years. It was a fascinating area (bright that morning, though shrouded in mist), but I was surprised just how relatively ‘small’ the gorge is, along with the tourist activity which goes on there. Still, we both managed some decent photography, and headed on to our next destination, the Valley of the Rocks near Lynton, on the North Devon coast, where we arrived around 3.00 pm as the mist was beginning to lift and the sun beginning to make a welcome appearance.
The coastal scenery around here is second to none, with (almost) towering cliffs, carpeted in grasses; mosses; gorse; honeysuckle, and Sea Thrift, with Fulmars and Jackdaws riding thermals, along with Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. At the bottom of the cliffs - although a long way down - several Guillemots and Razorbills could be seen flying in circles and back again.
Along the cliff path the edges were covered in a plethora of pretty plants, but the Foxgloves and the Red Campions, with splashes of Yellow Saxifrage were the preponderance here. Which was more than could be said for insects, which sadly were lacking (which is a feature of this year’s spring), as butterflies and bees failed to show. However, to buck this trend a stunning Cream Spotted Tiger Moth flew along the gorse, tantalisingly close – but not close enough for me to photograph it (as unbelievably, I’d left the telephoto in the car). Dan tried with his Nikon and managed to get a few shots fired off, but again the moth remained at a distance, and there was no way either of us was going to attempt to follow it down the cliff face!! Initially, I’d misidentified it as a Garden Tiger Moth (which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid), but a quick look on Google put me right. Nevertheless, this was a new species of moth for me and I was delighted to see it (although Dan would say that I was ecstatic!!). We planned to return here later in the weekend should time permit it.
We couldn’t find anywhere decent for an evening meal, so we carried on the Val’s house just outside Bideford, arriving early evening. Both Val and Ken (a friend of hers) joined me and Dan for dinner at a local pub, though it was initially difficult to find one that wasn’t busy. Later, as the evening was calm and warm, we sat in Val’s back garden and were treated to a brief visit by a Tawny Owl.
All but Ken (who was working at his shop in the market) got going again the following morning, taking the cliff walk at Westward Ho! and this took up a few hours at a leisurely pace. I cannot deny that this walk is almost invariably well worth doing, because each time it is different, as the weather changes throughout the seasons. On this occasion the weather was perfect, with only a light sea breeze. There wasn’t much to see bird wise - with no Ravens or Peregrine Falcons on show - and insects such as butterflies; moths and dragonflies were hard to find although eventually through the morning and into the afternoon, some did begin to appear - a few Painted Lady Butterflies; a Common Blue; Tortoiseshell; Large and Small Whites, and a couple of Speckled Woods. But it was the wonderful seascape that is a feature of North Devon which stole the day; truly wonderful, and on a good day like that day, it was simply mesmerising.
Dan and I had intended to visit Exmoor on the journey home, but as we got back from Westward Ho! a little earlier than we’d planned, we decided to take a drive out to Exmoor now. I suggested that if we could find it, we make a beeline for Simonsbath, which is in Dorset, but still with the boundaries of Exmoor; and here we could eat out at the inn there later in the evening. I remember Simonsbath because I’d been here with Val a few years back and found several Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary butterflies (nowadays, a rarity), as well as a lovely Golden-ringed Dragonfly and many Beautiful Demoiselles.
It took a while, but eventually I found the first Fritillary; and then another; and another. All were constantly on the move and were therefore difficult to photograph (well-nigh impossible really); but at least I could give them scrutiny through my binoculars, which are close focussing. In the end I found around ten individuals, which proved at least that the ‘colony’ was relatively stable. The species is declining even at its stronghold; and it would be a sadder world indeed without these colourful little beauties.
I think we were here a week or so too early in the year to see Golden-ringed Dragonfly (which is my favourite dragonfly) but at least the Beautiful Demoiselles were plentiful, and relatively easy to photograph, though I think Dan had some difficulty focussing with his Nikon, mainly due to lack of experience, and anyway, he’s relatively new to insect photography; but he’ll get there I’m sure.
Earlier, we’d booked for an evening meal at the nearby Exmoor Forest Inn, and that rounded off a thoroughly decent day.
The following day, after breakfast, Val and Ken took us to Meeth, which is a Nature Reserve managed by the Devon Wildlife Trust. We arrived around mid-morning in bright sunlight, and I looked forward to the possibility of seeing some dragonflies, as the reserve has several pond and lakes that are the perfect habitat.
On the way to the ponds Ken found a small white butterfly in the grass along the trail, and although I had no previous experience of the species, I was certain it was a Wood White Butterfly; but I wasn’t entirely sure, so took a picture for record purposes, but it was in the early afternoon before I had the proof I required. I managed to get a picture, and fortunately ran into someone doing a Butterfly Transect for the Wildlife Trust and asked him if my identification was correct. He was 90% sure it was. Along the trail a little further, Val discovered a pair of white butterflies mating, and these too were Wood Whites. It has taken me many years to finally catch up with the species, so you can imagine I was pretty fired up!
The first pond had dried out, but the second was big enough to hold a good body of water, with luscious vegetation around it’s shores, and already I could see several Emperor Dragonflies hawking the waters. Closer examination revealed further species: - Four Spot Chasers; Black-tailed Skimmers; Broad-bodied Chaser and a few Azure Damselflies. I got excited at one stage when I thought I saw a Golden-ringed Dragonfly, but it was a female Emperor, mainly green-yellow in colour, so perhaps my error was understandable. We waited around for a while, but no further species were seen.
By about 1.00 pm the skies clouded over, and the insect activity waned somewhat. This wasn’t really a reserve for birds, so we called it a day. Fortunately, before we left Ian into someone doing a Butterfly Transect for the Wildlife Trust and asked him if my identification was correct. He was 90% sure it was. Along the trail a little further, Val discovered a pair of white butterflies mating, and these too were Wood Whites. It has taken me many years to finally catch up with the species, so you can imagine I was pretty fired up!
By the time we’d
had lunch back at Val’s it was around 5.30 pm when we left for home, so Dan and
I didn’t get an opportunity to return to Exmoor, or indeed Valley of the Rocks;
but it had been a good, restful weekend, and I was so pleased Dan had settled
well and enjoyed it too. I’m sure we’ll come back another time, and try again
to get that elusive Golden-tailed Dragonfly.
20th MAY 2018 – FULBOURNE NATURE RESERVE and FLEAM DYKE (CAMBRIDGESHIRE)
This was a BSNHS event, but only five people (including me) turned up. The weather was fine, warm and a little breezy, so we came full of hope for an interesting day.
We came to Fulbourne Nature Reserve because last year’s visit was successful for the marvellous array of orchids, and the variety of wild flowers on Fleam Dyke. Unfortunately, the display of orchids was disappointing, largely we think, a consequence of the long cold winter and cool spring; yet Fleam Dyke gave us an excellent showing of male Green Hairstreak Butterflies, which we didn’t really expect because we were here a week earlier than last year, which produced just the one specimen (which I missed).
So here is a selection of photos taken on the day. For me the highlights were a Cockchafer Beetle, and the superb showing of Green Hairstreaks (which were extremely difficult to photograph well).
11 MAY 2018
John Slee and I had intended to attempt Minsmere again, but this would likely have interfered with his band commitments for Friday nights. So, we opted for more local birdwatching and began at the RSPB Reserve at Fowlmere, Cambridgeshire.
Things started well at the car park when we noticed a flourish of damselfly activity, where seemingly hundreds of damselflies were swarming over the bramble bushes. There were several tenerals, but mostly they were adult Azure Damsels, with some Blue-tailed Damsels. It was possible that there were some Variable Damsels as well, but I couldn’t get close enough to be sure. A female Hairy Dragonfly swooped by, together with a couple of female Broad-bodies Chasers. Our cameras were kept busy for a while until a lull in the activity saw us moving on.
But the reserve overall was extremely quiet, with little bird activity save for a few Swifts and a Northern House Martin, and some noisy Grey Lag Geese on the mere. But our target species - Turtle Dove - were certainly not in evidence, although several were said to be on the reserve.
Despite the lack of birds (and by then the insect activity too had eased away) it was interesting to walk around the reserve if nothing else but to admire the bubbling crystal-clear brooks – one of the few remaining pure chalk stream systems in the region, and the plant-life therein.
Moving on, neither of us had visited the RSPB headquarters at Sandy, Bedfordshire previously, and as we were only 30 minutes away, it seemed silly not to give it a go. After a welcome coffee and carrot cake at the shop, we took to the trail which circled the reserve, but as with Fowlmere there was very little bird activity except for several Buzzards, a few Crows, Swifts and surprisingly a healthy population of singing Willow Warblers. When we reached the ponds area, a female Hairy Dragonfly and two Four-Spot Chasers were there to greet us, before we trundled back to the car park, and another welcome cup of coffee. It is a very pleasant reserve, and maybe it might be worth another visit to see Hobby; Dartford Warbler; Raven, and possibly Woodlark; but for the time being these did not feature on our birdlists for the day.
On the way back we called in at Rye Meads Nature Reserve (also operated by the RSPB) where the bird activity was again somewhat disappointing - the only saving grace being the presence of a Little Ringed Plover, looking forlornly alone on the shingle beds; and even the infamous breeding Kingfishers failed to show.
It was a slightly disappointing day on the whole, but being out in the pristine new lovely fresh green countryside, was infinitely better than doing the gardening at home. Maybe our luck will change soon when the migrants really get going.
14 APRIL – 9 MAY
I have to confess that keeping a blog up to date is quite an onerous task, especially when over a particular period there have been several ‘highlights’ that one might consider worthy of documentation. And so, it is here; so, let’s begin.
On 14th April, Thorley Wash did not reveal much. But I discovered this Wren’s nest across the Stort Navigation, noticing the adult (presumably the male) bringing material in over a period of a few minutes. Luckily, I was able to utilise the fact that I was shooting in RAW on a full frame camera, so was able to give it a reasonable enlargement. I was quite pleased with these.
On 15th April John Slee suggested a morning trip to Rainham Marsh, Essex. This began well in bright conditions, with warm sunshine for a while, but deteriorated into cloud with showers by mid-morning. Several migrants were seen, including Whitethroat; Lesser Whitethroat; Sedge Warbler; Chiffchaff; a male Northern Wheatear and Common Tern. But the prize went to a lovely Black-necked Grebe in partial summer plumage, although it remained a touch distant for close viewing.
On 18th April I paid a visit to Southern Country Park for the first time since February, and intended to carry on through Moor Hall Farm; then Trims Green and the old airport fields there; through Spellbrook and finally, on to Thorley Wash. This took me nearly 5 hours by the time I reached Spellbrook, and with nothing much to show for it birdwise, and feeling extremely tired and worn, I cheated on the last leg by missing out on the Wash and getting a bus into Town. But I did get some decent shots of a superb male Lesser Whitethroat (the first I’d recorded in spring locally for several years) and that almost made up for the lack of birds generally throughout the entire walk.
On 4th May John thought a visit to Norfolk would be useful to take full advantage of the high pressure and southerly element to the wind-flow. Beginning at Burnham Overy, it was quite disappointing to discover that the spring migration hadn’t taken off in any appreciable way, with only a handful of migrants making themselves obvious, including several Lesser Whitethroats (invariably singing their hearts out from deep into bush cover); one or two Common Whitethroats, and several Wheatears on the fields. The dunes were also full of Wheatears (well over 20 individuals), but very little else. Four Marsh Harriers, and four distant Red Kites provided the raptor ‘action’. Several Whimbrel alighted in the saltings, giving excellent views; whilst a superb Spoonbill stalked a pool in a field in all his spring finery. We had intended to call in at Titchwell Reserve (which I am sure would have been quite productive) but news of a Purple Heron at Cley came through, and as we were so near I didn’t have the heart to insist we keep to our plan to go to Titchwell; thus, giving John a chance of a UK lifer! After a well-earned coffee at the RSPB Centre at Cley we made our way to where the Heron was being observed from the West Bank (a small crowd gave it away); and although the bird showed several times, stalking through the reeds, it was a very distant view; but in good light all it’s salient features – the distinctive plumage, and snake-like neck (very anhinga like) could be observed.
Back to Thorley Wash the following day, but like the previous day, there was very little evidence that the spring migration had taken off in any meaningful way. However, a lovely male Garden Warbler, in full song, was observed well just outside the reserve boundary. The highlight of the morning was the presence of several Common Terns (at least three, possibly as many as six) along the Stort Navigation between Spellbrook and Tednambury, with two very obliging individuals at the lock gates.
This morning (9th) Thorley Wash was very quiet with a lone Sedge Warbler seen in ‘parachute’ flight. I took the opportunity to catch this Stock Dove, simply because one doesn’t often get the chance to photograph this shy species. The Mallard brood is the first I’ve seen on the river this year.
I close here with a few shots taken recently in my back garden; proof that if you are prepared to wait, the birds will eventually come to you. I am especially pleased with the ones of a stunning adult Carrion Crow. The pond is less than 2ft by 2ft but has still attracted up to 6 pairs of frogs this spring - at least two remain up until this morning, but the tadpoles are yet to appear, though doubtless they will soon. My lawn needs cutting but the electric mower is out of commission (awaiting collection for repair), but even so I would likely leave it as it is at present, with lovely daises and the dandelions showing beautifully……………….. seems a shame to cut them down.
GARDEN FROLICS - 5TH AND 7TH APRIL 2018
I was undertaking some weeding in the garden on the afternoon of 5th April, and suddenly I was aware of some movement at the bottom of the bird table, only a few feet away – it was a Wood Mouse rifling in the leaf litter. I scampered indoors to collect the camera hoping that the Wood Mouse would still be there upon my return (thankfully it was), and I was able to fire off several shots before it disappeared into the ivy thicket growing profusely over the rock garden situated below my Hawthorn and my neighbours huge Holly tree (which provide a good habitat for such animals). The bright, warm afternoon sunlight provided excellent conditions for photography, although the light was slightly on the harsh side by then.
We’d had a pair of Woodmice in very same location about four years ago, but the light was not so favourable. But this time the resulting shots were considerable better.
After my Minsmere trip on 6th April, I wanted a rest day so after doing some chores and updating this BLOG, I sat at the garden table with my camera, waiting for things to happen. It was reasonably warm, but the sunlight was intermittent at best.
One of my aims was to get some shots of the frogs currently utilising the pond. It always astounded me that the pond (no bigger than 3 feet x 2 feet in size) always seemed to attract a good number of frogs – up to three years ago there were up to 20 or so individual (10 pairs), but this year only 6 pairs or so. Still, I am glad to be doing something to encourage the species, and they are invariably fascinating to watch, especially when they are rolling and cavorting in courtship. But the available light was poor at best and I needed to tweak the ISO and speed settings accordingly.
And as I sat there (only occasionally being interrupted by the telephone) there was a constant succession of birds – both male and female Blackbirds; House Sparrows; Wood Pigeons; Collared Doves; Blue Tits; Robins and Dunnocks to help feed my appetite for photography. Here a are a few of the better ones.
6 APRIL 2018 – MINSMERE and WESTLETON HEATH
John and I had discussed going to Minsmere earlier this week, buoyed up by the flurry of easterly migrants from the continent. The weather forecast was promising with a mixture of moderate south-south easterly winds and warming temperatures. So that was it, Minsmere was the desired destination, necessitating an early start at 7.30am.
We had a good run and arrived at the said destination by 9.30 am. The sightings board was empty, which wasn’t an encouraging start; but it was relatively early still, so perhaps the warden hadn’t completed his rounds yet. Encouraging though were the number of Sand Martins which were clearly showing an interest in the ‘old’ colony cliffs, which for the past two years had been abandoned in favour of Dunwich cliffs. But, otherwise the area around the North Hide seemed bereft of birds and birdsong, which normally would be heaving with songsters at this time of the year. We tried for the Jack Snipes which had been seen from the hide the previous day, but they had either gone or they were incredibly well camouflaged. We decided to come back later.
On the path leading from the north hide, someone had discovered an Adder curled up in the leaf litter. It was only partially viewable, but it was a good start, as it was a good ten years previously that I’d seen an adder here, and that was on the beach near the sluice gates. And that area was our next point of call, giving the east hide a viewing on the way.
A pair of Sandwich Terns overhead, spurred us on, and then along the beach a pair of Mediterranean Gulls in flight gave excellent views in the bright sunlight. From the East hide there was obviously a lot of breeding activity, though mainly restricted to colonies of Black-headed Gulls, more Mediterranean Gulls (I observed up to 15 but there were apparently more than that); three Sandwich Terns; Lapwings; Redshank; at least two Turnstone; Black-tailed Godwits; Avocets, and a sprinkling of other common species. But the recent heavy rain had taken its toll, and the various scrapes were completely inundated – which wasn’t good news for general waders, and the Avocets in particular. But it was the overall lack of wader species that was so remarkable – no Ringed Plover; Little Ringed Plover; Grey Plover; Golden Plover; Green Sandpiper; no Common Snipe (at least here) etc. And along the beach no sign of any Wheatear or Swallow. And then, because of the flooding (we’d already heard that the Island Mere was out of bounds) the path around the reserve was also closed for access. Even the area around the slice gates was lacking any evidence of migratory species, and even the birdwatchers seemed to have given up trying, going by the odd knot or two of bored looking visitors chatting together in the vicinity. All very disappointing; so really, we had little choice but to turn back.
On the way, we were almost constantly scanning over the marshes, which netted at least three rather distant Marsh Harriers and a Bittern in flight. The Adder had seemingly disappeared off the scene by then, but an RSPB volunteer informed us the Jack Snipe had been seen from the North Hide very recently. So off we traipsed, and after several scans picked up one possible candidate, which eventually moved its head revealing the head pattern (two stripes opposed to the one of the Common Snipe) and the much shorter bill. Another birdwatcher picked up a second Jack Snipe in his telescope and this was much easier to identify because of the shorter bill and comical ‘bobbing’ action as it moved through the dense vegetation. Brilliant!
Back past where the first Adder was still out of view, we asked the RSPB volunteer if he knew if any Adders had been seen up along the Adder Trail; his answer was in the positive, so we set off in the direction of Island Mere hide (which was of course out of bounds due to flooding). When we arrived at the site a small ‘excited’ crowd had already gathered, so we knew we were in luck. Sure enough, a few moments later we were observing a lovely male Adder well camouflaged in the leaf litter (though was considerably easier to see than the first). After a while the Adder moved slightly, showing its head and wavering forked tongue used for ‘smelling’ the air. The best of the photographs appears below.
We’d already decided to make for Westleton, where Woodlark and Dartford Warbler had been seen earlier that day. Neither of us was very familiar with the heath area, so we took the first car park and ventured out onto the heath itself, with little progress before taking a pathway through the heath on the opposite side of the road. But the heath appeared bereft of birdlife, with nothing more than the odd Carrion Crow; Magpie and Meadow Pipit seen.
Following the path up the path which passed through heather and gorse thickets with the odd Birch tree scattered about, I made a rather snide remark to the effect that there was nothing here to see, not even the ‘churr’ of a Dartford Warbler, so we decided to call it a day. Suddenly the said ‘churr’ occurred amongst the gorse, and we knew we’d hit gold so to speak. It was frustratingly difficult to observe the bird, rather than the ‘movement’ of it through the scrub, but suddenly it appeared out in the open for a few seconds – a beautiful male; and we breathed a sigh of relief. But it didn’t hang around, so we moved off thinking that that was about as good as we were going to get.
A hundred yards or so back towards the car park, John shouted out ‘Owl’ but all I got was a brief view of a sandy coloured wings as it disappeared over the brow of a hill. John thought it was a Short-eared Owl (which initially I wouldn’t have argued against, but racing to get a view as it flew over the adjoining heath, I gained a reasonable (though distant) view as it turned in flight whilst being mobbed by crows, and what I saw of a much greyer bird led me to believe that it was in fact a Long-eared Owl, going on the darker plumage and type of habitat, together with the time of year with migration in full swing. In addition, there was a moderate to strong south-easterly, and with the Continent being only a relatively short distance away. As we crossed the road again, the bird came up from the heath, being mobbed by crows again, and this time our views were more prolonged. Taking all in account I believe it was indeed a Long-eared Owl, and that is what we agreed on after lengthy discussion and debate. On the way to the car, the distinct call of a Mediterranean Gull echoed out over the heath, and sure enough, one flew directly over us, as a sort of farewell. I was certain we’d be back later in the spring.
22 MARCH 2018
John e-mailed midweek. Did I fancy a trip, maybe to Walton-on-Naze on Thursday or Friday? This turned into “local birding” on Thursday by Wednesday afternoon, then Languard Point, Suffolk by Wednesday evening – courtesy of reports of several Black Redstarts and a male Bluethroat being present.
We agreed an earlier than usual start from my house, so by 8.05 am Thursday morning we were on our way, with quite heavy and slow traffic all the way to the Felixstowe turnoff on A120 through Braintree; but after that we made good progress and were at Languard Point about 9.45 am.
But initial signs were disappointing, with very little evidence of any bird movement, and worse still in a way, hardly any birdwatchers watching anything. A couple of Ringed Plovers on the beach did little to quell our disquiet. But it wasn’t any good standing around waiting for something to happen; we had to start looking for birds of our own. Luckily, we didn’t have long to wait in fact.
John spotted a birdwatcher on his knees and eyeing something through his telescope, with one other joining him; so off we went. The said bird was a female Black Redstart; and then there was a second female. Reasonable views were obtained then we moved off to try and gain views of a male Firecrest seen in the bramble nearby. Needless to say, it wouldn’t perform for us, although I think John might have achieved a fleeting glimpse through the bramble.
Moving along the beach, John went one way and I took an easier route to some brambles along the cliffside. By the time I got there, some activity from a birder waving frantically at me (with John at his side) suggested something had been found. It was the Bluethroat, in the company of another female Black Redstart.
I didn’t get to see the Bluethroat as well as John had in those initial moments - well, even then his views were restricted mainly to seeing the back of the bird as it came out into the open and down onto the beach path, then very quickly back into the bramble as I arrived on the scene; but he saw enough of it, together with the tan coloured tail to identify it correctly as the Bluethroat.
We waited there for twenty minutes or so before the bird came out from its hiding place, then flew along the beach - perching momentarily on another bramble - before coming down into another small thicket. At the same time, it disturbed a Firecrest, which I called before I lost sight of the Bluethroat as it came out onto the beach path then very rapidly flew back into the bramble, and was lost to view. I’d seen enough of the Bluethroat from the rear and left side to be sure of its identity, so although the views were short-lived, and the light was fantastic, I was reasonably happy. But the presence of a second male Firecrest, meant that at such close quarters I couldn’t resist the chance to get some photographs. Despite my camera failing to fire at the optimum time I did manage to get two reasonable shots of the Firecrests, good enough to use here; but once again I can only imagine what the results would have been had the camera been working properly. I did manage to work out what had caused the glitch, but, of course too late to make a difference.
Along with half a dozen other photographers we followed the Firecrests as together they weaved their way rapidly along a line of brambles, then into a stand of gorse, where after a few minutes they were lost to view. And due to a problem with my camera, I was unable to fire off shots which I believe otherwise would have been decent ones of this species, which remains off my list of successful bird shots. I then joined John again for a last chance at the Bluethroat, which was without success.
We had decided to call it a day as John had to be back home by 2.00 pm, so moved off to that end, before finally getting another chance to see - possibly the same Bluethroat – which had apparently been spotted near where the first Black Redstarts were observed; but we were unlucky.
THORLEY WASH DIP OUT
I had nothing better to do, so I thought I'd make an evening visit to Thorley Wash in an effort to see Barn Owls which I'd previously been informed were present there. I waited and waited but when it got too dark to see anything I knew I failed - yet again - to connect. Indeed, during the whole two hours I was there, not a single bird of any kind (that I could detect) even came into roost .....................or flew over - no Reed Buntings; no Snipe; no Woodcock; no heron or egret, and no Raptors (except that I did get a good view of a lovely blue male Sparrowhawk perched nearby as I entered the reserve from the river) and more especially no Barn Owls. This was the fifth visit made to see the Barn Owls especially in the last three months or so, and the fifth time I'd failed!! And, I'd taken heed to be sure of getting to the site at the correct time - morning and evening; so am due a lucky spell soon, surely?
But as something of a compensation, the most recent trip (before the 'Beast from the East' took hold), I did get a couple of lovely sunset shots,. so it wasn't a complete waste of time.
22 FEBRUARY 2018 – NORFOLK/SUFFOLK with John Slee
We started the day at Cockley Cley and within a few minutes of arriving our target bird came into view. It was rather distant, but in my view unmistakable in its jizz – a definite female Goshawk, grey upper plumage, with much lighter breast and belly; heavy build, with broad, rounded wings, similar to a very large Sparrowhawk, (which it clearly wasn’t). And just in time the clouds began to clear into bright sunlight, with a cool easterly breeze, ideal for watching distant raptors.
The bird was soon lost to view, but another (or the same) bird was found circling over the distant forest and was joined by a much smaller bird and a period of courtship flight followed. It was clear we were watching a pair of Goshawks. There were plenty of Buzzards too (at least eight) for comparison, so we were certain we’d got the identity correct. On the other side of the road, a Red Kite tussled with a few more Buzzards . amid the crows and rooks and Lapwings. A few minutes later, and the female came very much closer, when plumage details could be observed well, in good light, when the bird interacted with three Buzzards, and was finally lost to view behind the trees. It was the best view either of us experienced for several years.
Our next point of call was Santon Warren, where we hoped to connect with Parrot Crossbills; Woodlark and possibly Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. However, despite a circular walk we found nothing of note, except an attractive female Bullfinch.
At this stage I discovered I’d left my lunchbox/drink at home, so as we had plenty of time on our hands, we called in at Brandon for something to eat and a welcome Cappuccino or two; and put the world to rights into the bargain.
After that, we made our way to Burwell Fen, where we arrived shortly after 3.00 pm. The fen was seemingly quite bereft of birds in any good numbers, with no sign of any Short-eared Owls (which hadn’t been reported but were present at this time last year (2017). But although the fen held a good selection of birds, including Little Egret (2); Stonechat; Kestrel (2m; 1f); Shelduck; Wigeon; Teal; Egyptian Goose; Greylag Geese, and Reed Buntings, were we never destined to connect with any Short-eared Owls. It wasn’t until just gone 5.00 pm that the first of two Barn Owls came into view, with a one coming really quite close as it landed on a fence post well within 75 yards or so – although it goes without saying that I fumbled to use my camera in the freezing cold (I can never seem to get to grips with finding the shutter button with gloves on), so actually missed the chance for a reasonably good photograph. By then of course the light was fading fast and useless really for photography, so we both utilised our binoculars to good effect by watching the owls quarter the fen at distance.
I didn’t get to use the camera for much, so I took the opportunity to photograph the Highland Cattle; Roe Deer; and finally, a super sunset. So, in the end an enjoyable day.
1 FEBRUARY 2018 – HATFIELD FOREST, ESSEX
It was a lovely bright, sunny, yet breezy morning, with excellent light. Seemingly perfect for Hawfinches.
John said there had been good numbers of Hawfinches seen at Hatfield in recent days, so off we went again in search of this oft elusive finch. The South Gate area was apparently the best site to see them. But could we find even one; no of course not!
A small flock of 17 birds had apparently been reported nearby earlier that morning, but they’d moved off since then. Various birdwatchers (there were a few scattered over the area) also reported just the occasional view, mainly of singletons; but of the main flock, no updated information was at hand. Suddenly, a glimpse of one individual perched some 100 metres away, gave us some hope of locating the main flock, but all we got for our trouble was a flight view, and a super view of a Red Kite overhead.
Tirelessly, we moved on, and took one of the main rides through the forest. It was muddy; very, very muddy. But there were some compensations in the form of several of the smaller passerines, such as Nuthatch; a lone Treecreeper; Long-tailed Tit; Great Tit; Blue Tit; three or four Marsh Tits; Chaffinches (in very good numbers, but regrettably no Brambling amongst them); several small knots of Redwing; Blackbird; Wren and Robin. But no Hawfinches.
We went virtually all the way round the forest, with nothing to show, and then finally, as we emerged into clear daylight, John picked up the sound of one individual Hawfinch calling, and although we did get onto it, a good view it was not. But we were encouraged. We eventually ended up where we started, with the odd one having been seen by other birdwatchers. One or two Hawfinches gave us tantalising flight views, but quickly disappeared into the woods. So, we decided that it was best to follow a woodland course and took an indistinctive trail just off the main path, just to give it a go.
There was quite a lot of movement on the floor of the wood, mainly from tits, chaffinches, nuthatches and redwing, but suddenly a male Hawfinch came into view, with three more individuals (in quick succession). But they were extremely flighty, and it was difficult to get a good view through the trees. It was only when they seemed to split when a female came nearer, landing above our heads, which gave us an opportunity to view it at relatively close quarters, and me a chance to get some photographs. The female called sporadically, but seemed perfectly happy perched there for a while, with occasional ‘clicking’ calls from other birds nearby.
I got my photographs in the end and I cannot complain. But I want to go back and try again. This last weekend (10-11 February) I understand the numbers of Hawfinch have increased to at least 53 individuals. So, I should hopefully stand a reasonable chance. So, watch this space.
We ended the morning with a welcome cup of coffee at the cafe and good views of stunningly attractive and entertaining Jackdaws.
19 JANUARY 2018
I was cooking breakfast and just happened to look out into the garden to see what I assumed was a ginger cat attempting to climb the ivy at the bottom of the garden. I never got to confirm the sighting but within a minute a dog fox came from out of the rockery and looked up to where the 'cat' had disappeared into the ivy. Could that first sighting have actually been a fox in fact too??? I will never know. Although the sky was bright the sunlight hadn't penetrated the garden so, anxious to any sort of record shot, I just fired off a few. None proved very good because of the low light; the slow shutter speed, and being taken through glass. Note the file of feathers beneath the bird bath......... seemingly the remains of a Wood Pigeon (so unlikely to have been the prey of a male Sparrowhawk seen regularly over the previous few days..............more likely down to the Fox, who'd returned to look for more perhaps). Anyway, a welcome visitor.
DEVON – 21 December 2017- 3 Jan 2018
My sister, Val invited me down to Bideford for Christmas and persuaded me to stretch it to cover the New Year period. I had no other plans, so took up her offer, thinking that we’d get the opportunity to get out and about a bit. Well, for all sorts of reasons, the break didn’t quite work out as we’d envisaged. The weather, was atrocious – extremely high winds and a whole lot of rain; I went down with a chest infection; and other things conspired to ruin what could have been a really nice time. But I won’t dwell on those – though none were within Val’s power to change.
The consequence was that I managed to get out on just three or four occasions – a walk along the Tarka trail (following the River Torridge); The Burrows Country Park (at the mouth of the Torridge and Tew confluence); and two bites of the coastal path at Westward Ho!; one on my own, and the other with Val’s daughters and their entourages, plus of course, four dogs – Val’s Flo (a Border Collie); Rebecca’s Lundy (a Labrador) and Hannah’s two border collies – Nellie and Lennie.
Here are a few of the photographic highlights.