Monday, 4 June 2018

Our new wildlife spotter

I've been out a couple of times recently but the birds have been few and far between. A whole day was spent with Dave Simms not seeing wood warblers, honey buzzards and goshawks. I did manage to catch up with an elusive spotted flycatcher in Sandon churchyard and a few grey partridge near there but otherwise nothing of note. Seeing these house martins collecting mud for their nests was nice albeit they're very late this year.

Most of the interest therefore has been of the smaller kind, with my moth trap being left out quite a few nights. I've had a good selection of wee beasties in it but the highlights were not from the trap. Both came courtesy of our cat Primrose. First of all we saw her sniffing at a beetle on our terrace. Closer inspection showed it to be a lesser stag beetle, one we've not had in the garden before. These are actually photos of the same species seen the same day but at Maple Lodge reserve. The one in our garden was still proving of interest to Primrose so I put it out of harms way. They can give you a nip with those pincers by the way, but I don't think they are lethal!!!!

The following day we were sitting at the bottom of the lawn when we saw Primrose playing with something in the grass. I had a look and you could see what looked like a large beetle scuttling about in the grass. I picked it up and it was a weird beast.
It was an inch long, very thick body with what looked like vestigial wings and boy was it fast when you put it down. It was clearly trying to get under cover so I let it hide under the arm of our garden chair.
I quickly realised that what we had was a moth or possibly a butterfly that had just emerged from its pupa and was inflating its wings. When they come out everything is folded up and they have to sit quietly whilst they effectively pump up their wings so they can fly. Before that they are helpless explaining why it wants to go and hide. The question was, what type of beast was it?
I watched it for I suppose 30 minute or so and gradually its wings unfolded.

It was clearly a moth and a large one at that. Interestingly though it first of all held its inflated wings up like a butterfly.

I got my moth book out and worked out that it was a large yellow underwing. Not a rare moth but a very striking one. Suddenly it folded its wings down and took on the typical moth shape.

It was still only 4 in the afternoon and I didn't want to leave it out in the open so I carefully transferred it to a nice patch of cover. Before it disappeared into the undergrowth it gave a flash of its underwing.

I made sure it was out of sight and left it to get itself sorted out for the night ahead. I made sure Primrose got rewarded for her spotting efforts and asked her to keep an eye open for any other nice rare moths she could find!!!

Monday, 21 May 2018

A nightingale doesn't sing in Berkeley Square

I'm now down to my last week at work but that is no excuse for not getting out there and catching up with some good birds. Today was a combination of going for a couple of old favourites together with seeing what else might drop in.
First up was my annual trip to Paxton pits in Cambridgeshire for the nightingales which breed there. It is starting to get very depressing though. Five years ago they had well over 10 pairs on site At 8 in the morning you could pick your bird and join the crowds listening to their beautiful song. Two years ago the number dropped off a cliff. Last year wasn't much better and this year their website was reporting only 3 or possibly 4 pairs on the whole of the extended site. I walked all of my usual areas for them - the bit by the hide, the triangle, the hedge by the field but nothing. Lots of other birds were singing - blackcap, garden warbler, chiffchaff, willow warbler, whitethroat - but not a whisper of a nightingale. My last chance was near the river, where another birder on site told me they had heard one a few days before. After perhaps 20 minutes I finally heard the characteristic chattering, explosive call from deep in a bush. One male was desperately trying to attract a mate. I listened to him for about 15 minutes. As ever he remained pretty deep in the bush, never showing himself well enough for a photo. This was the only one I heard though.
Why their numbers are down so much is a mystery. Other summer migrants were there and the habitat is not any different to my eyes. It is probably a combination of factors including the perils of the migration across the guns of the Mediterranean. Other sites are also reporting lower than normal numbers so it may be that they are going the way of the turtle dove. The sound of Summer will be different in years to come.
After Paxton I went cross country to Leicestershire. Two of our rarer terns were reported yesterday and came up on the pager again today. These were white-winged terns, cousins of the black terns, both of which are migrants through our lakes and reservoirs in Spring. They are very late arriving this year though and by the time I got to Eyebrook it was clear that today they were making up for lost time. Both black and white-winged were being reported across a number of sites, in good numbers as well. Without exact directions though I was expecting a long search across the reservoir searching them out. Even before I got out of the car though I saw one fly straight past the parking area and in company with a black tern. I grabbed my gear and pretty much straight away got onto them fishing up and down opposite the road.
In all, there were 2 of the white-wingers and 10 of their commoner cousins the black terns. They are both smaller than our common terns and have a different habit, more bouncy in flight picking insects off the the surface rather than diving for small fish.

You can see why they got their name - that black body with the contrasting white wings. They also have a characteristic white rump which shows very well when they are flying away from you. After about 30 minutes the black terns all formed into a flock and rose up and up on a thermal. Eventually they disappeared, moving on north to their breeding grounds. The white-wingers though remained, fishing and darting around on the reservoir. It does say something as well that whilst we were watching the terns an osprey, presumably from Rutland water, was fishing on the far bank, but we only gave it a passing glance! 
Finally I went further across the country to Cambridgeshire, to Eldernell near Whittlesey. The target here was a white stork. These are pretty controversial birds at the moment. There are many escapees in the country and there has been a reintroduction scheme in Germany. This one, although ringed, did not have any of the tags associated with the escapees so it may be a kosher bird.

It was always a long way away though, eventually appearing to go to sleep by a gate on the far side of the flood. More visible were 2 or 3 common cranes which have a territory nearby, their honking calls echoing around.
Right by the car park is a bridge with swallows nesting under it, and a pair decided to have a rat on it long enough for me to grab a few photos of them. Beautiful birds with the sun on their feathers.

A lovely day in the Spring sunshine. One lifer in the form of the whit stork plus 4 other year ticks. As I write this there are flocks of up to 60 birds still dropping into reservoirs across the country. Vey pleased with my smaller flock though. What might be next? Well, probably a trip back to Eldernell where corncrakes are calling towards dusk!!

Monday, 14 May 2018

A nice hobby!

One of the sounds of Summer is always said to be the gentle purring of the turtle dove. In recent years though their population has plummeted, due to habitat loss here, in their wintering grounds in Africa and the slaughter as they pass over the Med. In Herts you used be able to track down a few pairs. but now they have totally been lost as a breeding species. The nearest reserve to me where I know you can get them is Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire. This is a small reserve, basically a lake with reedbeds and woodlands surrounded by mixed farmland. They have 3 or 4 pairs of turtle doves nesting each year.
I wasn't early arriving as I had a lie-in so I was bit concerned I might have missed them before they left the reserve to go and feed in the fields. I was lucky though. As I walked out of the car park towards the Draper hide you could one calling from the woods, the gentle purring call suiting ideally the pastoral scene. I was really lucky though as I caught one brief view of it flying and then that was it. For the next two hours on the reserve you heard nothing, presumably as they had left to go and feed.
That didn't mean there was nothing else to see though. From one of the hides a dabchick was looking after its sole baby, lurking in the reeds.

The bushes were alive with warbler song - garden warblers, blackcaps, Cetti's warblers, reed and sedge warblers and chiffchaffs and willow warblers. Most of them were lurking as the day warmed up but both this chiffchaff and a reed warbler were close enough to get a photo.

Finally, over the reed bed two raptors were plying their trade. A part of marsh harriers were clearly nesting and kept dropping in and out of the same area of the reeds, presumably where they young were.

 There were also 3 or possibly 4 hobbies hawking for dragonflies. They were particularly active but as they normally are where a tricky subject to photograph. They dart left and right at great speed chasing there prey and t lock onto them is really hard. These are not therefore great photos but I will go back and try later for better ones, possibly earlier in the morning.

Not a bad day but slightly disappointing. Next time I will have to get up earlier and get there after dawn to get the turtle doves. Early bird catches the worm after all.....

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Working hard...

I'm only a couple of weeks away from retirement. One of the last things I had to do was to go over to our Lisbon office and do a handover of my projects. Fortunately though I managed to work a bit of free time into the trip. My colleague and friend Jon Haigh had arranged for a trip out birdwatching for the pair of us. Jon is a total "dude" birder so our local guide proved invaluable.
We started off from Lisbon in his car and headed out to the Tagus estuary. The weather was not what we expected though. Despite Spring coming on it was cold, overcast and windy. Not ideal weather to introduce Jon to birding, but you could say it was typical of a days birding!
We started off on an estuary at rising tide.

Most of the birds were some way off and not in photography range, but we got Jons Portugal list off to a good start. Whimbrel, grey plover, dunlin, turnstones, marsh harriers, black kites and a pair of overflying bee-eaters were all nice to start off with.
We then moved back into the car and quickly got spotless starling and the recently split Iberian magpie. After that we headed for some a private reserve which we had access to. This had a pool with two star targets - little bittern and purple swamphen. We scanned the reeds but nothing seemed to be there. Jon then wandered across to us and said "I've just seen an interesting bird with a red beak". We thought it might have been a waxbill, but quickly worked out it was not a tiny bird and was seen crawling up reeds. He'd only gone and seen the little bittern and had not alerted us to it. Jon's first lesson in birding - don't keep it to yourself. To be fair he did look crestfallen when he saw the scale of his crime but we tried to be gentle with him. It refused to show again, so we headed off round the reserve getting nightingale, hoopoe, waxbill and a few other commoner species. Before we left we had a last go at the pool. Jon managed to redeem himself, refinding the little bittern in virtually the same spot!!

They are really small birds, not much larger than a coot and can disappear really easily, as this one did again. They are present in the UK most years and bred on the Somerset levels but would be a really good bird to see. Much commoner here but still tricky.
Next stop was some salt pans further along the coast. The main target here was Kentish plover which nest here.

They are similar to the commoner ringed plover but more delicate, washed out and with a nice brown cap. They used to nest in the UK but have now been lost to us as a breeding species. They are also a bogey bird for me, having dipped on them numerous times. We also had breeding plumaged curlew sandpipers here plus a Sardinian warbler scratching away nearby.
Finally, and I suppose most surprising was the large flock of flamingos, not just here but over the estuary.

You may note there are no pink birds here. These are all juveniles, the pinker adults having migrated to breeding ground in Africa leaving the juveniles to spend their summer in Iberia.
All in all a very pleasant way to spend a morning, albeit in bloody cold weather. I'm hoping Jon had got the bug now. He certainly now knows the lie of the land and is the 110th best birder in Portugal now according to the BUBO list. Only upwards from here.

Monday, 30 April 2018

The green, green grass of home

On my last post I commented about missing birds and how the green heron from 2008 really hurt. I wrote that before looking at RBA on Saturday night when, in totally bizarre coincidence, a green heron dropped into a garden in Wales! This was something you could not have predicted. Sunday it was still there and so there was only one decision to be made on Monday. Jut after 5 I was making my way along the motorway towards south Wales. The bird was some way down, almost at Martins Haven, where you leave for Skomer and the puffins, but that is a trip for another day. I got to the village of Llan Mill just before 9 and parked up at the crematorium. The village is tiny, barely a dozen cottages on a very windy road so this was the recommended place to park. A 10 minute walk down the road and 5 minutes along a track got me to a very nice house. It belongs to the local MP Simon Hart who put the news out and was welcoming all-comers to view the heron.

It was one of the nicer places for a twitch. You stood on his terrace, where his wife brought out tea and coffee, and studied the pond he has in his rather picturesque garden.

When I arrived there were about 20 people there including Lee Evans. The heron had been seen but was lurking in the reeds on the opposite side of the pond. Fortunately I got onto it almost immediately but for the next hour the views were, how to put it, fleeting at best.

The green heron has its natural home in north and central Americas. It has clearly got quite lost in one of the Atlantic storms and pitched up here. It was loving it in this pond and patch of reeds though, catching small frogs, fish and quite frequently newts. It would pounce on them, spearing the larger ones and taking them back into deeper cover to eat them.
It was giving us tantalising views but not enough to really show itself off. It is a small heron, like a night heron rather than our grey heron, so could totally disappear very easily. The general feeling, especially from Mr Evans, was that the day before it had been pestered a bit too much. Certainly when it did show the cameras went off a bit loud and not everyone realised there is a silent setting. Finally though we saw it starting to make its way through the reeds towards the front of the bed. 

It seemed a bit confused it the beautiful sunlight. It was stunning to see it finally on show though. The colours in its plumage really sang. Despite it being out and on show, there was only a narrow angle you could see it well from. Move slightly sideways and trees or reeds started to obscure it. I had to fight to keep my place and people even started to move in front of those already there. This resulted in a bit of grumbling with lots of photos being taken of hats as those in front stood up. One bloke in particular was a right pain. He had got a place in the front and refused to either kneel down, take his hat off or stop spreading his elbows out when he took a photo. Fortunately I could edge slightly to one side to avoid him but I heard lots of pointed comments from others. 

Firstly it had a really good groom of its feathers, stretching out its wings and making sure everything was clean and in working order.

Once all that was done it started looking around a bit more. It did one strange thing, opening its beak and appearing to yawn. I wasn't sure what it was doing - clearing its crop a bit but the view down its throat was certainly very unusual. 

Apparently the strange "organ"coming out of its mouth is actually its throat. When it sits still it has an apparently quite short neck. 

It uses this neck though as a telescope to reach out and catch food and you could see sometimes when it stretched how long it is. That organ is actually the throat folded away in its neck so I presume after a bit of sitting it has to stretch it to get the kinks out!!!!
Finally it seemed distracted by something, possibly even listening for prey moving in the reeds and it skulked back off out of sight again.

I hung around for another half hour but with a long drive back I eventually called it a day and headed home. Superb bird, great twitch and my third lifer in the space of 7 days. This is turning into a pretty good Spring after a slow start. Now, what might be next???