Monday, 18 June 2018

What a fly past

We are well and truly into the Summer doldrums as far as birding is concerned. Very few "good" birds are appearing and those that are tend to be brief. I dipped on a one-day marsh sandpiper last week at Pennington. So, with a day at Rutland on Wednesday for the ospreys at River Gwash I thought I ought to get in some practice at birds in flight. I immediately thought of Lakenheath, which throughout Summer has a healthy population of both breeding and transient hobbies. These small flacons are mega fast, hunting and feeding on the wing. In the early Summer they are after dragonflies and later on move onto house martins even catching them in level flight!!!
After a brief stop on the way at Fen Drayton to hear a great reed warbler (and get a very dodgy flight view of it!) I got to Lakenheath just as the day was starting to warm up. This is a very large RSPB reserve in East Anglia, near Newmarket. It used to be famous for having breeding golden orioles but it lost them a few years back. Now it is a giant reed bed and known for hobbies, bitterns, cranes and bearded tits.
The very pleasant man in the centre assured me the hobbies were still around so I walked out to the area just beyond Joist fen where I could see a couple of other photographers already in place. The weather although bright was very breezy even where we were, sightly sheltered by the trees. On the upside, there were lots of dragonflies already on the wing.
Almost abefore I got my camera set up though it wasn't a hobby which took my interest. A bittern flopped up out of the reeds on the our right and flew over to next marsh!

 Over the next few hours we got some really god views of at least 3 bitterns flying around the marsh. One came ridiculously close but I only knew that when it flew out of the reeds almost under my feet before I could react and get a shot! They breed here and were moving between nests and feeding grounds.
Another surprise was the number of cuckoos we saw. It is always good for them here but we got 3 in the air at once, calling and partaking in what looked like territorial disputes.

Before we move onto the hobbies the last fly by was a bird of a totally different sort. The USAF have a large base nearby and Tom Cruise was being very active today.

So, onto what I came for, the hobbies. As the day got warmer they started to hunt more and more. There were two or three in our area and you started to get a feel for their pattern of behaviour.
One in particular was reasonably close and it would spend some time perched in a nearby tree. From here it would fly down and hunt over the reeds and channels. It was incredibly fast in the air, constantly banking and turning. Trying to capture it was, how shall we say, challenging. Even more so as I had my 500mm lens hand-held to try and track them.

 The bottom one of this set shows the bird to its best, with the stripes on its belly and that raptors piercing eye. It is slightly spoiled by the reeds in the way. It was way below our feet at the time but only 20 yards away!
What you could see though was the behaviour when they caught dragonflies. They would then climb up and eat them on the wing.

They have a number of prey items, at least one in each talon. They then go into a slow(er) circle wildly they rip them apart and was the juicy bits before diving back down again to have another go.
After a few cycles of this it would return to the tree and have 20 or 30 minutes digestion time before starting again.
With the weather getting pretty warm and even the hobbies getting a bit less frequent I left before the traffic got too bad. A great day with 3 fantastic birds. Really good to be able to spend time watching their behaviour. I think I will go back and have another go though!!

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.....