Wednesday 10 August 2016

Yellow Wagtails breed locally & economy of effort

Well, hello again! I hope no-one was holding their breath for the next blog post. Gone blue you say? Yikes! Inhale and here I am with a short update and to let you know that for the time being I can be found on Twitter rather than Blogger (link over there, in the left sidebar).

For much of the summer, health issues have been severely limiting. However, nearly 3 weeks ago now, on a short little wander not far from home, I came upon what turned out to be 2 nesting pairs of Yellow Wagtails. After weeks of barely being able to walk 15 minutes around the block, I was greeted by life and chirps and flits and beaks full of insects. It was utterly delightful and completely transforming! I have been keeping an eye on them ever since and last weekend the first nestlings fledged.

On days when the clouds were low, the Swallows and House Martins would buzz past the perched Wagtails, skimming the tops of the crop. A pair of Dunnocks had also chosen to breed amongst the peas and the speckly youngsters joined the Wagtails forming a kind of bird crèche. In an adjacent pasture, there are freshly fledged Yellowhammer, Linnets and Goldfinches, all full of bluster and squabbles and swoops for food.

My health remains pretty restrictive but I’m hoping that the economy of effort required with Twitter will keep you and me connected.




Monday 20 June 2016

Bee Orchids & a medley of moths

I may well have been a monosyllabic zombie with all the get up and go of a desiccated slug for the past month, but in my more lucid moments, I have temporarily vacated the sofa. My sorties have been short and sweet but there’s always something interesting to find at this time of year, even if all you do is walk a few metres along an unkept verge. So, without further ado and minimal accompanying words because that would require thought, here are a few bits and pieces from around Hemel & Bovingdon in the last few weeks.

Firstly, a new-to-me moth, found back at the wildflower verge along the A41 Boxmoor/Bourne End exit.

Unfortunately (for all involved) it’s one of those that requires dissection of its nether regions in order to determine exact species. However, I found it on Ox-eye Daisy and didn’t notice any Tansy in the vicinity, so I’m opting for an ID of Broad-blotch Drill (Dichrorampha alpinana) (foodplant: Ox-eye Daisy) rather the alternative Narrow-blotch Drill (Dichrorampha flavidorsana) (foodplant: Tansy). Either way, I liked it.

Next up, 37 Bee Orchids (Ophrys apifera), in 3 discrete groups (5 + 21 +11), also at the A41 site. I’d be hard pressed to name another plant that brings me as much pleasure as this little orchid. Aesthetically, it’s perfect. Temperamentally, it’s irresistibly capricious. One year, it’ll arrive in dozens, sometimes hundreds; another year, not a single spike will erupt from the earth at that same location. It’s unpredictable and it's beautiful and that makes the triumph of finding one all the sweeter.

Yesterday, whilst counting the Bee Orchids, my first Marbled White of the year fluttered in to say hello.

Back at the beginning of June, on a sunny afternoon at Dellfield Meadow, Westbrook Hay, I counted 11 Grass Rivulet moths (Perizoma albulata) in the lower quadrant above the carpark. I don’t know its current status in Herts but a couple of years ago, it was considered rare and I was chuffed to find even one in this meadow. I’m so pleased the colony is doing well.

    Marbled White
    Grass Rivulet

Finally, I have a soft spot for the Yellow-barred Longhorn moth (Nemophora degeerella). The larvae feed on leaf litter, and little (or large!) swarms of them seem to be pretty common along woodland paths and, well, in my garden (currently). At the end of last week, there were a couple of clouds at the Brickworks, probably totalling more than 50 moths (only the one female). Of all the Adelidae species, I find these the most fairy-like and enchanting to watch.

Yellow-barred Longhorn moth. Left: male (loooong antennae); Right: female (short antennae)

Friday 10 June 2016

Small Blue eggs & pretty things in ugly places

A41 Bourne End/Boxmoor turn-off: Some of you may remember that, last summer, I went in search of Wally (aka Small Blue caterpillars). This year, I took it back a stage - still squinting at Kidney Vetch flowers - but this time hoping to find the minuscule butterfly eggs. It was actually a lot easier than I expected. At less than about 0.5mm in diameter, the eggs are surprisingly conspicuous.

See!...not going to miss this little chap, tucked away

Many of the flowers had multiple eggs laid within them, here 2 are visible

The scale of the ruler is mm, suggesting the egg is approx 0.5mm diameter

This egg had already hatched - all that was left was the outer rim/shell (like a tyre), the centre was hollow/empty

For anyone curious about the context of this A41 Small Blue colony, I've put together a few images below. The main photograph was taken from the A4251, looking down onto the eastbound embankment: this is south facing and rich in Kidney Vetch (all the clumps of yellow). Top right, is the view along the top of the embankment and, bottom right, is the view from the side of the A41, up the embankment.

Nature does have a habit of thriving in these most ugly and dangerous of places. Today, surrounded by reinforced concrete, bad graffiti and the roar of traffic, 2 Bee Orchids bloomed (the first I’ve seen this season). With them, numerous Pyramidal and Common Spotted Orchids. Salad Burnet & Ox-eye Daisies galore; Grass Vetchling, Red & White Clover, Yellow Rattle, Scabious sp, Meadow Buttercups, Poppies, Common Mouse-ear, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Wild Marjoram and numerous grasses including the irresistible Quaking-grass. The list, of course, goes on…and exceeds my mental and botanical capabilities.

Over on the westbound slip road, the big, bold and simple beauty of the Ox-eye Daisies mingled with the delicate and elaborate artistry that is Quaking-grass. I wish I’d had the energy today to really capture the scene, either in words or pictures but, for now, it’s just a couple of close-ups…daisies dancing with grasses.

Oh, nearly forgot, Small Blue butterfly count today: 27 eastbound embankment; 7 westbound slip road. Total = 34

Sunday 29 May 2016

GSWs: In the shade of the Oak

Hemel (BMT): I have tried and failed to muster up an opening with a pinch of pizazz. Instead, I shall jump straight in with the reality that the last 9 days have been largely a sedate affair (or perhaps more accurately, a stationary affair, as I’ve barely moved). Selecting highs and lows from the week seems like an easy way to carry my thoughts, so let’s go with that. The obvious low which has dominated, is the fact that my energy levels remain near rock bottom (it's attributed to ME/CFS, a condition - for those not in the know - where particular biological processes essentially fail to work properly. Recent findings suggest that the underlying pathology is significant impairments in cellular function but the cause and treatment are speculative and the duration of debilitation can be anything from months to a lifetime). Anyway, for the moment, even contemplating the (hilly) ~600 metre walk to the Small Blue butterflies has felt beyond me, although I may just give it a go tomorrow.

The definite high of the week was being able to return to the nesting Great Spotted Woodpeckers. A bit of sneaky parking reduced the walking distance to around 150 metres. The nest site was such that I was able to set up my gear (including handy camping seat) out of sight of the Woodpeckers and watch/film them without causing any intrusion or disturbance. I couldn’t manage more than about an hour but even in that time the parents were bringing food to the intensely demanding young almost every 10-15 minutes.

Pa (left), Ma (right)

The nestlings never shut up (evidenced in the video!)….which is how I found their home in the first place. Squeak, squeak, squawk, squawk, rising above the sound of nearby traffic. I wish I was as adept at finding interesting caterpillars as ma and pa woodpecker, and I did note that the female was ringed although couldn't read the code, unfortunately. The light was extremely awkward (harshly backlit) but, quite honestly, I would have been happy with any record of this wholly absorbing scene. I was transported into their world of vitality and bonding and the striving for life. I loved how the young were cradled safely within the limb of a mature, ostensibly healthy Oak: the tree providing complete shade, protection and rooted solidity; the woodland around them their larder.

[The video is best viewed in 4K: press play then click on the cog, bottom right, and select 2160p4K quality. In the last scene, it's the female that exits from the nest hole, taking out the rubbish]

Wednesday 25 May 2016

The little things

Here with a mini update, about mini flying things, due to minimal energy for being out and about this week, unfortunately. The day before my ill-considered, strength-sapping yomp over Albury Nowers, I’d checked the A41 Small Blue colony. Conditions weren’t ideal but I’d counted at least 12 Small Blues, including a mating pair. Also risking life and wing by the dual carriageway was a fresh Burnet Companion moth.

On Sunday, still unaware of quite how drained I was, I visited Bovingdon Brickworks briefly. The teeny weeny Adela fibulella day-flying moth had just emerged and was enjoying a rare glimpse of sunshine, fluttering on/around its foodplant, Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys). In the same scrubby meadow, nestled down amongst the grasses and nettles, near one of the many stands of Bugle (Ajuga reptans), I found a brilliant Small Copper. I only ever see a handful of this species throughout the season so I make the most of each one.

Adela (cauchas) fibulella. The smallest of the British Adelinae moths
at approx 5mm long. Scarce in Herts
Small Copper. The little fibulella moth
is probably as long as its antenna!

Finally, today, after what has basically been 4 days of complete rest, I went out for a very gentle stroll. It was cold and drizzling but worth it for chancing upon a pair of dishevelled Great Spotted Woodpeckers, weary in their quest to satisfy a nest-hole full of squawking babies. If I have the energy and opportunity, I’ll head back to them soon and see if I can get some video/photos, obviously without causing any intrusion/disturbance.

Friday 20 May 2016

All the Leps are brown...

….and the sky was grey. I’ve been for a walk…

…at Aldbury Nowers (which doesn't fit into the Carpenters' song all, even with a crowbar). It's right on the edge of Herts, a SSSI and a chalk grassland. I joined a new friend for a wander and in spite of a serious lack of sunshine, we notched up all things winged & brown, and the occasional splash of colour:

Dingy Skipper 7
Grizzled Skipper 3
Brown Argus 5
Small Heath 3
Orange-tip 11
Brimstone 9
Green-veined White 1
Treble-bar (Aplocera plagiata)
Mother Shipton (Callistege mi)
Small Yellow Underwing (Panemeria tenebrata)
Burnet Companion (Euclidia glyphica)
Wavy-barred Sable (Pyrausta nigrata)
Common Purple & Gold (Pyrausta purpuralis)

Dingy, hoping for some sunshine

Grizzled Skipper
Brown Argus

Spot the moth!....a Treble-bar (Aplocera plagiata), I think, judging by this helpful ID tip 

Wavy-barred Sable (Pyrausta nigrata) 
on a Common Rock-rose, I think
Small Yellow Underwing (Panemeria tenebrata) 
on Common Mouse-ear, its larval foodplant

Wednesday 18 May 2016

A whole lot of finger crossing

Mother Shipton moth (Callistege mi) by the A41 on 12th May 2016

Yikes! Where did the last 12 days go?! Although butterfly numbers are low and late, I still seem to have spent inordinate amounts of time devoted to them. Last Monday, the 9th, as part of the preparations for Duke of Burgundy (re)introduction, I scoured Roughdown Common and Bovingdon Brickworks for representative foodplants (Cowslip and Primrose) that females might choose for egg laying. It was then a case of labelling, photographing and mapping them all with a view to returning every 2 weeks to capture (photograph) their progress. The idea is that we’ll then have evidence to show that the sites can support the larvae right through to pupation….so long as these foodplants remain lush and edible (rather than desiccate in sun or drought). Fingers firmly crossed, prayers dispensed and mind set to "optimistic"!

Pyrausta aurata 
(Small Purple and Gold or Mint Moth
Roughdown 16/5/2016
Dingy Skipper, Brickworks, 12/5/2016. A male, indicated by the dark scent/sex-brands running through the forewings. These contain the androconial scales used during courtship

What else? Well, having religiously visited the A41 Bourne End/Boxmoor junction every weather-appropriate day since the beginning of May, the first Small Blues took flight on the 12th. Just 3 of them and they were feeding feverishly on Grass Vetchling, Common Mouse-ear, Red and White Clover, Cowslips and Buttercups. Despite having no influence whatsoever on the survival of these little creatures, it hasn’t stopped me willing them through the winter, hoping all those tucked away larvae stay safe, and I felt as though I were greeting dear friends returned from a perilous adventure. I was so pleased to see them. Incidentally, 60-70% of the Kidney Vetch we planted at Roughdown and the Brickworks has taken, so, once again, fingers crossed for the future.

The best bird of the last week was the arrival of a Lesser Whitethroat jangling/rattling away at the western edge of the Brickworks. I wonder if it’s the same bird that turned up last year?

Not a Lesser Whitethroat but one of the many singing male Blackcaps around the Brickworks. This one hiding in a mess of Buddleja on Monday

On the botany front, I found a new patch of Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) at the Brickworks. This, along with plenty of Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), Creeping Cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans) and copious Bramble (Rubus fruticosus) is surely going to be tempting to any half-sane wandering Grizzled Skipper (a rare and restricted species in Herts and absent from BMT land). You guessed it, fingers firmly crossed.

Finally, I walked the Brickworks late afternoon yesterday. The Common Blue butterflies have yet to emerge and there’s still no sign of Brown Argus. The latter theoretically emerges the first week of May but my first sighting last year was the 10th. This year, I’m anticipating that they’ll be slightly late but we’re definitely getting to the end of the window of expectation. All I can do is stay optimistic and hope for the best (no more fingers left to cross!).

Friday 6 May 2016

Tring Park Hoopoe & a finessing of feathers

He's emerged! Duke of Burgundy, Ivinghoe Beacon, 05/05/2016

This week I think I’ve been trying to cram the whole of April and early May into two sunny days. Yesterday was a good’un, with year firsts for local Swifts, Dingy Skipper and Duke of Burgundy, plus an out of the blue Hoopoe bouncing around in Tring Park. Judging by Twitter, it was truly magical, “now you see me, now you don’t!”. I got lucky, arriving just 10 minutes before it flew up the steep slope on the south side (the wooded bank, in the far distance, in the photo below), and appeared to keep going, heading SSE. That was the last I saw of it.

View over Tring Park plus digiscoped Hoopoe on 05/05/2016

Of course, firsts and the rare are the exception. Mostly, the highlights are extraordinary encounters with the ordinary: a bird that is settled, perhaps singing or preening, showing no fear or aversion and, without fanfare, you find that you are permitted to weave your senses into the experience of The Other. You forget yourself, and you and the bird unite. A delicate yet very real relationship comes to life: the observer and the observed. I had one such moment yesterday.

In the morning, I walked the length of the River Bulbourne where the Grey Wagtails are nesting. The female was safely on her eggs and I left her to it. However, a male flew in and perched up nearby. I’m guessing he’s the mate although there is this third adult around which I’ve not yet been able to sex. I’ve no idea what role this extra bird has. Is it perhaps a young adult from last year’s brood, helping with this year’s rearing? I know some species have that type of familial relationship but I’ve no idea if it happens in Wagtails?

Anyway, the smart male balanced and preened and swished his tail for nearly 2 minutes. I stood in the sunshine, watching/filming through the scope, savouring every second. The terms of these encounters are always dictated by the other. As soon as he was through finessing his feathers, the tether between us dropped and he was wild again. My breathing returned to normal, my consciousness expanded and each of us assumed our separated selves, mine the richer for our brief alliance...

[The digiscoped video is best viewed in 4K: press play then click on the cog, bottom right, and select 2160p4K quality]

P.S. Ever the optimist, I’ve added a new widget in the left sidebar called Follow by Email. If you’d like to be automatically notified when a new post has been published, just enter your email address. Simples!

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Spring butterflies at last!

Just a few photographs and notes from this week so far…

Monday, it was “yes” to the best bird in Watford, a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, drumming and calling in Cassiobury Park. I’d not seen this species since 2012 and had forgotten just how tiny it is. Unfortunately, it was “no” to the mega rare Roseate Tern that dropped in, half dead, at Wilstone reservoir early that evening. I think I felt a bit like the Tern but I was lucky enough to be tucked up in the warm, about to dig in to a hearty meal. The Tern was not so fortunate, stuck out in the cold and rain, hundreds of miles from where it wanted to be. It was taken in to care the following morning and later, sadly, died (for a first-hand account, see Roy's sharply observed write up, here).

Tuesday marked the start of BMT staff and volunteers getting stuck in to a really exciting new conservation project: we're working towards the introduction of the rare Duke of Burgundy butterfly to Trust land in Hemel Hempstead and Bovingdon. As far as anyone is aware, there isn’t a single Duke of Burgundy butterfly anywhere in Hertfordshire. Nationally, it is one of the most rapidly declining species, with its distribution concentrated in central-southern England and a few isolated colonies in the southern Lake District and the North York Moors. Over the coming months and possibly, even, years, the Trust is going to be gathering data and developing land management strategies to support an application to Natural England & Butterfly Conservation for a (re)introduction programme. When I have a bit of time and brain power, I’ll put together a new page with all the details and outline one of my first tasks.

Today, it finally felt like Spring and I had to make the most of it. Grey Wagtails are nesting by the River Bulbourne: a pair on eggs and a third adult also in the area. The Small Blues haven’t yet emerged at the A41 colony but, over in the chalk dell at Roughdown Common, I had my first Green Hairstreaks (3) [two weeks later than last year] and Small Copper (1) of the year. A male Orange-tip, Holly Blue, Small & Large Whites and a Brimstone also fluttered by. Blissful sunshine...and more of it tomorrow...

Upperwings of Green Hairstreak

Green Hairstreak, nectaring (an unusual sight in general) on Forget-me-not

Monday 25 April 2016

Black-winged Stilts at Manor Farm NR

Agh, it’s another desperately unimaginative blog post title, shamelessly designed to harvest google search hits. Sorry about that. Actually, I’m still recovering the power of speech after yesterday’s leggy lovelies. I have been wanting to see Black-winged Stilts for years. I’ve dipped them once and seen a ringed escape but that’s it. When I heard that a pair had been spotted yesterday morning at the Ouse Valley ParkManor Farm NR, on the north side of Milton Keynes, I had to give it a shot. It took me more than half an hour to figure out how to get there and my master plan was “if I get lost, I just head for the M1 (and home)”. Thankfully, it was surprisingly easing to find and after a brisk walk, I laid eyes on my first ever pair of elegant, wild, wonderful Black-winged Stilts. Cor, they’re striking! All angles and contrasts and flourishes. Just beautiful!

No sooner had I set up my scope than the pair flew together to a distant island and proceeded to go through the intimate behaviours of courtship and mating. I think my chin hit the floor at that moment! I hadn’t even had time to configure my camera properly but I was so pleased that I managed to capture something of the moment, slightly blurry and mildly out of focus but frozen for posterity nonetheless. I particularly loved how the male bird’s final gesture (accidental or otherwise) was his right wing placed around the female, as if offering a little post-coital reassurance.

Context for the mating sequence, hastily digiscoped from approx 150+ metres away

After that, the birds separated and were constantly on the move around the site. Eventually, I decided I’d walk around the southeast edge and see if I could get to one of the new hides. This turned out to be the best decision of the day. As I rounded the corner and approached a narrow inlet, I could see the male bird foraging. He was infinitely closer than before and it gave me the precious opportunity to digiscope some better photographs (the top image and the following 3 images were all taken at this location, photographed right). By this point, I reckon I was probably grinning from ear to ear. I stayed on site for more than an hour, enjoying the birds and what is a superb nature reserve. I wished I lived closer.

I hear today that the birds have not been seen and have likely headed off. Perhaps they’ve realised they overshot their destination and are backtracking to mainland Europe. It’s a shame they’re oblivious to the immense joy they brought to many a birder on a chilly Sunday in April. Here’s hoping they fair well wherever they end up.

The all important Stilt stats
  • The last Buckinghamshire sighting was in 1988 (1st summer pair @ Willen Lake, 7-18th June)
  • The last Hertfordshire sighting was in 1998 (adult @ Park Street Gravel Pit, 27-28th May)
“The birds' 'knees' are actually in their feathers so the middle bit of their legs is actually their ankles. Stilts' legs are so long that when they sit in the nest their ankles are above their heads!” (RSPB website)

Where they should be...

Distribution maps courtesy of HERE and Birdguides, HERE

Sunday 24 April 2016

In search of a Redstart

Every time I go out looking for a Redstart, I invariably find one of these instead...

Lady Wheatear at the Water End horse paddock, Friday (digiscoped)

Not that I’m complaining really. Better a Wheatear than a whole lot of nothing-but-the-usual.

Yesterday, after a couple of Whimbrel briefly joined the Spotted Redshanks at College Lake, I followed in their wake, hoping something else might alight in the shallows. Optimism eventually gave way to a practical realism and I left the Octagon Hide to walk a circuit of the reserve. I was hoping for Cuckoo but, at this time of year, there’s an openness to the possibility that anything could turn up, anywhere. And so it did…

As I walked down through the scrub at the NW end of the reserve, I saw a flash of red as a bird flew from the fence line to a tangle of leafless bramble in the enclosure. It called and then I spotted it at the base of the bush, a beautiful male Redstart. At last! I had been looking for one of these for the past month or so and there he was, a blaze of orange and black and white, with those lovely slate grey upper parts. Unfortunately, I had only seconds to drink in the sight before he skilfully tucked himself away, completely out of view. I waited another 20 minutes but he’d studied the Redstart manual in skulking and there was no way he was going to give me another glimpse.

Still, nothing beats the thrill of the chance encounter with a hoped for passage migrant. I walked back along the west bank footpath, smiling, with House Martins and Sand Martins swooping barely a metre above my head, snatching insects from the air. The nippy NE wind had deterred every other butterfly except for a single male Orange-tip, my first of the season, which perched briefly on a pretty Dog-violet.

When I got up this morning, I was content with the weekend’s birding. Little did I know that the best was yet to come…. More on that tomorrow.

Thursday 21 April 2016

Spotted Redshank at College Lake

By 11:15am, the highlight of my morning had been catching the last few notes of what might possibly…probably….maybe was a Lesser Whitethroat at the Brickworks. I’d also managed a record shot of the/a female Muntjac (I know, exciting times). Anyway, when I got back to the car and heard that there were 2 summer plumage Spotted Redshanks (Tringa erythropus) at College Lake, I was off!

I think I’ve only ever seen a couple of breeding plumage birds and certainly none of any plumage in Herts or Bucks. As a fairly scarce wintering species in the UK, it’s not really a bird I have much experience of at all. To add a little frisson of discomfort excitement to the chase, I’d left my scope at home, so had to pick that up on route. I finally got to College Lake some time after midday, wondering if my scope detour had cost me my prize.

From the Octagon Hide, I could find only one of the Spotted Redshanks but that was quite sufficient. One definitely trumps none. There were also at least a dozen displaying, noisy Redshanks; one Little Ringed Plover; two Common Terns, plenty of Lapwing…and various other wildfowl which I basically ignored.

The Spotted Redshank came to within about 100 metres of the hide and, unfortunately, from there, most photography suffers from being badly backlit. Below are my best digiscoped efforts.

Spotted Redshank (left) with Redshank (right) for comparison

The context. The view from the hide. The arrow indicates where the Spotshank was when digiscoping it, approx 100 metres