Sunday, 29 June 2014

Coats of many colours

Claire went to London to see Dolly Parton this weekend, while the boys and I visited their Grandad in Devon to mark his turning 70 - just a couple of years older than Dolly. Coats of many colours were therefore being admired not only at the O2 but also on the Fritillaries of north Devon's coastal slopes - Dark Green, High Brown, Silver-washed specifically. Saturday morning saw us at Heddon's Mouth, a well known site for the rare High Brown Fritillary. Not a particularly long or leisurely visit due to commitments back in Dorset on Saturday evening, but long enough to locate just one fairly fresh specimen, along with a few of its commoner cousins.
Male High Brown Fritillary: I suspected High Brown on this initial view but needed to see the underside to be sure...
...which shows the diagnostic row of rust red spots with silver centres on the hind-wing.
Dark Green Fritillary: note the similarities in the upper-wing pattern to High Brown...
...but also the differences in the under-wing.
The High Brown, as it is now, has been through a veritable rainbow of names over the years - initially know as the Greater Silver-spotted, then the Dark Green, then the Violet Silver-spotted (a reference to the foodplant). Common across much of England until the 1950s, its decline was one of the more sudden and dramatic of all the British species, and it is now the subject of intensive conservation efforts in its remaining strongholds.
Male Silver-washed Fritillary
The stunning underwing pattern of Silver-washed Fritillary
This one was outside the toilets at the Hunter's Inn. Not a great place to hang about with a camera.
The long black lines on the forewing show this is a male.
The Dark Green Fritillary can be found in a wider range of habitats, particularly coastal areas, and while it too has declined, this has been nothing like as steep as that faced by the High Brown. I've struggled to get good undwerwing photos of either species, so when the one above sat with an almost closed wing in full sunlight on a thistle that was a bonus.
Fritillaries were note the only butterflies at Heddon's Mouth - this a Large Skipper
A smart Ringlet resting on a fern.
Small Heath.
Dark Green Fritillary.
The Silver-washed Fritillary, named for the silver streaks on the underwing, is one of our most graceful and spectacular. The footpath to Heddon's mouth descends through a steep valley so sometimes the canopy below is at eye level and we could see territorial males perched up and seeing off passing rivals. Another species having experienced long-term decline, it's range has at least expanded in recent decades, possibly due to climate change to which it appears particularly sensitive. 
Heddon's Mouth and the Bristol Channel beyond


Thursday, 26 June 2014

The World Cup of Birds

Hmm. A bit bored watching South Korea v Belgium? Or should that be the Korean Magpies v the Common Kestrels? Most countries have a national bird so try totting up how many of those represented in the 2014 World Cup have you seen from the list below. Clearly this pointless game gives a distinct advantage to wealthy globetrotters - a bit like the Premier League - so to even things up a bit, where the same bird has been chosen by different, unimaginative countries, you have to have seen it in the country it is the national bird for to count it more than once (the first one can be anywhere). Captive birds don't count. Algeria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Cameroon, Ghana, Portugal and Switzerland don't have national birds apparently, so it's best out of 26.
Common Kestrel - go, Belgium!
Here goes then:

Argentina - Rufous Hornero
Australia - Emu
Belgium - Common Kestrel
Brazil - Rufous-bellied Thrush
Chile - Andean Condor
Colombia - Andean Condor (again)
Costa Rica - Clay-coloured Robin
Ivory Coast - White-cheeked Turaco
Croatia - Nightingale
Ecuador - Andean Condor (hat-trick!)
England - Robin
France - Gallic Rooster (will accept Red Junglefowl)
Germany - White-tailed Eagle
Greece - Little Owl
Holland - Spoonbill
Honduras - Scarlet Macaw
Iran - Nightingale (again)
Italy - Golden Eagle
Japan - Green Pheasant
Mexico - Northern Crested Caracara
Nigeria - Black-crowned Crane
Russia - Tundra Swan (will accept Bewick's)
South Korea - Korean Magpie
Spain - Short-toed Eagle
USA - Bald Eagle
Uruguay - Southern Lapwing

Your score:
12 or less: you didn't make it beyond the Group Stages. Get the first plane home with England.
12-16: the Round of 16 awaits. Unfortunately you drew Brazil.
16-20: not bad - quarter-finals, but beaten on penalties by the Dutch.
20-24: congratulations - you made the semis, but Suarez eats your goalbound shot in the last minute to deny you a win. Then you lose on penalties.
25: Runner-up: beaten by the Germans in the final. On penalties.
26: World Cup Winner! Well done, you. Now get a patch and stay home more.

I think I got just 12, all in the UK except 3 from my honeymoon in Costa Rica in 2002. Can I not sit next to Rooney please?

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The energy crisis

No not that one, it's my own I'm talking about. Work is a bit manic; my social life is hectic by my anti-social standards; and the fine weather and (not-so-fine) hay-fever are all combining to make it all a bit, well, oppressive. I can barely summon up the energy to refresh these sunburnt pages. Just about managed to wave a white-hot lens in the general direction of some wildlife this weekend though, so perhaps I'll let the pictures do the talking.
This Buzzard made getting around look easy while I huffed and puffed and hid in the shade.
Willow Warbler at Morden Bog: a mixed singer, with bursts of Chiffchaff amid the normal song.
Keeled Skimmer, Morden Bog.
Four-spotted Chaser, Morden Bog.

Large Skipper, Morden Bog.
Silver-studded Blue, Morden Bog - many on the wing today.
Silver-studded Blue underside, Morden Bog.
A day at the beach yesterday was enlivened by a passing Mediterranean Gull, bringing its namesake climate with it.
Almost forgot about this one - Hooded Crow on Portland last weekend - an unexpected Dorset tick for high summer.
Broad-bodied Chase are also on the wing at the moment - this one at Swineham to which I was reminded I am particularly allergic at this time of year.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Hate camping, love the Levels

Something of a pattern emerging here in recent years: enforced camping trips made almost bearable by good birding nearby. First the New Forest, then North Norfolk and, last weekend, a gathering of the in-laws at High Ham. This is deep in the flat, wet bit of Somerset, and a short hop from the complex of nature reserves in the area now known as the Avalon Marshes. Poetic, perhaps; historically inaccurate, almost certainly.
Bittern: all photos taken from public hides and viewpoints at Ham Wall RSPB. Sit, wait, and enjoy the best airshow of the summer.
Still, churlish to complain about cheesy names when they've done such a good job of it - they being the RSPB, Natural England, the Somerset Wildlife Trust and the Environment Agency among others. A proper bit of landscape-scale conservation, this: no mucking about with a pokey little, fenced-off nature reserve: no, siree - this is restoration of a vast area of denuded peatlands to glorious wetland on a grand scale. More breeding Bitterns than you can shake a stick at - rising from a small proportion to around half the UK's booming males in less than a decade (see here for graphs and stuff) - and swarms of dragonflies which give some idea of what hyper-abundance must have looked like back in the day. For those who doubt people can ever do much good for birds, this is not a bad place to look for encouragement. I headed straight for the RSPB reserve at Ham Wall, with its well positioned hides and viewing platforms, from which a keen-eyed volunteer warden was pointing out passing Bitterns with surprising regularity.
Bittern: check out the photos on the recent sightings page of the Ham Wall blog of four in flight together last month
The camping itself was, of course, intolerable, and made only slightly less so by the presence of Uncle Andy, my brother-in-law, the only other member of the extended family who hates camping more than I. Taller than me with feet hanging even more over the end of his rapidly deflating airbed, he found it so traumatic he was having flashbacks to Kosovo where he served a difficult tour with the RAF.
Bittern at Ham Wall
The location was not a campsite as such, but a freshly mown hay meadow (not great for the hay-fever, it turned out) attached to a farmhouse owned by a friend of the family. While this meant we were spared the usual background noise of a proper campsite, it also meant sharing just the one chemical toilet, which had a festival feel to it by the end of the weekend. And not in a good way.
Great White Egret: the volunteer warden said they don't breed at Ham Wall but are regular visitors throughout the year.
One of the iron laws of camping was upheld: namely, no matter how many airbeds you take, precisely one less than you need will remain unpunctured. Fortunately I had a self-inflating mattress procured for twitching emergencies which saved one of the children from sleeping on a cold hard floor. Well I wasn't going to give up my airbed, was I?
Great White Egret: a flyover shortly after my arrival, in contrast to the elusive bird in Poole Harbour recently.
Over the course of about 36 hours, I estimate approximately 4 hours of decent sleep were snatched; another 4 involved pretending to sleep; perhaps 2 were spent actually relaxing in a deck chair; and the rest consumed by packing, unpacking, assembling, dismantling, packing and unpacking again. Surviving on a strict diet of barbecued food, the onset of scurvy threatened, so we drank as much alcohol as we could find, purely for its antiseptic properties, you understand...
Four-spotted Chaser was the most abundant dragonfly at Ham Wall - and what an abundance
Before being allowed home to indulge such outrageous luxuries as running water and walls, however, we were all gathered in a circle for tributes and a raffle (a regular feature of the camping trips which it would appear are a tradition in the extended family - a fact I certainly don't recall being disclosed before I took my wedding vows).
Banded Demoiselle - this one a striking male. Very few biting insects at Ham Wall: they were all in my tent up the road.
As we sat in the ring, we were welcomed among the other 'first timers'. I thought 'what do you mean first timers? How about last?', but what with the sleep deprivation and the heat, apparently I thought this aloud. I think I got away with it though as it was muffled by Uncle Andy's guffawing at having exactly the same thought at that moment. More guffawing when first prize in the raffle was drawn - you guessed it - a one week camping holiday. Thankfully, neither of us held the winning ticket.
Blue-tailed Damselflies. Get a room!
As his reward for turning up, this coming weekend Uncle Andy gets to go to Brazil and watch the World Cup. I get to go, er, camping again, back to the New Forest. Must have done something very wrong in a previous life...
Glastonbury Tor: the Avalon of Arthurian legend where the wounded King was taken to recover after the Battle of Camlann: an island sitting above the marshlands of what we now know as the Somerset Levels.
A wider angle view from the living hell of the campsite.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

How to get a bad back in 10 easy steps

1. Rise in wee small hours of the morning.
2. Leave home shortly after.
3. Drive to Norfolk, stopping only briefly for fuel and unhealthy snacks.
4. Load up with heavy optics. Bins, scope and camera as a minimum.
5. Yomp 2 miles up sea wall to see a Spectacled Warbler singing and setting up shop in the forlorn hope of attracting a passing female.
6. Return to car to find exhaust pipe swinging in the wind.
7. Pull muscles in the process of clambering under car to fashion a makeshift sling to stop it dragging on the road.
8. Limp to Brancaster garage to have day rescued by Mark the mechanic with a quick patch-welding job (cheers Mark).
9. Return home via heavily trafficked M25.
10. Follow up with a family camping trip.

Simple! In my next post: 10 things I hate about camping.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

And breathe...

Dorset's Smooth Snakes and Sand Lizards could finally un-clench on Monday morning as it became apparent that the Short-toed Eagle had moved on. Although I saw the bird twice and only really had to wait a couple of hours between the initial sighting and my own, it still left me with a buzz which I took with me on my return to work on Monday. I always expect something mega-rare in the first week of June because (i) there always is (ii) I'm always busy after a half-term break, and tied up the following weekend with the start of the camping season, Claire's birthday etc etc. No surprise then that a Spectacled Warbler turned up in Norfolk. But not even that prediction being proved  correct could wipe the smile off this week as the Eagle had already got June off to a flying start.

Terrible photos of tiny waders #1: Little Ringed Plover at Swineham 24th May
Terrible photos of tiny waders #2: just a single bird present for the day
I had the whole week off, and, fortunately with hindsight, we decided not to go away. The downside of this was that the bills still rolled in through the letter box, and I was constantly reminded about the windows needing cleaning, gutters wanting fixing etc. The up-side was that I could get away with a lot more local birding and was a bit freer to twitch should something good turn up.
Terrible photos of tiny waders #3: Temminck's Stint at Lodmoor, 30th May
Terrible photos of tiny waders #4: here with a Ruff for size comparison.
It started with the best of intentions, flogging the patch in the hope of re-discovering the Black-winged Stilts which turned up last time I went away, or the Great White Egret which had been burning the candle at both ends, going out early and coming back late to roost and feed at mystery locations. The Stilts returned - but to nearby Lytchett Bay not Swineham, and, having dissed this site in a previous post I was too proud to beg it's guardians for access to the off-limits location. Several early/late shifts failed to turn up the Egret as well, so not a great start to the week.

Spotted Flycatcher at Morden Bog: taken just 3 days before the Eagle arrived
Treecreeper at Morden Bog with spider
But perseverance was rewarded with a patch tick in the form of a Turnstone. Not exactly a bird to get anyone else's pulse racing, except perhaps Marcus, but surprisingly rare at Swineham. By Wednesday, the Turnstone looked like it might be the highlight of the week: a poor return for my efforts by any standard. Then things picked up with a Serin at Durlston that morning, a Ross's Gull on the Exe Estuary in the afternoon, and the following day a Temminck's Stint at Lodmoor offered the chance of a Dorset tick which I duly snaffled up in a quick smash and grab.
Twitching the Temminck's provided an opportunity to catch up with the Arctic Tern which has summered with the Common Terns in recent years
Arctic Tern in the foreground - a slighter, shorter-legged and more blood-red billed bird than the Common Tern behind
Throughout the week my kit was packed for an emergency twitch - 'have leave, will travel' being my motto at times like this - and news of a Slender-billed Gull in Norfolk had me haring off in that direction on Monday in pursuit. Reason and mathematics fortunately intervened soon after as it dawned on me that (a) I wouldn't get there before dark (b) it was Bank Holiday Monday so I might be stuck on the M25 until Tuesday. I had got no further than Longham Lakes by this point, and the bird disappeared in any case, so a lucky escape there at least.
Arctic Tern on the left - not the long tail streamers and neat black line on the trailing edge of the primaries
Here quite a dark-billed Common Tern coming in to land...
Bee-eaters were appearing everywhere throughout the week: on the ringing nets at Portland Bill, on wires at Durlston, and chatting up the locals in bars with their smooth continental patter. I was up and down to the Portland and Purbeck coast like a quarry lorry but just couldn't get there fast enough to add one of these stunners to my Dorset list. Then the Eagle appeared to sweep all the best laid weekend plans away with one flap of its awesome wings. I spent the rest of the weekend resisting the massive temptation to write blog posts with Eagle-based puns in the title, figuring they would all be taken by other bloggers anyway. Andy Mears said he was looking forward to my post, so good to know it was eagley-awaited by one person at least. See what I did there?

...and a Sandwich Tern to complete the collection
And one more of the Ross's Gull - High Arctic wanderer and bird of the week until elbowed out of the way by a certain raptor from warmer climes.

Sunday, 1 June 2014


Cycled back to Morden Bog today for another look at the Short-toed Eagle, partly to avoid adding to the anticipated parking chaos, partly to get it on my bike list. It was a warm morning so I was a bit concerned about getting bitten half to death on the heath by the bugs which seem to find my blood so moreish. I needn't have worried - 500+ meatier, sweatier specimens than I had already assembled, providing ample distraction for the midges. After a patient wait, I got what I came for: a flight view. The bird took a short flight last night which I missed while cleaning my glasses - it was that short - but today's was the full works - a low flap and glide followed by a couple of majestic circuits before it gained height and soared south-ish, a Buzzard and a Hobby doing their best to see it out of Morden Bog airspace. The distance and heat haze combined to make photography a challenge but having just seen a bird I never thought I'd see in Britain there can be no complaints.