Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Wader therapy

When the full horrors of existence loom larger than my joie de vivre, which they did this weekend as a blissful fortnight's holiday with the family approached its end and a return to work beckoned, I go look for waders. Don't embarrass me by asking me to name them all, that's a cruel test. Especially since our second child arrived and there are now more of them to remember.
Knot, Ferrybridge
Knot, Ferrybridge
The waders, by contrast, were all utterly memorable. Even the common ones - Lapwings, Ringed Plovers, Blackwits - I find exquisite, and the rare ones when they turn up are also a delight, untainted, as they generally are, by thoughts of escapes, hybrids and so on associated with other bird families. The long weekend therefore saw me checking out some of Dorset's current wader hotspots - Lytchett Bay, Lodmoor and Ferrybridge. Oh, and of course Swineham, which was briefly a wader hotspot during the summer floods of 2012, but which hasn't offered much since bar some insolent Stilts which visited while I was elsewhere. No, I won't let that go.
Ringed Plover, feeding with the Knot at Ferrybridge on a small muddy island by the car park
A juvenile bird with frosted feather edges
A Green Sandpiper and a Greenshank were about all Swineham had to offer on the wader front in three recent visits (though a few other migrants were around - more on that in a later post). Bank Holiday Monday visits to Ferrybridge and Lodmoor were more productive, presenting some good photo opps in perfect light. The former would have been even better but for the inability of members of an allegedly smarter species to read the signs urging them not to disturb feeding and roosting birds.
Black-tailed Godwit wading in deep water at Lodmoor
Even this juvenile Dunlin, the regulation wader of British shorelines, is a stunner in my eyes, despite not being quite as smart a plumage as the adult
I arrived at Lytchett a few days after reports of the fields teeming with waders had peaked to find them not exactly teeming, but still good. As top Lytchett Bay-City-Roller Shaun Robson remarked, the fact that a trio of Little Stints was a slightly disappointing highlight of my visit is really testament to just what a good site it has become. The other top Bay-City-Roller, Mr Ballam, who I also bumped into at the Lytchett Fields (of dreams?) viewpoint, was kind enough to comment on the absence of posts in this space. At least, I interpreted it as kindly as 'I thought you were dead' can be interpreted. So this post is dedicated to Ian: for noticing the silence, and appearing to care.
Little Stint, of which there were three at Lytchett Bay, and four at Lodmoor
This one was photographed at Seaton Marshes in Devon earlier in the month en route to our Dartmoor holiday cottage - more on that trip later
Speaking of readers, regular ones will no doubt be delighted to see the return of gratuitous jokes at the expense of my nearest and dearest to these pages (para 1, if you missed it). New ones may be shocked at the flagrancy of the familial abuse, so, to reassure, it is all in jest: Claire, George and, er, the other one all know I couldn't live without them.
Evening light showed off this Lodmoor Lapwing at its best
Common Sandpipers were at Lytchett and Lodmoor (this juvenile again from Seaton Marshes)

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Last throes of summer

Despite living in Dorset for eight summers now, there were still two species of breeding butterfly I had yet to see in the county before my ninth began: the Brown Hairstreak and the Silver-spotted Skipper. Both emerge rather late in the year so July and August offered plenty of scope for hunting them down.
Brown Hairstreak, Alners Gorse
The Brown Hairstreak eventually moved higher into an oak
The Brown Hairstreak is an elusive species, spending much of its time in the canopy, descending only occasionally to nectar on brambles, thistles and the like. The eggs are laid on Blackthorn, which grows in abundance at Butterfly Conservation's Alners Gorse reserve in North Dorset.
A flash of the Purple Hairstreak's upperwing
And the underwing
Jol Mitchell and I had been considering a trip there with our respective first borns for a while, and the annual visit to Dorset of my old friend Nigel Kersey (formerly a firebrand campaigner with CPRE, now a respectable apparatchik at DCLG) in mid-July provided the perfect opportunity to make the effort.
Silver-spotted Skipper - a plump-bodied female
This is the male - note the dark sex brand on the upperwing
We arrived mid-morning to find the skies disappointingly overcast but it was just about warm enough for Meadow Browns, Silver-washed Fritillaries and Purple Hairstreaks to be on the wing. We were about to give up on seeing any of the rarer Hairstreaks when what at first glance appeared to be a Gatekeeper on acid danced past at eye level. Despite not having seen one for over a decade, I called it tentatively as a Brown Hairstreak in flight, and fortunately it landed nearby to allow confirmation.
Another view of Silver-spotted Skipper
 A good view of the underwing from which the species gets its name
All enjoyed brilliant views, especially through Jol's new Swarovski scope, and even the teenagers were persuaded to stop looking at their smartphones to admire it for a few seconds. A few weeks later and I was able to catch up with my other late summer target, the Silver-spotted Skipper, at its prime Dorset site on Fontmell Down on another family jaunt. This was a bit easier, not least as one of Dorset's expert ecologists, Bryan Edwards, was leaving just as we arrived and told us exactly where to look near the top of the combe. A spectacular species in a spectacular setting.

Some other highlights from Fontmell Down below:
2nd brood male Adonis Blue
Adonis Blue underside
Male Chalkhill Blue - not doing terribly well in Dorset
Chalkhill Blue underside
Large White
Common Blue underside
Son George catches the bug with a meadow Brown
Ravens gronked over Fontmell Down
Small Heath
Spotted Flycatcher at Fontmell Down
Spotted Flycatcher

Sunday, 7 August 2016

A day not at the beach

It's that time of year when our part of the world in Purbeck fills up with visitors heading for the sandy beaches of Studland. Sometimes there's only one thing for it to get away from all the people trying to get away from it all: head in the opposite direction in the middle of the night. Suffolk seemed like as good a place as any to do so this week, especially as a Western Purple Swamphen had rocked up Sunday and had been parading in front of workshy twitchers for the following three days.

Initial views were obscured - but unmistakable
The Swamphen showed a large red shield on the forehead
Huge in size comparison with a nearby Moorhen
I hate to be left out so I took Thursday off, by which time I had established that Jol Mitchell and Marcus Lawson were interested in coming along for the ride. Jol and Marcus are Secretary and General Manager of the Dorset Bird Club respectively, and, like the US President and Vice-President, are not normally allowed to travel in the same vehicle for security reasons. Should both be taken out by, say, one of the birding militias from Portland or Christchurch, the consequences for social order in Dorset wouldn't bear thinking about. We might never see another Bird Report. But with both DBC limos up on blocks, they had no choice but to slum it with me.
A short flight revealed the elongated toes
We enjoyed extended views as the Swamphen fed around the edge of the pool
Another size comparison with Little Egret
Jol was so keen he arrived on Wednesday evening with a sleeping bag, more excited about our forthcoming twitch than a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber-themed slumber party. But this did at least make getting away promptly on Thursday morning a bit easier, and we picked Marcus up in Poole as planned in the wee-ist and smallest of the wee small hours. The journey towards London went smoothly but Jol's neurotic tracking of the travel news presented us with one of the great dilemmas of trans-national twitching: to boldly go clockwise or anti-clockwise around the M25? Jol favoured the northerly option, Marcus the opposite. Good job there are more than two members on the DBC Committee, I thought. Suspecting that reported closures on the M3 and the northern stretch of the M25 would divert us into booby traps set by CHOG guerrillas to assassinate my illustrious passengers, I broke the deadlock by eventually plumping for the southerly route. We avoided paying the Dartford Crossing tolls, which kick in at 0600, by several hours and from then on it was plain sailing up the A12.
White undertail coverts can be seen here
While often hidden in the reeds it did occasionally stand out in the open
An impressive beast
Like my last long-distance twitch, this one was equally remarkable in that it involved three dads getting some synchronised time off from tending to paternal duties. And like the Outer Hebrides trip, bawdy and irreverant humour helped the time fly by. Marcus can recite by heart every episode of 'The Young Ones', most of the sketches from 'Not the Nine O'clock News' and the complete works of the Viz Profanisaurus, so we spent much of the journey educating Jol, who has led a more sheltered life, in the joys of the latter's double entendres and puerile euphemisms.
Bittern beyond the South Girder pool
A family party of Stone Curlew
Juvenile Water Rail on South Girder pool
'Huzzahs' rang around our chariot when a tweet confirmed that the Swamphen was still present as we pulled into the Minsmere car park - and a 10 minute walk from there saw us looking hopefully into the reeds of the South Girder pool where it had spend the previous four days. The silence of what seemed like a long-wait, but was only in fact about 30 minutes, was broken by Marcus alerting us that the Swamphen was about to emerge from the reedbed to our left. Initial views were obscured but the giant purple rail with the massive bright red conk could hardly be mistaken for anything else.
Several Grayling were at Minsmere - my first of the year
Unusual to see them nectaring on buddleia
Several Painted Lady were also around the visitor centre
After another short wait when the bird was out of view, it emerged to creep around the perimeter of the pool, affording great telescope views as it preened and fed by breaking off reed stems, holding them in its elongated toes and stripping them with its outsized bill. Satisfied with the extended views, Jol headed off to hook up with an old friend at the sluice while Marcus secreted himself in a hide to root out some waders.
Bee Wolf
Digging out a nest hole
Grayling on the café wall - like us, attracted by the smell of bacon rolls
I stayed put, convinced that the Swamphen would complete the circular route around the pool and walk right in front of me allowing for better photos to be taken. It did about 330 degrees of this 360 degree circuit in the following hour, and just as it was about to strut out of the reeds into the open to be serenaded by the melodic whirr of my motordrive, it thought better of it and turned back. A flyover Bittern was ample compensation though, and, satisfied with our views, we headed back towards the car. With a potential first for Britain under our belts, the long journey home was a breeze. The Swamphen didn't stick around for the weekend, so the sacrifice of a precious day's leave was well worth it. With thanks to my travelling companions for a jolly dads' day out.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Better late than never

The long, hot summer weekends have provided quite a few opportunities to take photos but not so much time to post or write anything about them. So here's a few sans the usual drivel from recent weeks by way of a catch up.
Kestrel at Kimmeridge
This bird was one of a family party hovering over the cliff edge
Clavell Tower at Kimmeridge - the famous folly was moved back brick by brick from the cliff edge a few years ago
Kimmeridge looking towards St Aldhelm's Head
A fresh Essex Skipper was on the cliff top in front of the Clavell Tower
Essex Skipper shows black undersides to the tips of the antenna (orange in the very similar Small Skipper)
The Arne #cafenightjar also stuck around until last weekend
Stirring only occasionally at the sound of the café till ringing up another frothy coffee and slice of tiffin
Takings at the Arne RSPB restaurant represented 68% of GDP in the Purbeck economy during July