Monday, 25 July 2011

Snakes, Dragons and Toads

24 July 2011 - 88 moths of 28 species wasn't a bad catch given the cool overnight conditions. Highlights included my first Hoary Footman, along with their Common, Scarce and Rosy cousins, a Smoky Wainscot, the first Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing of the season, a smart Grey Dagger and the always popular Poplar Hawk Moth.

The sun came out later and with wader passage now well underway I decided on a visit to Cliffe Pools RSPB Reserve, on the Thames Estuary.  The water levels look great on Black Barn  Pool and the distant large pool from the first mound, but the two pools directly in front of the 'viewing mound' are bone dry. Between the two pools were 25 Dunlin, 2 Ringed Plover, 1 Common Sandpiper, 13 Green Sandpiper, 2 Greenshank, 1 Spotted Redshank, 2 very smart summer-plumaged Grey Plover, 25 Redshank, 50 Avocet and 50 Black-tailed Godwit. A couple of Snipe were also briefly on show around the edge of Black Barn and half a dozen Little Egret stood around the Radar Pool. The biggest surprise came as I walked along the track towards the Thames - a juvenile Redstart flicked up and along the track in front of me, then sat tail wagging in a bush. As I approached a smart adult male Whinchat flicked into the same bush. Two early autumn passerine migrants. Reed Warblers were busy in the ditches feeding growing chicks and a Common Tern fed in one of the more open drains. I walked up past the second mound and along the small track to the right, carefully looking for dragonflies. Having read Gordon Allison's blog account about the good numbers of Common and Scarce Emerald Damselflies I was hoping to find and photograph one - I haven't seen either before.

I found good numbers of Blue-tailed Damselfly and a few mating Common Blue Damselfly, and Common Darter's were literally everywhere in the bushes and on the track. However I struggled to find any spreadwings (called this due to the way they hold their wings outstretched from their bodies). I got to the last bush and walked through the grass beside the ditch bank. I stopped to photograph a couple of mating Common Blue's standing motionless to avoid disturbing them.

Common Blue Damselfly, Cliffe, 24 July 2011
Southern Emerald Damselfly
As I was about to move away I glanced down to see an Emerald with its outstretched wings. I carefully positioned and took some photos, but in the cool conditions it seemed reluctant to fly, allowing better images to be taken as the light improved. It had a metallic green body and bronze abdomen, but the thorax was distinctly marked with cream stripes. I was pretty sure this was a Southern Emerald Damselfly. This migrant from Northern Europe was first observed in Norfolk in July 2002, and now occurs annually in a few places in Britain. 

I was hoping to see the two commoner species first, but I guess this just continues my run of rarities. 

Southern Emerald Damselfly, Cliffe, 24 July 2011

Southern Emerald Damselfly, Cliffe, 24 July 2011
As I was walking back to the car I found this, ting Damselfly. Not really sure what it is and my limited experienced suggests I am best off not guessing, though I wonder if it might be some odd colour variant of a Blue-tailed Damselfly? I might phone a friend...

Unidentified Damselfly, perhaps colour variant of Blue-tailed, Cliffe, 24 July 2011
I returned home and had some lunch before watching the superb German Grand Prix - well done Lewis, an absolutely awesome drive, and that overtake on Fernando must have made you smile! Anyway while watching I heard a shriek and a loud banging against the back door. Initially I wondered what on earth could be the issue and preventing Mandy from walking round to the open front door. When she banged again I realised something must be very wrong and fearing a gardening accident I rushed to the door. She looked absolutely terrified and shouted 'Snake!', as she pushed past me into the house. My reaction - grab the camera. I rushed out and found a 2 1/2 ft long Grass Snake in the middle of the lawn with a huge, inflated Toad head first in its mouth. I took some photos and tried not to disturb it, but the snake eventually decided to give up the impossible task of swallowing such a large, pumped up amphibian with its legs stuck outwards. It spat it out (well as best as a snake can) and slid back into the undergrowth behind the house. The toad gradually deflated and was later found alive and well (just a few snake tooth sized holes in its side and back) beside the greenhouse. Amazing!

This evening while sat drinking wine on a neighbours' patio with the local Swift families flocking and screaming overhead, a superb Hobby drifted over in the last of the evening light. Nice end to the weekend.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Looking back - 21 July 1984

Twenty-seven years ago today I visited Elmley RSPB Reserve in Kent, as I did every Saturday and Sunday (every day in school holidays). I was a young and optimistic birder, just 15 years old and used to cycle 17 miles each way from my home in Rainham to the wonderful nature reserve on the Isle of Sheppey. I knew the wardens well and was fortunate to be part of a group of like-minded teens that included the likes of Adam Rowland and Chris Bradshaw. I arrived well before the reserve opened and cycled down to the Well Marsh Hide, which was always the place for checking any recently arrived waders. I must have spent countless hours scanning and re-scanning the floods watching the changing tide of birds as the tidal Swale rose and fell as the seasons came and went.

That morning I carefully lifted the hide flaps with the usual youthful anticipation. Out on the flood was a small group of seven Dunlin. Balancing my Bausch & Lomb Discoverer scope on the lower window sill I scanned the flock. The first bird I encountered in my scope though wasn't a Dunlin, but a greyish stint. Just a week earlier I had received my copy of British Birds (Volume 77, Number 7, July 1984) which contained the seminal paper 'Identification of stints and peeps' by Peter Grant and illustrated by the masterful Lars Jonsson. It may sound bizarre, given I was 15, had never been further than Majorca (by coincidence with Peter Grant), and had never seen a stint rarer than a Temminck's, but I immediately recognised the bird as a Semi-palmated Sandpiper.

Now at this point I realised that I was alone, 15 and looking at a very difficult to identify first for Kent (then about the 27th record for Britain). I grabbed my notebook (in those days no digiscoping kit had been invented) and started to draw the bird. The benefit of this old-fashioned approach is you really have to look at the bird. I remember checking its shorter, blob-tipped bill, the lack of mantle stripes, or rufous edges to its tertials. The more pot-bellied appearance was there and the feeding action, slow, thoughtful and reminiscent of a Ringed Plovers method was carefully noted. I checked for the semi-palmations, and surely even in the soft mud I could see them.  It was an adult and moulting out of summer plumage and by now I was certain of the ID. 

I could see Reg Thorpe, the assistant warden at the time and later a BBRC member, finder of the infamous first British Grey-tailed Tattler, and excellent field birder was sat in South Fleet Hide on the far side of the reserve. I could see his motorbike parked by the track, but the track ran right past the pool on which the Semi-P was feeding. Desperate to get to him before he flushed it, but desperate not to leave it alone I waited, hoping another birder would arrive. Eventually, it seemed like forever, Dave Belshaw, a long-standing familiar figure who lived to watch birds of prey, arrived. I put him on the bird and left him to keep an eye on it while I raced on my bike around the sea wall path to South Fleet Hide. I just made it arriving as Reg climbed onto his motorbike. I excitedly told Reg what I had found and urged him to ride back around the long way to avoid flushing the waders.  I remember racing back to Well Marsh so fast that I got there before Reg!  We rushed into the hide to find Dave looking off into the distance towards the counter wall. My heart sank, assuming it had flown away. Reg looked at me with a slightly disbelieving eye and I could feel him thinking I had made a silly mistake.

I sat down and looked back to where the bird had been - to my utter surprise it was still there. Dave had been distracted by a Marsh Harrier (they were quite unusual back then and had only just started breeding). Reg looked at the bird, but said nothing. No expletives, no excitement, nothing... Had I made a mistake? Other people started to arrive and they were all put onto the bird. Excitement grew and a call was made (from the farmhouse) to Nancy's Cafe in Cley, Norfolk to release the news to the nation (back then news was spread via a log book in a small cafe in Norfolk, not by pagers or internet). Strangely many of the birders in Kent decided to visit Elmley that day (many without prior knowledge). Later in the afternoon Patrick Worsley found a Pectoral Sandpiper on the same piece of marsh adding to the buzz in the hide. The bird stayed for six days, latterly moving to the main flood between Counter Wall and South Fleet Hides. I returned on the Sunday and met John Tilbrook who produced a slide of a bird taken in the US weeks earlier - it looked so similar. On the Wednesday Peter Grant arrived and put the final seal of approval on the bird. I can still remember it so vividly - and to date it remains the sole Kent record!

Back to the current - 17 July 2011 Dungeness

A strong gale was predicted along the Channel with a short burst over high tide of southerly winds, so I headed to Dunge for a sea watch. I bumped into my good friend Mark Hollingworth near the ARC pit and he decided to join me. Typically for the Summer there was no real passage but a good number of birds included about 75 Gannet, 20 Sandwich Tern, 100 Common Tern, a first-winter Arctic Tern. 10 Fulmar and best of all over the four hours, 9 Manx Shearwater. 450 Swifts headed out, in flocks of up to 40 birds, into the strong wind on their long journey south for the winter.

I then headed to the Observatory to look at the recently caught moths and to have a chat with Dave Walker. In the fridge was a nice selection including a few new moths for me. A Pale Grass Eggar, a very rare moth localised to Dungeness, was good to see directly alongside an Oak Eggar. 

Pale Grass Eggar, Dungeness
Bordered Straw, Dungeness
Dusky Sallow, Dungeness

White Spot, Dungeness

Privet Hawkmoth, Dungeness

Lunar-spotted Pinion, Platt

Heading back home I stopped briefly at the Hanson Hide to check the waders. An early and very smart adult Little Stint was the highlight, but shared the small islands with a Wood Sandpiper, 13 Dunlin, 5 Common Sandpiper, 3 Little-ringed Plover and 2 Little Gulls. Hundreds of Sand Martin were feeding over the water in the strong winds, joined by 50 Swift and 15 House Martin.

93 moths of 24 species in my trap at home included a smart Lunar-spotted Pinion and a Slender Brindle.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Nocturnal Herons, clay rabbits and plastic ducks

3 July 2011 I spent half an hour at Dene Park Wood, near Hadlow looking for Butterflies. I found only a couple of White Admiral, but did manage to see a Beautiful Demoiselle - a scarce and very smart damselfly, the only one with black wings and a metallic green body. I then headed down to Stodmarsh, a wonderful Natural England nature reserve in the Stour Valley, just east of Canterbury. My main objective was a long walk, with the added attraction of a juvenile Night Heron that had been seen over the last few days, often feeding under the 'Cormorant Tree' at the back of the lake. Arriving mid afternoon was not ideal, but I walked out along the Lampen Wall. The recent hot weather has reduced the oxygen levels in the shallow lake with disastrous affects on the many large fish. Littered around the edges of the large lake were hundreds of very big Carp, one bigger than a passing Greylag Goose! Natural England have been trying to re-oxygenate the water with a pump, hopefully it will work. A short wait in the very hot Tower Hide soon revealed the Night Heron sat half obscured under its favorite tree. I decided to walk the loop to Grove Ferry and to try for better views later. The walk was largely uneventful, other than a small male Peregrine type falcon that was hunting over the main pool at Grove Ferry - I say type because it just lacked the usual bulk of a pure Peregrine - perhaps another falconers escape hybrid falcon?

I returned to Stodmarsh stopping briefly in the Marsh Hide, then walked out towards the Tower Hide meeting Chris and Anne Hindle half way. They said there was no sign of the Heron, but I carried on regardless and waited. After 45 minutes a Night Heron was spotted flying out from the direction of Stodmarsh along the back of the reeds and away towards Collards Lake. It seemed strange that the bird had left its preferred hideout under the tree, so I scanned back and sure enough the original bird was still under the tree - 2 Night Herons and both apparently juvenile...!

I ran the moth trap overnight on 1 July and had a reasonable catch 147 moths of 34 species including  a smart Scarce Silver Lines, a couple of Rosy Footman, Scarce Footman and three Coronet.

Scarce Silver Lines
Rosy Footman
Scarce Footman
Foxglove Pug

Marbled Duck
9 July 2011 - Gary Howard talked me into a twitch today. Not just any twitch - a duck twitch!  A Marbled Duck had been found on Arlington Reservoir, just inland of Beachy Head in East Sussex. Rare duck records in the UK are often tainted due to the potential escape from captivity risk.  Reports during the week seemed favorable with the bird apparently showing good wild credentials. We arrived early, before other birders or dog walkers and quickly found the bird preening and roosting on the muddy bank of the SW shore. It appeared a little nervous, showed no rings on its legs and was fully winged. So far so good. 

After about 45 minutes we were just discussing how the icing on the cake would be provided by the bird taking flight and disappearing across the reservoir, when sure enough it suddenly took off. Unfortunately it flew not right across the water, but left up the bank towards the farmhouse.  Suspecting the worst we headed toward the farm entrance, half expecting to find it paddling around on the duck pond. Worse was to greet us! 

There on the lawn of the farmhouse, not six feet from the front door the Marbled Duck was standing bolt upright alongside a group of domestic Aylesbury ducks and two clay Rabbits! To rub salt into the wounds it then started to limp, yes genuinely it was limping, around the garden clearly awaiting a free hand out from the farmer's wife! 

Marbled Duck, Arlington Reservoir, East Sussex

It was still early so we decided to drive across to Dungeness for the rest of the day. The wind here was very strong making viewing at Dengemarsh difficult. Again we could not see the Great White Egret, though three of its smaller cousins gave fly pasts. A dashing Hobby put on a brief show and the local pair of Marsh Harriers were feeding their just fledged chicks. Next stop was Hanson Hide at the ARC where the water level has finally subsided to expose a few rocky islands. Here we saw two early Wood Sandpipers, 2 Green Sandpipers, 5 Common Sandpipers, a summer-plumaged Dunlin, a Redshank, 4 Black-tailed Godwits and a Greenshank that flew over calling loudly but didn't land. Dave Walker and Gill Hollamby arrived and we spent the next hour talking about our plans for our November trip to Antarctica - very exciting!!!

I ran the moth trap overnight and had a good catch of 152moths of 37 species. These included my first Scalloped Hook-tips of the year, an odd grey phase July Highflyer, a couple of smart Peppered Moth including one of the carbonaria variety, and two very smart Shaded Broad-bar.

July Highflyer
Peppered Moth, carbonaria

Shaded Broad-bar
Scalloped Hook-tip