Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Local Wildlife Sightings, September 2019

On the 3rd a first walk around my 'Local Patch' since the spring was rewarded with good views of a hobby over Park Farm (Therfield). Two little grebes seen on Mardleybury Lake included a juvenile, discounting my view expressed in August that breeding had been unsuccessful here this summer. Also near this lake I encountered a scorpion fly and an emerald damselfly, the latter being the first member of this species that I have found locally.

Record Shot of Female Emerald Damselfly, near Mardleybury Pond, Reed End, 3 September

 A very late swift was also seen at Hatchpen Farm and at least eight chiffchaffs were recorded on my walk. Having not seen a local hobby all summer until the 3rd I was surprised to see another (or the same bird) flying over Therfield Heath on the following day. Two spotted flycatchers were having a squeaky 'conversation' at the bottom of Church Hill, also on the 4th. Linnet numbers continued to build on Greys Farm, with over 200 present on the late afternoon of the 9th, whilst nearby a roost of 67 starlings was seen. Normally I would have lost interest in butterfly sightings by September, but the bizarre appearance of adonis blues on Church Hill in late August kept drawing me back to take photos. Whilst the males were becoming very tatty by early September some of the females were still in 'good nick' and I was able to photograph one or two on the 8th in order to make a comparison with the extremely similar female chalkhill blues, which also occur on Church Hill but have more or less all died by the end of August. Comparisons are ongoing: a few images illustrating wing details of the two species are shown below.

Adonis Blue Female, Wings Open, Church Hill, 8 September

Adonis Blue Female, Wings Closed, Church Hill, 7 September

Examples of Adonis Blue Female upper Hind Wing Markings, two Butterflies both Photographed on 7 September

Examples of Chalkhill Blue Female upper Hind Wing Markings, two Butterflies Photographed in 2016 and 2017.

Whilst on Church Hill I photographed several insects taking nectar from devil's bit scabious. This late summer flowering plant is clearly a very important source of food for winged insects at this time of year.

White-tailed (?) Bumble Bee on Devil's Bit Scabious, Church Hill, 7 September

UK Wildlife Sightings, September 2019

Late August and early September saw me restricted to a few local trips, but an extremely rare free weekend on the 7/8th gave me the opportunity to explore the Norfolk coast and get back into the swing of bird watching. With a northerly blow down the English Channel on the Saturday I started with some sea-watching at Sheringham in the morning, which provided good views of Arctic and great skuas, a handful of Manx shearwaters and large numbers of gannets, including quite a few dark juveniles. Moving up the coast I stopped off at Stiffkey to have a look at the large spoonbill roost there (37 counted; 52 reported on the previous day) before spending the rest of the day at RSPB Titchwell which, as well as being my favourite UK reserve, is also just about the best for photographing waders up close, either from the beach, the side of the Freshmarsh or the Island Hide. I saw 17 wader species there and got decent photos of 12 of them: some of the photos taken on the day are shown below.

Sanderling on the Beach, RSPB Titchwell, 7 September

Bar-tailed Godwits in Flight, RSPB Titchwell, 7 September

Lapwing from the Island Hide, RSPB Titchwell, 7 September

Ringed Plover from the Island Hide, RSPB Titchwell, 7 September

Little Ringed Plover from the Island Hide, RSPB Titchwell, 7 September

Having recovered my bird watching 'mojo' I was off again on the 10th, this time to RSPB Frampton Marsh (another favourite reserve) in Lincolnshire. As at Titchwell this reserve was full of waders on passage, with around 15 species seen. Hundreds of dunlin were on site, together with at least eight curlew sandpipers and two little stints. A pair of ruddy shelduck had taken up residence there and a great white egret was also seen.

Dunlin Landing, RSPB Frampton Marsh, 10 September

Ruddy Shelducks with Geese, RSPB Frampton Marsh, 10 September

Friday, 23 August 2019

Bosnia and Beyond - Wildlife Blog

From 6 August I went with my partner Helen on an organised holiday ('Exodus') to Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina, three of the six former Yugoslavian countries. It was billed as a general interest holiday and I wasn't expecting to have much opportunity to watch wildlife, but as usual the binoculars and a long lens were packed.....

Red-backed Shrike, Lukomir (Bosnia & Herzegovina), 12 August

The holiday didn't get off to a great start. Arriving in Dubrovnik (Croatia) I had naively expected that we would make the relatively short journey south-east along the Adriatic coastline to Kotor in Montenegro. Instead, because our minibus/small coach was registered in Bosnia & Herzegovina, we apparently had to go there first, before travelling on to Montenegro - at least we could say that we had been in four countries in a day! We joined a long, long queue waiting to travel out of Croatia into Bosnia & Herzegovina - apparently the Croatian customs computer system had crashed. It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good however, and during the 2+ hour wait I was able to make a good start to my bird list, with male common crossbill (a surprise) and Alpine swift being the highlights.

Kotor was packed full of people enjoying their summer holidays, but with hardly any birds. Despite this, I found the best bird of the whole holiday here. Climbing up the fortification walls on the second morning I heard a rather beautiful, woodlark-like song coming from the rocks above. Having climbed further I got a glimpse of a rock nuthatch, the first I've seen for a decade or so. Unfortunately it moved out of sight before I was able to take a photograph.

Jay about to consume an Apollo Butterfly (Presumed Roadkill), Zabljak (Montenegro), 10 August

We moved on to Zabljak, a small town in the Durmitor National Park of north west Montenegro, an area supposedly containing one of the most varied selections of butterflies in the whole of Europe. Needless to say, when the rest of the group were swimming in the nearby 'Black Lake' I went off looking for butterflies and was rewarded with several varieties including a new species for me, damon blue (image below).

Damon Blue Butterflies 'Puddling', near Zabljak (Montenegro), 9 August

Moving back into Bosnia & Herzegovina we spent three nights in the capital city, Sarajevo. It was here that Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, hastening the outbreak of WW1 and leading to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire. More recently the history of Sarajevo has been sad and traumatic: the city was besieged by the Serbian army for nearly four years between 1992 and 1996, during which time over 10,000 citizens died, many being killed by shells and sniper fire. Our leader, Alen, lived through the siege in Sarajevo. The horrific events that took place here and elsewhere in Bosnia & Herzegovina, which were portrayed in film and in photographs in various exhibitions in the city, have left a shadow over the country and an uncertain future. Man's inhumanity to man shocks even more than the damage that we are doing to the environment and, to be fair, puts these wildlife musings firmly in their place. However, we must move on....

Terrapins in the Nature Garden, Museum of Sarajevo

Following a day in Sarajevo most of us journeyed by coach to Lukomir, Bosnia & Herzegovina's highest village. A short but steep 'there and back' walk in blisteringly hot conditions followed, during which we encountered wild boar diggings (no boars, wolves or bears seen on this trip!) and two praying mantises (mantis religiosa), a brown one and a green one (there is some dispute about this, but apparently these mantises change colour according to their environment - there is only one common species of European mantis) and lots of grasshoppers, one of which stayed still and survived whilst another became a victim of the green mantis (images below). A good selection of birds seen around the village included northern wheatear, yellowhammer, a juvenile black redstart and red-backed shrike.

Brown Praying Mantis with a very still Grasshopper (Lukomir, Bosnia & Herzegovina, 12 August)

Green Praying Mantis with Grasshopper Prey (Lukomir, Bosnia & Herzegovina, 12 August)

Moving on to Mostar a pre-breakfast walk to a viewpoint over the river on the 14th was productive, with sightings of peregrine, kingfisher, common sandpiper, male golden oriole (what a beauty!) and short-toed eagle. Unfortunately when I returned the following morning with Peter, one of our fellow travellers, the sandpiper and eagle had gone and we only had views of the dull green female and/or juvenile orioles (although a male was heard). Later on the 14th (the only wet day of an otherwise very hot and sunny holiday) a visit to the Kravika Waterfalls provided excellent views of pallid and Alpine swifts. Some goats were spotted on the cliffs behind the waterfalls. I took a rather poor photo of the goats: it was only when I got home and viewed it on the PC that I noticed a chamois on the edge of the image (too poor to publish). This was the second chamois that had been seen on the holiday.

Common Glider, Piva River (Montenegro), 10 August

Shield Bug (spp. unknown), Trebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 15 August

The holiday drew to a close with a final evening back in Dubrovnik, where we were 'serenaded' by hundreds of screaming Alpine and pallid swifts which passed through the streets almost at head height - exciting for me, but possibly off-putting for others!

As always when I look back at these holidays I remember the people as much as (or even more than!) the wildlife and Helen and I were blessed with sharing the holiday with a great group of people, so if you were on the trip and have read to this point give yourself a big pat on the back! If you weren't on the trip then consider visiting some of the Balkan States, in particular Bosnia & Herzegovina - Alen and his fellow countrymen would be delighted to see you!

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Local Wildlife Sightings, August 2019

During the early days of the month I continued to look for butterflies to photograph for a couple of ongoing projects. Second generation male brown argus and common blue butterflies were by now fairly widespread, although only present in small numbers, whilst chalkhill blues on The Heath were starting to decline in numbers, having peaked at an estimated 600-800 males in late July. Reasonably good numbers of peacocks were on the wing, but this has been an exceptionally poor year for small tortoiseshells, with hardly any seen. This is clearly a species in big trouble at the moment. In contrast, numbers of gatekeeper butterflies reached almost plague proportions in late July and early August: this is the best year that I can remember for this species.

Male Common Blue Butterfly, Royston, 2 August

Holiday (see separate post) took me away for 12 days. On my return I went on my first 'local patch' walk for over two months on the 17th. A little grebe was still on Mardleybury Lake (no sign of successful breeding this year), but probably the best sighting was of at least 12 yellow wagtails (mostly juveniles) at Hatchpen Farm, suggesting another successful breeding season here. Thirteen butterfly species were recorded on the walk but, with the exception of a few painted ladies, these tended to be rather tired individuals. Southern and migrant hawker and common and ruddy darter dragonflies were also spotted.

Southern Hawker, Reed End, 20 August

With the butterfly season coming to an end (or so I thought) I paid visits to both ends of Therfield Heath, finding only a few tired looking chalkhill blues on Church Hill on the evening of the 17th and on the Old Rifle Range on the morning of the 19th, although on the latter occasion plenty of warblers were seen and at least two spotted flycatchers were hawking insects from high in the trees. It was therefore with a mixture of surprise and incredulity that I heard of the appearance of male adonis blue butterflies on Church Hill, first reported on the 20th and not seen here for over 60 years! Since the nearest known colony of this seriously attractive butterfly is over 50 miles south-west of The Heath, the common assumption is that the butterfly has been introduced by person or persons unknown, possibly as eggs in the spring? Having been away on the 21st photographing (you guessed it) adonis blues on Denbies Hillside in Surrey, I visited Church Hill on the morning of the 22nd and found at least five smart males on the south side of the hill. This is the 28th species that I've seen on my Local Patch (two mile radius of home). It will be interesting to see whether the colony establishes itself on The Heath - certainly many of the requirements for the species are fulfilled here.

Male Adonis Blue, Church Hill, 22 August

Male Adonis Blue, Church Hill, 22 August

Male Adonis Blue, Church Hill, 22 August

There was a strong passage of warblers through the area in the last week of August, with several sightings of willow warblers as well as a lesser whitethroat and my first local reed warbler of the year (on the 29th). Two families of recently fledged blackcaps were seen, as well as whitethroats and lots of chiffchaffs. Although whinchats were reported widely across the region I was unable to track any down in the Royston area, although at least 50 corn buntings were seen on the 26th close to the Icknield Way (220 reported on the 24th in the same area). A large flock of linnets, ranging between Greys Farm and Park Farm, was the only other bird record of note.

Willow Warbler, Therfield Heath, 28 August

I kept returning to Church Hill to monitor the adonis blues. Numbers increased to a reported 28 (22 males, 6 females) on the 31st. I was unable to find this species elsewhere on The Heath and it was clear by the end of the month that the butterfly must have been (illegally) introduced, perhaps as eggs or caterpillars in the spring. Notwithstanding this undesirable activity it will be interesting to see whether the colony survives Royston's cold winters and it is undoubtedly a beautiful butterfly to see and photograph (another image below)! Whilst talking to others I learned that a single silver-washed fritillary had been seen in woodland just off The Heath. Although the habitat is not ideal for the establishment of a colony of this species it is expanding its range in Hertfordshire, so I will have to look out for it next summer. One other thing that I have noticed is that common lizards on The Heath have been seen much more frequently in the last couple of years, suggesting that the hot summers and relatively dry conditions are having a positive impact on this species.

Male Adonis Blue Butterfly, Church Hill, 26 August

Hornet Hoverfly, Church Hill, 26 August

Treble Bar Moth, Therfield Heath, 30 August

UK Wildlife Sightings, August 2019

I made my annual visit to Aston Rowant Nature Reserve, just off junction 5 of the M40, on the 2nd to see and photograph silver-spotted skipper butterflies. These butterflies are skittish and very hard to photograph, even though they frequently rest (very briefly!) to nectar on flowers. A couple of my photographic attempts are shown below.

Silver-spotted Skipper, Aston Rowant NR, 2 August

Silver-spotted Skipper, Aston Rowant NR, 2 August

After a holiday break (see elsewhere) I made my annual visit to Denbies Hillside (NT) in Surrey on the 21st, looking to find and photograph adonis blue and other butterflies here. More silver-spotted skippers were found on the site, together with several male adonis blues. Chalkhill and common blues, brown argus and lots of painted ladies (their best year in the UK since 2009) were also about. I met somebody who had seen a brown hairstreak earlier in the day, but I didn't have any luck with that one. Little did I know at the time that adonis blues were flying within two miles of my home (see elsewhere)!

Male Adonis Blue, Denbies Hillside, 21 August

Resting Silver-spotted Skipper, Denbies Hillside, 21 August

An RSPB Local Group visit to College Lake and the Tring Reservoirs on the 25th produced a whinchat at College Lake and hobbies over Wilstone and Tringford reservoirs. A visit to RSPB Sandy on the 30th gave me the opportunity to photograph small copper butterflies (there is always an active colony there) and to see a single small red-eyed damselfly in the gardens. I failed to add any birds to my UK year list (stuck at 225) during August.

Small Copper Butterfly, RSPB Sandy, 30 August

Friday, 12 July 2019

Local Wildlife Sightings, July 2019

July is the month when I abandon bird watching locally and concentrate on observing and photographing invertebrates. On my return from a few days in Northumberland (see the blog post below) I visited The Heath on the 4th and found Essex skippers, gatekeepers and chalkhill blues on the wing, completing 'the set' of resident butterfly species (25, excluding migrant painted ladies and clouded yellows) for this year. However, chalkhill blues failed to materialise in any numbers over the next week, suggesting that 2019 was going to be a poor year for our 'keynote' species. The reverse was true for dark green fritillaries, which were buzzing around everywhere on The Heath: given that I covered much less than half of The Heath and saw at least 40 males I reckon there may have been as many as 200 individuals on the wing at the beginning of July!

Male Chalkhill Blue (and Snail), Therfield Heath, 4 July

Marbled White, Therfield Heath, 9 July

On the 5th I paid a visit to Scales Park, near Anstey, where I saw purple emperor and silver-washed fritillaries last July. Five silver-washed fritillaries were seen, but there was no sign of any emperors. I disturbed an adult tawny owl in the same area where I had seen and photographed a juvenile (see earlier post) recently.

Small Skipper, near Anstey, 5 July

Working on various projects I carried out a lot of macro photography in July, concentrating not just on butterflies but on other, overlooked, insects too. One interesting local sighting was of brassy longhorn micro-moths, which I saw in two separate places. Their food plant is the field scabious, and all the insects that I found were perched on this plant. According to Brock ("Insects of Britain and Ireland"), this micro moth is uncommon and restricted to chalk and limestone grasslands. I also found and photographed lots of hoverflies (many in the garden) - when time permits I'll try to identify them all!

Brassy Longhorn Micro-moth, Royston, 9 July

Hoverfly, my Royston Garden, 7 July

One notable mammal sighting was of a common shrew, seen on the 4th near Royston Hospital. It is not unusual for me to find dead shrews, but this one actually ran across the path in front of me! Shrews are strictly nocturnal, so I guess that I was lucky to see this one. Although local bird watching is largely put 'on hold' in July I did hear, and then see, a local rarity in the form of a sedge warbler on the 23rd. I occasionally see and/or hear sedge warblers locally on migration in the spring, but this is my first July record of the species, which does not breed any closer to me than at RSPB Fowlmere, about six miles away.
'Record Shot' of a Sedge Warbler, near Royston Hospital, 23 July

A short, intense heatwave between the 22nd and the 25th saw temperatures reach a stunning 38.7C in Cambridge on the 25th, the highest temperature ever recorded in the UK. My garden thermometer (not necessarily the most accurate device) registered 40C in the shade on this date. I led a successful, well attended Herts. and Middlesex Butterfly Conservation walk across The Heath on the 22nd. Chalkhill Blues were plentiful, allaying my earlier fears that this could be a very poor year for them. Second generation brown argus and common blue butterflies were on the wing too and between us we saw 20 species! I visited The Heath (mainly Church Hill) between the 21st and the 24th (it was just too hot on the 25th!) to try to get good photos of butterflies (particularly the chalkhill blues): some of my efforts are shown below.

Male Chalkhill Blue, Wings Open, Therfield Heath, 21 July

Male Brimstone Butterfly, Therfield Heath, 21 July

Three Roosting Male Chalkhill Blue Butterflies, Church Hill, 23 July

During the hot spell in the second half of the month there were a couple of unusual sightings in my garden. A migrant hawker dragonfly turned up on the 30th and roosted near my pond and on the 22nd I registered a 'garden first' when a female small skipper arrived and proceeded to appear to lay some eggs on an ivy leaf (they can just be made out as tiny white dots on the image below). Whether a colony of small skippers becomes established in the garden remains to be seen... Also on the 22nd I discovered a couple of newt tadpoles in the garden pond. A handful of common newts use the pond every spring and I often see the females laying eggs after dark. However, I very rarely see any tadpoles later in the year and my colony seems to be decreasing in size - hopefully these youngsters will reach maturity.

Migrant Hawker Dragonfly, My Garden, 30 July

Small Skipper, My Garden, 22 July

Common Newt Tadpole, My Garden, 22 July

UK Wildlife Sightings, July 2019

At the beginning of the month I spent two nights at Warkworth (Northumberland), with the idea of spending a full day photographing birds on the Farne Islands, then going on a boat trip out to Coquet Island on the final day to see roseate terns, followed by a long drive home. On the way up I stopped off at Bishop Middleham Quarry (Durham) to see and photograph northern brown argus butterflies, whose markings seem very similar to those of some brown argus butterflies seen on The Heath. However, both these colonies of butterflies have been shown by DNA testing to be genetically pure and relate to different species. In addition to northern brown argus I saw some very late dingy skippers. There was also a splendid display of orchids, with some particularly attractive large specimens, a colony of sand martins and one or two unusual insects here.

Northern Brown Argus, Bishop Middleham Quarry, 1 July

My plans to visit The Farnes on the 2nd were scuppered, when I found on arrival at Seahouses that the all day visit was fully booked. Instead, I visited the nature reserve at Hauxley (near Amble), where I had fun photographing the terns (common, arctic and sandwich) washing in the lake. I also managed to get out on the boat to Coquet Island - we're not allowed to land on the island, but we had good views of the roseate terns from the boat.

Upside Down (!) Arctic Tern and Common Tern, Hauxley NR, 2 July

Roseate Tern, Coquet Island, 2 July

I finally got on the all day 'photographic' trip to The Farnes on the 3rd, but disappointment lay ahead as we were unable to land on Staple Island due to a 'heavy swell'. At least we had over 2.5 hours on Inner Farne in the afternoon, time to reacquaint myself with the always friendly Arctic terns (see the rare image of me with one perched on my hat, below) and realise once again that photographing puffins in flight is, for me at least, incredibly difficult!

Arctic Tern Greeting, Inner Farne, 3 July

Arctic Tern on my Hat, Inner Farne, 3 July (copyright Arthur Morris)

Puffin with Catch, Inner Farne, 3 July

Arctic Tern with Dinner, Inner Farne, 3 July

On the 10th I visited the Grand Union Canal at Wilstone, looking for white-legged damselflies (a rarity in Hertfordshire). I did find a fair number, along with many blue-tailed damselflies and a few banded demoiselles, but dragonfly numbers seemed to be quite low with just a couple of male emperors buzzing around.
Male White-legged Damselfly, Wilstone, 10 July

From the 13th I went on a week's family holiday to Devon. Our B&B room in Lynmouth looked out on the East Lyn river, with its resident dippers and grey wagtails (frequently seen from the room!). The main wildlife highlight was a trip to Lundy Island. The island itself was home to wheatears, with a few auks left on the surrounding cliffs. However, a lot of young auks had already 'taken the plunge' - we saw several adult guillemots accompanying unfledged young in the sea as we headed on the boat to and from Lundy (see image below). Whilst reviewing the many images I took on the boat journey I noticed that one guillemot resting on the sea had a white line along the upper edge of the gape (just like a Brunnich's guillemot). In every other aspect it matched the surrounding guillemots (image below), so presumably this was just an aberrant guillemot, rather than the incredibly rare (in UK waters) Arctic-living Brunnich's. We were lucky enough to see a 'pod' of cetaceans on the return journey (image). I thought at the time that they were common dolphins, but others thought that they were porpoises - you decide! I added Manx shearwater to my year list on this trip and, later in the week, saw a family of whinchats (another year tick) on Exmoor. Perhaps the strangest bird sighting of the holiday came on the final evening in Lynmouth when, walking along the seafront at dusk, we saw a spotted flycatcher hawking insects amongst the rocks on the beach! I was disappointed (not for the first time) when visiting Heddon's Mouth, a noted site for the extremely rare high brown fritillary, that the only fritillaries I was able to identify were a handful of dark green fritillaries and very large numbers of silver-washed fritillaries. I have never seen a high brown fritillary in the UK: the wait continues for at least another year!

Young Wheatear, Lundy Island, 16 July

Guillemot Adult with Youngster, near Lundy, 16 July

Guillemots with a Razorbill (Aberrant Guillemot on Left), near Lundy, 16 July

Manx Shearwaters near Lundy, 16 July

Cetaceans (Porpoises?), near Lundy, 16 July

On the 24th I made my (at least) annual visit to Thursley Common in Surrey, looking to find and photograph dragonflies, which have been in short supply locally. I was lucky to again see a brilliant emerald dragonfly quartering the Moat Pond (before the local dogs were let loose in it). This is an excellent place to see keeled skimmers and black darters, which don't occur anywhere near me, and I was busy with my camera again.

Male Keeled Skimmer Dragonfly, Thursley Common, 24 July

Following the intense heat of the previous week (see my other July blog post) the weather broke on the weekend of the 27-28th as a vigorous area of low pressure centred itself over the UK. Strong easterly winds blew unprecedented numbers of wood sandpipers across from Scandinavia (110+ reported from Cley NWT reserve on the afternoon of the 28th!). I decided to see some of the action and made my first visit for many years on the 30th to RSPB Freiston Shore, north of Boston in Lincolnshire. Some 15-20 wood sandpipers were on the reservoir (easily the most I've seen in one place), with the added bonus of a near summer-plumaged curlew sandpiper and, best of all, a white-rumped sandpiper, all of which showed well at times. There was a strong wind blowing and, on one memorable occasion, a wood sandpiper was caught up in a gust and did a backwards somersault before landing on its side in front of us. If only I had been able to photograph or (better) video the event! The bird appeared to be unharmed, if somewhat embarrassed. A few of the photos that I did manage to take at Freiston are shown below.

Curlew Sandpiper, RSPB Freiston Shore, 30 July

White-rumped Sandpiper, RSPB Freiston Shore, 30 July

Wood Sandpiper, RSPB Freiston Shore, 30 July