Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Local Wildlife Sightings July 2020

Despite indifferent weather during the first week of the month I continued my quest for better and better photographs of my local butterflies. A gatekeeper, seen near my home on the 1st, was the 27th and last of the species that completes its lifecycle on my 'local patch' to be recorded in 2020. Numbers of chalkhill blues increased on The Heath to around 30 (all males) on the 2nd, most being found on the south slopes of Church Hill and in the small, 'rough' field at the bottom. Small and Essex skippers were seen at a number of locations and the first of the second generation of brown argus appeared on the 2nd, only a week or so after I had seen the last of the first generation! Fresh peacock, red admiral and comma butterflies were on the wing, but marbled whites were looking rather tired and there was a noticeable decline in numbers of dark green fritillaries. No more silver-washed fritillaries were seen on my regular visits to Church Hill, although weather conditions were far from ideal for this species. At home a rather attractive (albeit destructive) box tree moth took up residence in my house, but sadly passed away overnight on the 4th.

Male Chalkhill Blue, Church Hill, 2 July

Brown Argus (2nd Generation), Royston, 3 July

Box Tree Moth (Recently Expired), My House, 4 July

My Local Wild Flower and Butterfly Meadow

Just to the south of the housing estate where I live lies a large arable field, which generally contains a crop of wheat or (in 2020) oats. An unofficial path goes around the field and I sometimes use a section of it as a short cut to access the Greenwich Meridian Trail, which heads up towards Hatchpen Farm. However, before 'lockdown' I had never walked all the way round this field, which looked rather uninteresting from a wildlife point of view. During lockdown my daily walks occasionally took me all round the field and I noticed a grassy patch of apparent waste land at the far side. As spring arrived wild flowers started to appear here and I started to take a bit more notice. Now, in early July, this bit of waste land has turned into a wondrous wild flower meadow of about one acre, with copious amounts of knapweed, clovers, lady's bedstraw and many other wild flowers including the important butterfly food plants bird's foot trefoil, horseshoe vetch and rock rose. Nettles and brambles are nearby. Not surprisingly, this patch of land attracts many common butterfly species! So far I have found small skipper, Essex skipper, large skipper, brimstone, large white, small white, small copper, brown argus, common blue, small tortoiseshell, peacock, marbled white, gatekeeper, ringlet, meadow brown and small heath here - that's 16 species! The proximity of this meadow to my road explains where the occasional blues and skippers that I see there have come from. Other insects, in particular moths and hoverflies, have been seen there in the past few weeks. I don't know how long this meadow has been waiting for me to discover it, but it's only taken me 34 years to find it! I guess that it may have been created not so long ago, possibly as part of an agri-environmental scheme?? With orange tip, comma, painted lady and green-veined white still to be seen there I believe that the meadow and its immediate surrounds may support at least 20 butterfly species - watch this space!

Ringlet, My Local Wildflower Meadow, 3 July

Small Skipper, My Local Wildflower Meadow, 6 July
Chalkhill blue numbers steadily increased during the first week of July, although most were still at the western end of The Heath. I saw my first female on the 6th. On Church Hill I noticed quite a bit of variety in the sizes of the spots on the hind wings of the males (for example see the image of two males, roosting on the same blade of grass, below). Sometimes some of these spots are missing completely on male variants, although the greatest variations are seen in the females. I will be looking for variants in both chalkhill and (second generation) adonis blues in the next few weeks.

Two Male Chalkhill Blues, Church Hill, 6 July

UK Wildlife Sightings July 2020

On the 3rd I visited The Wash coast in Norfolk, walking along the bank that leads from Snettisham to Heacham. Spoonbills had been reported in the area in the days prior to my visit and I did see one in flight, but my best sightings were of one or more turtle doves flying backwards and forwards by the side of the bank. The decline in numbers of turtle doves visiting the UK during the spring and summer has, sadly, been dramatic, so any sighting of this attractive bird is a good one. Several black-tailed godwits in breeding plumage and a huge high tide roost of oystercatchers were also seen during my visit, on a dull, cool and blustery day.
Spoonbill in Flight, near Heacham, 3 July

'Record Shot' of Turtle Dove, near Heacham, 3 July

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Local Wildlife Sightings June 2020

At the end of June my Royston Wildlife web site will be closed down after 14 years of publishing natural history news and sightings from my local area. Although this will be a sad time for me I had been using and updating the web site less and less often and it was not being maintained by the provider. I will now be publishing all my local, UK and (occasionally) international natural history sightings on this blog: I hope that you continue to enjoy reading about them!

The hot, sunny weather from a record-breaking (for sunshine and lack of rainfall) May continued into the first couple of days of June. On the morning of the 1st I wandered across The Heath, noting four dark green fritillaries on The Old Rifle Range (yet another earliest sighting for a butterfly species) and a single large skipper on Church Hill, where about a dozen Adonis blues, including a fresh female, were still on the wing (I didn't see any blues other than a few brown argus on the Old Rifle Range). There was much spotted flycatcher activity in Fox Covert, but I didn't record this species elsewhere on The Heath. Kestrels were very busy: I reckon that there are two active nests on The Heath. Young great spotted woodpeckers, which had been very noisy in the woodland at the bottom of my road, fledged at the beginning of the month.

Large Skipper, Church Hill, 1 June

Female Kestrel, Therfield Heath, 1 June

From the 3rd the weather finally deteriorated, turning cool, cloudy and wet in many places (but still hardly any rain in Royston!). After an excellent breeding season in 2019 blue tits seem to have struggled this year, but a couple of (small) families were seen at my feeders on the 4th. Not surprisingly ground feeders such as blackbirds have also struggled as invertebrates have been hard to find in the bone dry ground. Adults came regularly to my hanging suet balls during May and on the 5th I did see two juveniles on the garden lawn. Other fledgling birds seen in the local area included long-tailed tits, goldfinches, blackcaps and mistle thrushes.

Blue Tit Adult and Fledgling, My Garden, 4 June

At least four spotted flycatchers were recorded on The Heath on the 6th, including one bird that had lots of insects in its bill - a sign that it was nesting and feeding young. Due to coronavirus I have had time to closely monitor the flycatchers in my local area this year - I'll say more about this, one of my favourite bird species, later in the summer. The dull, damp, cool weather continued well into June, making butterfly watching and photography difficult. However, I did find five marbled white butterflies on Church Hill on the 8th, yet another 'earliest' record for a local butterfly species. This seems likely to be a poor summer for orchids on The Heath: searching at the usual sites I was unable to find any common spotted orchids and only one tiny bee orchid and one tiny fragrant orchid. I did find two more bee orchids at a new (for me) woodland site. Perhaps the baked ground following the dry spring has not enabled these plants to break through? Wild candytuft, common thyme, common knapweed and field scabious were starting to flower on The Heath by the 8th and I found a couple of knapweed broomrape plants on the track leading up to The Heath from Royston Hospital. Ox-eye daisies were forming an impressive display on various parts of The Heath and were being used by a variety of insects, including a digger wasp that I hadn't seen before.
Swollen-thighed Beetle, Therfield Heath, 8 June

Ornate-tailed Digger Wasp (?), Therfield Heath, 8 June

On the 10th an evening walk up to Hatchpen Farm was rewarded with my first sighting of the year of a little owl. The bird flew out of the same tree where I had had my only local sighting of 2019! However, there was and has been no sign of little owl nesting activity in the area in recent years, whilst this year there was no sign of juvenile tawny owls at nest sites that had been used (in the area where the little owl was seen) in previous years. I did hear a tawny owl hooting from nearby private woodland on the evening of the 23rd, so it is possible that a new nest site was being used this year. On the same evening I also heard the alarm call of a little owl on the Newsells Estate, again on private land and not far from the spot where I had seen the owl on the 10th. It is therefore possible that little owls are nesting here, again on private land. Spotted flycatcher sightings became more sporadic later in the month, but I did see and hear a family of at least four birds in Fox Covert, just west of the Therfield Road, on the morning of the 20th. No other family groups were seen during June, although birds were heard in other parts of the woodland on The Heath. Whilst looking in the trees for spotted flycatchers close to the Therfield Road I discovered other nesting birds, including greenfinches and treecreepers. On one occasion I saw a treecreeper feeding a fledgling. I heard a raven whilst I was on Church Hill on the 24th.

A second fragrant orchid appeared on Church Hill during the middle of the month. It was more robust than the first specimen, but still rather small. Five bee orchids were eventually found in Fox Covert and another specimen was seen at Hatchpen Farm. An attractive pyramidal orchid was on show at the bottom of Church Hill from the 23rd. Finally, after much searching, a couple of rather late common spotted orchids showed themselves on the Old Rifle Range on the 29th. 2020 has been a poor year nationally for orchids, so perhaps I should be grateful for seeing any at all! I twice saw common shrews scurrying across the path in Fox Covert during June.

Common Lizard, Church Hill, 13 June

Silver-washed Fritillary: a new Species for Therfield Heath!

Butterfly watching and photography reached a frenzied peak during the second half of June. Not only was I trying, largely without success, to produce high quality photographs of marbled whites and dark green fritillaries, but other species were appearing with regularity. A single silver-washed fritillary was reported very close to The Heath in the summer of 2019, but it was still a surprise for me when Andy Symes found two males at the bottom of Church Hill on the 14th. I subsequently visited Church Hill and the nearby woodland a few times, but didn't have any joy until the 23rd when no fewer than five, including two territorial males in a clearing in Fox Covert, were seen. Silver-washed fritillaries have been spreading quickly through Hertfordshire in recent years. There is plenty of their main food plant (dog violet) present across The Heath, but this is a woodland butterfly with a liking for woodland rides and clearings and this habitat is in limited supply on The Heath and its surrounds, so the future of the species here is unclear. Ten years ago the sight of two fritillary species flying together on The Heath would have been unimaginable, but I saw this with my own eyes at the bottom of Church Hill on the 23rd. Silver-washed fritillary becomes the 29th species that I have seen on or in the immediate environs of The Heath. Other species flying in the area included white-letter hairstreak (from the 15th), ringlet (from the 15th), small skipper (from the 22nd) and Essex skipper (from the 26th). Amazing numbers of dark green fritillaries (probably 100+ males) and marbled whites (250+ is a conservative estimate) were flying across The Heath towards the end of the month. I saw my first chalkhill blues of the year (three males, one on Lankester Hill and two on Church Hill) on a dull and very windy day on the 29th.

Male Marbled White, Therfield Heath, 15 June

Dark Green Fritillary, Therfield Heath, 18 June

Silver-washed Fritillary, Therfield Heath, 23 June

UK Wildlife Sightings June 2020

On the 2nd I visited Glapthorn Meadow, near Oundle (Northants), to see and photograph a very rare UK butterfly, the black hairstreak. As a result of the exceptionally sunny, warm and dry weather this spring, and in common with many other butterfly species in 2020, this insect was on the wing a couple of weeks earlier than usual. It looks like being another good year for the species at Glapthorn: I reckon that 30-50 of these insects were on the wing. However they were not easy to photograph, particularly as they became more active in the hot late morning sunshine. Also seen at Glapthorn was a beautiful orange and black scarce chaser dragonfly.

Black Hairstreak, Glapthorn, 1 June

Three ringed plovers were in front of the viewpoint at Amwell Gravel Pits when I briefly visited on the evening of the 3rd. Presumably these birds were heading for northerly (Arctic) breeding grounds, where the nesting season may only last for perhaps 9-10 weeks between June and August. Having bred, these birds may well pass back through the country in late August or September! At least three little ringed plovers (which are nesting at Amwell) were also seen. The following day I visited Rutland Water to see the ospreys. With the reserves being closed I used public footpaths to get decent views of the nest site near Lyndon reserve and was lucky to see another osprey fly over, perhaps heading for the local fish farm.

Two of Three Ringed Plovers, Amwell GP, 3 June

Ospreys at the Nest, Rutland Water, 4 June

Osprey in Flight, Rutland Water, 4 June

A marsh warbler arrived at King's Meads (between Hertford and Ware) on the weekend of the 6-7th. I visited the site for over an hour on the evening of the 8th but, although I heard some snatches of song, it didn't make an appearance. The following day I made my first 'wildlife watching' trip to Kent, visiting Oare Marshes (where I saw a male garganey) before moving on to RSPB Blean Woods, where I was lucky to find large numbers of heath fritillary butterflies at a site that I have visited around this time of year in each of the last few years. I spent 90 minutes here trying to get some decent photos of the butterflies and also watching a huge (Asian?) hornet catch and devour a butterfly - ugh! I finished my visit with a shortish walk at Stodmarsh NNR, where several hobbies were on the wing.

Heath Fritillary, RSPB Blean Woods, 9 June

Heath Fritillary, RSPB Blean Woods, 9 June

Hobby in Flight, Stodmarsh NNR, 9 June

On the 11th I popped up to RSPB Fen Drayton reserve to see a female red-footed falcon. A spotted redshank at Tyttenhanger on the 13th was a Hertfordshire 'first' for me. However, I continued to suffer at the hands of marsh warblers, failing to see another individual near Sandy on the afternoon of the 13th and late evening of the 14th. On my first visit the bird was singing close to the path, but was never knowingly seen. On my second visit I had the consolation of seeing one of two grasshopper warblers which were 'reeling' nearby. Despite this failure, the possibility of seeing my first UK Blyth's reed warbler (part of a large influx of acrocephalus warblers in the previous few weeks) at Far Ings reserve on the Lincolnshire side of the Humber Bridge proved irresistible and I made the six hour return journey on the 19th. Fortunately for me this bird showed well (as it had been doing intermittently for several days prior to my visit) and I was even able to get some decent photos.

Blyth's Reed Warbler, Far Ings NR, Lincolnshire, 19 June

Blyth's Reed Warbler, Far Ings NR, Lincolnshire, 19 June

Butterfly photography was a major part of my life in June, as I strove to produce a panel of prints for an Associateship of the Royal Photographic Society distinction award. The standard is very high and I will struggle to achieve the award, but the 17th saw me visiting Norfolk to get photos of two butterfly species - the swallowtail and the silver-studded blue. I normally go to RSPB Strumpshaw Fen to see swallowtails, but the reserve was well and truly closed, due to Covid-19 restrictions. However, I usually find that the best spot for swallowtails is at or near 'The Doctor's Garden', on a track close to the reserve. I found at least two swallowtails by the track and, although my photos are not good enough for the panel, I was at least away after only a 40 minute halt. Kelling Heath was a different matter. Silver-studded blues were all over the area, but trying to photograph them was a nightmare! As soon as I moved so did they and most of the time they perched in heather, close to the ground. I must have knelt down over 100 times, only to see them fly away! I get very annoyed with myself when this happens - I should probably go on an anger management course! I did notice one interesting bit of behaviour. Normally, when a female emerges from her pupa she is pounced upon by a male and (not to put too fine a point on it) raped. However, one female stood firm for several minutes against a potential male suitor. At one point she appeared to be fending him off with her legs, a bit like boxing hares. I should have taken a video of the confrontation but I did manage a few photos, one of which is shown below. Eventually, after three hours of concentrated photography, I left for home with over 300 images to wade through. This was rapidly reduced to a handful that were sharp enough for use: whether they make the 'final cut' is doubtful!

Male Silver-studded Blue, Kelling Heath, 17 June

Female Silver-studded Blue (right) Fending off an Amorous Male, Kelling Heath, 17 June

Mating Silver-studded Blues, Kelling Heath, 17 June

With butterflies appearing this year weeks ahead of their normal emergence dates, the second half of June became 'the new July' as I rushed around, photographing them. An evening visit to Balls Wood (Hertford Heath) on the 23rd was rewarded with sightings of at least six white admiral butterflies. On the 25th I visited Cavenham Heath (Suffolk) in the hope of seeing stone curlews and grayling butterflies. I failed on both counts (although stone curlew was heard), but ended up taking lots of photos of dragonflies along the River Lark. Moving on to Lynford Arboretum, hoping to see crossbills following a recent significant invasion of Continental birds, I again failed on this primary objective and ended up photographing more dragonflies (including common and ruddy darters) on a very hot and humid day.

White Admiral, Balls Wood, 23 June

Female Banded Demoiselle, Cavenham Heath, 25 June

Common Darter, Lynford Arboretum, 25 June

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Local Wildlife Sightings May 2020

I walked right across The Heath on the morning of the 2nd. Six warbler species, including my first garden warbler of the year (in woodland at the far end of the golf practice driving range) were seen. A willow warbler, singing near the fifth tee of the golf course, had been singing in the same clump of bushes for at least two weeks - encouraging thoughts that it may stay to nest if it could find a suitable female mate. The now familiar sight of a raven mobbing a buzzard at the far (west) end of The Heath reinforced my view that these huge corvids must be nesting nearby. White helleborines, always the first orchids to appear locally, were showing flower buds in Fox Covert. Having seen a small heath butterfly a few days beforehand it was no surprise to see a few more this time, as well as my first brown argus butterfly of the year (on Church Hill). A day-flying Mother Shipton moth was also seen here.

'Record Shot' of a Garden Warbler, Therfield Heath, 2 May

Raven Mobbing a Buzzard, Therfield Heath, 2 May

Male Brown Argus Butterfly, Church Hill, 2 May

Male Orange Tip Butterfly, Church Hill, 2 May

Small White Butterfly and Shield Bug, Royston, 2 May

A walk up the Icknield Way and around the fields to the east of Therfield on the 4th (looking rather hopefully for dotterel) produced yet another raven sighting, a very bright male wheatear (possibly of the Greenland race, but flew off before I could get a photograph), nine grey partridges (a good total for this time of year) and four lesser whitethroats. A singing common whitethroat posed very considerately to have his photo taken. The garden warbler, first seen on the 2nd, was still present on The Heath when I walked across to Church Hill on the 5th. A second garden warbler was singing in Fox Covert. With the golf course being closed I had the chance to cover more of the southern slopes of Church Hill and found a dozen brown argus butterflies and two Mother Shipton moths on the wing. Wild strawberries (which I hadn't noticed before) were at the bottom of the hill and numerous metallic green beetles (which I believe are the species cryptocephalus aureolus) were sitting on the tops of yellow flowers. I leave the reader to come up with an amusing title for the image of these beetles below. Swifts normally arrive back in Royston around the 5th, so it was no surprise to observe around 25 circling over the town centre from an upstairs window on the same evening.

Common Whitethroat, Therfield, 4 May

Beetles Cryptocephalus Aureolus, Church Hill, 5 May

Holly blue and orange tip butterflies were in my garden on the 6th. A male orange tip took a bizarre liking to one of my last tulips to flower, vigorously flying around it for at least five minutes and landing a couple of times before eventually flying off. Had it mistaken the flower for a female orange tip and, if so, why?

Male Orange Tip Butterfly 'attacking' a Tulip, My Garden, 6 May

I recorded five yellow wagtails on a walk up to and around Reed village on the 7th, including a very smart male bird at Hatchpen Farm. Also recorded were 11 corn buntings and five lapwings, including two pairs at a private site that I rarely visit (because it's private!). Sadly, the numbers of lapwings nesting on the ridge between Barkway and Wallington have declined markedly over the years that I have been visiting, from perhaps 50 pairs to no more than 12. Factors such as the weather (too wet and cold or too dry during the nesting season) and predators (I saw a fox at the private site and crows are abundant, despite control procedures) play a part, but other factors must be at play here. On my way back I saw my first small copper butterfly of the year, at a location on Hatchpen Farm which is a relative 'hot spot' for a species that is uncommon on my Local Patch.

Yellow Wagtail, Hatchpen Farm, 7 May

A miniature May 'heatwave' up to the 9th encouraged me to get out my macro lens and start 'seriously' photographing the butterflies on The Heath. Common blues were on the wing on Church Hill from the 8th and I 'discovered' a large and very active colony of brown argus butterflies on a section of the golf course which I would not normally have visited (of course no golf was being played during the lockdown). A spotted flycatcher was heard in Fox Covert on the 8th and at least two birds (one seen) were there on the 9th. The spotted flycatcher is the last of 'our' migratory birds to arrive in the spring. With spring migration almost at an end I had time to reflect on the birds that I had missed in the Royston area during April and early May! The keen eyes and ears of other bird watchers in lockdown had picked out curlew, whimbrel, arctic terns and a great white egret (twice), whilst a grasshopper warbler was 'reeling' for a couple of days at Fox Covert. Ring ouzels were seen on various parts of The Heath, other than the far (west) end. I can't be everywhere all of the time, even during this unique lockdown situation, but these observations show just how great a variety of birds must pass through the Royston area, many unnoticed, every year during the migration period.

Mother Shipton Moth, Church Hill, 8 May (look carefully and you can see her Face)

Another Hoverfly, My Garden, 9 May

Male Common Blue Butterfly, Church Hill, 9 May

The weather changed dramatically on the morning of the 10th, with strong north-easterly winds and a temperature drop of around 12 degrees, so I put my camera and binoculars away for a couple of days.

 Adonis Blue Butterflies - Part 1
Regular readers of my blog will know that an unlicensed introduction (as pupae?) of  Adonis blue butterflies occurred on The Heath (Church Hill) in 2019. Butterflies were seen on the wing from 20 August until mid September and it was assumed that they had been released as pupae earlier in the summer. I was interested to find out whether the species had survived the (particularly mild) winter by making regular visits to Church Hill in May and was rewarded with the first sighting of a 'first generation' male on 8 May. During the following week numbers of males and females increased to around 20 in total and I saw them spreading across the golf course to the south facing slope of the 10th fairway. I contacted Butterfly Conservation on the 8th and it was agreed that during 'lockdown' we would not publicise the reappearance of Adonis blues, in order to discourage people from travelling from outside our area to see and perhaps photograph the butterflies. Predictably, however, other people found the Adonis blues on later dates and the news was (regrettably) spread on 'Twitter'. Eventually BC published some of the sightings from the 17th, following removal, on or around the 16th, of a message from The Conservators urging people not to travel to The Heath from outside the local area. Whether this colony will survive in the longer term will depend on how well this heat-loving butterfly can cope with harsh winters and cool, wet summers. An additional problem may arise from inbreeding in this small, isolated colony (Malcolm Hull). For the moment, however, the colony thrives. A few of my images of these beautiful butterflies are shown below.

Male Adonis Blue, Church Hill, 14 May

Female Adonis Blue, Church Hill, 18 May

Female Adonis Blue, Variant 'Semicoronus', Church Hill, 12 May

Following the 'easing' of lockdown from the 13th I spent less of my time haunting the paths around Royston, The Heath and the villages of Therfield and Reed (see my UK Sightings post). Bird sightings of interest tailed off, although I did record a couple of spotted flycatchers along the Icknield Way between Royston and Therfield on the 14th and recorded this species on most of my regular visits to Church Hill. Brown argus butterflies started to appear right across The Heath from the 12th and a green carpet moth was seen between Royston and Reed.

Spotted Flycatcher, Fox Covert, 12 May

Adonis Blue Butterflies - Part 2

An interesting postscript (?) to the Adonis blue story occurred on 19 May when Andy Symes saw and photographed a marsh fritillary butterfly on Church Hill! Marsh fritillaries are even less likely to have found their way naturally to Church Hill than Adonis blues, although the food plant for their caterpillars, devil's-bit scabious, does occur on Church Hill. In other respects Church Hill is far from an ideal environment for this species, although marsh fritillaries do occur alongside the Adonis blue on the chalk downland of Wiltshire and Dorset. As far as I am aware there is no colony of marsh fritillary within at least 80 miles of Royston. It is therefore a reasonable assumption to make that this marsh fritillary was released, either deliberately or accidentally, by the person or persons who released the Adonis blues. However, if it was released as a pupa this could only have been done in the spring, as marsh fritillaries only have one generation (the butterfly is on the wing from the middle of May until early July and hibernates as a caterpillar during the winter). The pupae of both species look quite different and it is assumed that the Adonis blues were released as pupae in the summer of 2019, after their first generation had been on the wing. I therefore feel that, on balance, the marsh fritillary was deliberately introduced, presumably by the same person or persons unknown, either as eggs in the early summer of 2019 (perhaps at the same time as Adonis blue eggs), as caterpillars in the later summer of 2019 (perhaps at the same time as Adonis blue pupae) or as a separate introduction of pupae in the spring of this year. I have to say that the (perhaps fanciful) idea that somebody is attempting to turn Church Hill into a kind of 'Jurassic Butterfly Park' does have certain attractions since it is on my doorstep! Perhaps this 'Butterfly Banksy' may try their hand at trying to introduce Duke of Burgundy (food plant: cowslips), grizzled skipper (food plant: wild strawberry), small blue (food plant: kidney vetch) or a variety of other fritillaries (food plants: violets) onto a site which is rich with their food plants (well, there aren't many wild strawberry plants, but they could give it a go....). Perhaps they have already tried - and failed. They certainly appear to have hit the jackpot with Adonis blues: when I visited on the 20th (and failed to find any marsh fritillaries) I reckon that at least 40 Adonis blues (mainly males, but quite a few females as well) were on the wing and had spread out right across the hill and past the 10th fairway of the golf course. As consolation for not finding any marsh fritillaries I was able to photograph a mating pair of Adonis blues and a female variant/'aberration'. Time will tell whether any more marsh fritillaries will appear - not many introductions, licenced or unlicenced, are successful.

Mating Pair of Adonis Blues, Church Hill, 20 May

Male Adonis Blue, Church Hill, 20 May

Female Adonis Blue Variant (Some Hind Wing Spots Missing, Others Small), Church Hill, 20 May

On my way home from Church Hill I have to walk right across The Heath. Since the 20th was a very hot day I decided to keep to the woodland on the south side and was amazed to record at least eight spotted flycatchers at four separate locations - just east and just west of the Therfield Road and in two separate areas further to the east. Birds were seen in three places and were (what the spotted flycatcher calls) singing or calling to each other at all locations. This is my highest ever count of spotted flycatchers in the area. Some may have just been passing through. I will monitor the area in the next few weeks to see how many stay. On the down side the garden warbler could not be heard, although of course this does not necessarily mean that he has left the area.

On the 23rd I visited Blagrove Common, near Sandon. A stream runs through the reserve, resulting in very lush vegetation. This is, as far as I am aware, the nearest place to Royston where southern marsh orchid and ragged robin both grow. I saw these plants, as well as some early common spotted orchids just off the reserve. My visits to Therfield Heath, and Church Hill in particular, gradually tailed off towards the end of the month. The willow warbler was still singing, as he had been since April, but there was no sign of Ravens after the 14th. Presumably the young had fledged or the nest/territory had been abandoned - I'll probably never know. Adonis blue butterflies peaked at perhaps 50-60 on or around the 25th and I found another female variant, with hardly any hind wing spots, on that date. The first meadow browns were on the wing by the 28th. Another chapter of the Adonis blue story occurred on this date, when I found a couple of rather worn specimens on the Old Rifle Range, at the other end of The Heath from Church Hill. Had they found their way there from the Church Hill colony or (more likely) been introduced there either in 2019 or earlier this year? It will be interesting to see if there is any sign of a second generation of Adonis blues on the Old Rifle Range in the late summer.

Adonis Blue Female Variant, Wings Closed, Church Hill 25 May

Adonis Blue Female Variant, Wings Open, Church Hill 25 May

Spotted flycatchers remained in the woodland on the south side of The Heath until the end of the month, although I was unable to count more than four (still an impressive total!) on any one occasion. A final interesting bird observation occurred on the 29th, as I was driving down the A10 from Melbourn towards Royston. Just short of the A505 roundabout I saw a flying harrier, whose size, flight action and wing markings (grey body and wings, except for the black wing tips) were entirely consistent with those of a male hen harrier. I couldn't rule out pallid harrier, but the chances of such a bird having escaped detection are ridiculously low. Could this be a summering bird? The juvenile male that I saw in the Greys Farm area in late 2019 was rapidly moulting, but surely would not look as pristine as this bird did in its first summer. Strange days, indeed - is this what people mean by the 'new normal'?

UK Wildlife Sightings May 2020

The lockdown continued into May, so I continued to stay at home. However, the lessening of restrictions from the 13th meant that people were allowed to travel anywhere in England in order to exercise, provided they maintained social distancing procedures. I used the opportunity to visit Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits on the 13th (sand martin, reed warbler and angle shades moth), Amwell on the 14th (common sandpiper, little ringed plover, common tern, sedge warbler and banded demoiselle dragonfly) and the Tring Reservoirs on the 16th (little gull at Startops End, cuckoo at Marsworth and lots of common terns). I also went on to Bison Hill, near Whipsnade, on the 16th to see and photograph the butterflies (green hairstreak, Duke of Burgundy and dingy and grizzled skippers) which are on the wing in May but don't occur in the Royston area. If the original lockdown travel ban had continued for another couple of weeks I would have possibly missed a couple of these species (most of the 'Dukes' were looking decidedly tatty).

Little Gull in Flight, Startops End Reservoir, 16 May

Green Hairstreak Butterfly, Bison Hill, 16 May

Grizzled Skipper Butterfly, Bison Hill, 16 May

Colin the Cuckoo

The following week I decided to travel a little further and the 19th saw me visiting Thursley Common (Surrey), looking for heathland birds (woodlark, tree pipit and redstart were top of my list) and early dragonflies. An early start meant that I was walking across the heath, camera with long lens in hand, at 8.30am when a bird watcher approached from the other direction. "Have you come to see Colin?" he cheerily asked and, on seeing the look of puzzlement on my face, added "Colin the Cuckoo". I had not heard of Colin the Cuckoo, but the man politely informed me that Colin had been performing for all comers at the nearby Parish Meadow for the last seven years, where a feeding station had been set up for him. If I hurried I should be able to get some great photos! Unable to look a gift horse in the mouth I headed for the field (fortunately I could remember where it was, having visited a few times on RSPB trips many years ago). Sure enough, when I got there I could see a group of perhaps a dozen photographers, socially distancing (of course) in a semi-circle around a group of logs and branches: the feeding station. They seemed very close to the feeding station - surely no cuckoo would have the nerve to come that close? I sat and waited a couple of metres behind them: they seemed to know each other and appeared confident that Colin would appear. In the next half hour we heard cuckoos calling and saw two of my target species (woodlark and redstart), but no cuckoo. Then a lady walked across the field carrying what appeared to be the bottom end of a silver birch tree and plonked it on the ground by the side of the other logs and branches. She spread a few waxworms across the feeding site, remarking that Colin loved waxworms and these would bring him in. No sooner had she joined us in the semicircle than in flew Colin, perched on the log and proceeded to spend the next 15 minutes devouring waxworms and other live food whilst a few thousand photographs were taken! What an amazing sight and how lucky I was to have discovered, admittedly only after seven years, Colin the cuckoo! A few of my images are shown below. They probably pale in comparison to those of the others, as well as those of the countless keen amateur and professional photographers who have visited the site over the years, but they are still mine! When I got home I searched the internet and found several references to Colin. I wonder how many other summer visitors become tame enough to visit feeding stations like this and how many birds that I would love to see and photograph 'close up' are visiting feeding stations around the country, unknown to me. Finally, I wonder what percentage of cuckoo photographs that appear in the national media, wildlife magazines etc. are of Colin?!

Colin the Cuckoo, Thursley Common, 19 May

Colin the Cuckoo, Thursley Common, 19 May

Colin the Cuckoo, Thursley Common, 19 May

Before I left Thursley I finally managed to get some images of downy emerald dragonflies in flight, at the Moat Pond. These dragonflies are quite rare nationally and, unlike many other dragonflies, they never rest on low vegetation, instead flying up into the higher branches of the trees surrounding the pond. Brilliant emerald dragonflies, which are on the wing later in the year, do the same thing, so my only option was to try to photograph them in flight - something that I have previously failed to do. However, on this occasion several males were flying around, chasing each other out of territories. I also saw one or two females. The males occasionally hover in mid air and, after many attempts, I managed to get an 'ok' shot of one doing this (below). On the way back from Thursley I called in at nearby Oaken Wood, where I was able to add wood white to my butterfly list.

Downy Emerald Dragonfly in Flight, Thursley, 19 May

Two days later I was on my travels again, making my first visit to the coast for two months. I parked at Cley (tricky, because all car parks and some roads and pull-ins had been closed and/or cordoned off to discourage visitors) and did a walk, along the shingle beach and various tracks, to Kelling Quags, where the previous day's woodchat shrike had gone but the female Montagu's harrier could still be (distantly) seen. Other birds seen on the walk included short-eared owl (Gramborough Hill) and little and sandwich terns. I was also lucky to see both 'our' ringed plover and the darker, Scandinavian race of Ringed Plover. The latter were part of a migratory flock of birds, passing east along the shore line, which included summer-plumaged sanderling and a single dunlin. The image below shows all three species in flight: note that the sanderling has been cloned in from a separate image, taken a few moments earlier. Surprisingly the East Bank at Cley was very quiet, with no sign of bearded tits, although plenty of reed, sedge and Cetti's warblers were singing in the reeds.

Sedge Warbler, Cley, 21 May

Ringed Plovers, Dunlin and Sanderling, Between Salthouse and Cley, 21 May

I called in briefly at Hillbrow in Letchworth to see the small blue butterfly colony on the 24th. The upper field had become quite 'shrubby' and few butterflies were seen there, but further down by the railway embankment several butterflies were on the wing, including maybe 20 small blues.

Small Blue, Letchworth, 24 May

Common Malachite Beetle on Ox-eye Daisy, Letchworth, 24 May

On the 26th I made my annual summer trip to Bempton Cliffs and Flamborough Head in Yorkshire, in order to see and photograph the gannets and auks there. I parked at Thornwick Bay and walked along the cliffs to RSPB Bempton, encountering puffins, guillemots, razorbills, shags, lots of gannets, rock pipits, corn buntings, tree sparrows and wall butterflies amongst commoner wildlife along the way. The weather was perfect and the walk invigorating. Lots of photographs were taken! The day trip involved 400 miles of driving and an 8 mile walk. With current 'lockdown' rules in place this is likely to be my only trip of the year to see breeding sea birds - I will probably have to give The Farne Islands a miss.

Gannetry at Bempton, 26 May

Puffins near Thornwick Bay, 26 May

Razorbill near Thornwick Bay, 26 May

On the 30th I made my first visit to Bentley Woods (Wiltshire) for several years. My target butterflies were pearl-bordered, small pearl-bordered and marsh fritillaries. I saw and photographed three marsh fritillaries here (all unfortunately rather tired specimens) and saw a few small pearl-bordered fritillaries on the wing, but I failed to see the rarest of the three, the pearl-bordered fritillary. On the way back I stopped off for a couple of hours at Denny Wood in the New Forest - an area I know well through having led RSPB Local Group trips there. No pearl-bordered fritillaries were seen here either, but I was entertained by the antics of the broad-bodied chaser dragonflies at a couple of the pools here. At the first pool a male spent his time either chasing a four-spotted chaser dragonfly or mating with a female broad-bodied chaser. The mating process occurred on the wing with amazing aerial prowess and speed and within a few seconds the female (pictured in flight below) was laying eggs in the water. Stranger things were going on at the second pond, where a male chaser appeared to mate with a female, which then duly hovered above the surface of the pond, apparently laying eggs. However, my photographs of this dragonfly appeared to show that it was another male, albeit a rather worn looking individual. What was going on here?!

Marsh Fritillary, Bentley Woods, Wiltshire, 30 May

Female Broad-bodied Chaser in Flight, New Forest, 30 May