Saturday, 2 July 2022

The Sultan of Morocco 30th June 2022

Sultan of Morocco is an almost forgotten name from the past for the Purple Emperor butterfly which flies in England from June to July. This epithet, along with another, His Imperial Majesty (H.I.M) reflect just how much this magnificent insect is revered by butterfly enthusiasts both ancient and modern! Matthew Oates, who is indisputably the premier enthusiast and devotee of the Purple Emperor uses H.I.M to this day when referrring to his beloved Purple Emperors. 

Personally Emperors, for me, are without doubt the top butterfly when it comes to our fifty nine species of native butterfly. They are one of the largest and most powerful fliers of them all. Enigmatic, unpredictable, contrary, frustrating, infuriating, charismatic, these are all adjectives that are applicable to the Purple Emperor. Males are fearless and will attack anything that comes into their orbit as they sit high in an oak tree guarding their territory. Even birds and cars are not immune but such antagonism often proves fatal to the butterfly.

To see one you must go to a wood that contains a mix of oak and sallow and there are now plenty of woods that fit this bill. Emperors, although still highly elusive are now easier to find and see, as joy of joys they are expanding their range and increasing in numbers after a long period of decline and it is well worth looking for it anywhere in our southern and midland counties that contain suitable habitat.

It may well take some time to see one and often there will be disappointment and frustration but the sense of achievement and delight when you finally do connect with one is immeasurable. They spend a large amount of their time sitting in or flying over the tops of trees but will also come down to feed on the ground, when they can be remarkably tame and spend anything up to half an hour imbibing minerals from all manner of unsavoury items such as horse droppings and dog faeces.

Magnificent in appearance, its feeding habits can be far from regal at times.

The beautiful purple colouring on the wings of the male can only be seen from certain angles.Often when it first lands the wings appear dull brown with prominent white markings but as the butterfly moves the light refracts and suddenly there is the flash of magnificent colour that without fail brings a gasp of sheer wonder and a surge of exultation.

This morning I made a trip to Bernwood Forest which straddles the border of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.The forest has always been my go to destination to see this lovely insect.  It was my first visit since covid struck two years ago, bringing a long deferred chance to renew my acquaintance with this most sought after butterfly. 

I left home in brilliant sunshine but soon light clouds began to obscure the sun and optimism and enthusiasm slowly faded just like the sun. I knew I would be highly unlikely to encounter an Emperor in such conditions.

Neverthless I was two thirds of the way to Bernwood and so decided to carry on regardless. Maybe the sun would prevail despite the weather forecast stating to the contrary. The forecast has been wrong before after all. It was my only hope.

Arriving in the forest car park comparatively late at 1030, I had avoided the morning onslaught of dog walkers, the scourge of butterfly seekers here and the main track from the car park was deserted by both a human and canine presence. This track is bordered by oak and sallow is one of the best places to wait for an Emperor to appear but it is also dog walker central and butterflies on the ground, such as a feeding Emperor, and dogs, often uncontrolled, do not make happy companions.

Since covid, matters have become worse and there are more dogs now than ever before, even professional dog walkers are now bringing multiple dogs to use the track. However today it was pleasantly  quiet, maybe the weather, and it being mid week and late morning were all factors contributing to the fact I was on my own.

Exiting the car I discovered a blanket of cloud above me with the odd patch of blue promising a chance of brief sun. This was not good but I followed my familiar routine of checking the oaks in the car park. Nothing doing. I walked a couple of hundred metres down the track from the car park to a crossroads of sorts where two rides branched off either side of the main track as it continued onwards downhill.

This, from past experience, is as good a place as any to stand and check the surrounding oaks and sallows as it also allows one to look back up the track towards the car park. An Emperor can appear anywhere here and frequently does.

The weather was not propitious and I held little hope of success. Even the humble and profuse Ringlets and Meadow Browns had hunkered into the long grass.There was not a butterfly to be seen. A short burst of weak sunshine stimulated some to emerge from the grass but then the sun went in again and the butterflies hid.

I fiddled with my phone, checking messages and spoke to a couple of friends while hoping another spell of transitory sunshine might come my way. As I stood, phone in hand a large butterfly flew low, erratically and at high speed around me. Once, twice it circled, going so fast it was difficult to follow. It careered around me in another tight circle and disappeared. I knew instantly that it was an Emperor, no other butterfly flies quite the way an Emperor does, brazen and spectacular, but had I missed it? Was this to be my only sighting, an enticing brief encounter that would leave me feeling cheated? Seconds later it re-appeared,flying almost at ground level and at speed above the stony track, before settling on the ground.

There it was not two metres from me. Careful now, let it settle and find a food source it is happy with before approaching it closer. I hung back, my excitement and the rush of adrenalin passing through my veins making it hard to curb a natural impulse to rush towards it, as it imperiously paraded around with wings held at a shallow angle above the ground. At this moment it was, to my eyes a large brown butterfly with prominent white markings. Nothing regal apart from its presence.

Unmistakeable in size and behaviour, it stopped to examine a number of likely looking spots with its yellow proboscis, before settling on one that took its fancy. Now fully absorbed and occupied in sucking up minerals from the ground, I knew it would be unperturbed by me or anything else. I gently moved to stand over it.

I manouevred around it to allow the light to refract from its wings from other angles and slowly, like a drawn velvet curtain that delicious, unforgettable purple revealed itself.

His Excellency is alive and well in the forest and I can now look forward to other visits to the forest in the coming days. It will soon be over for another year so best to make the most of it.               

Sunday, 26 June 2022

That Hoopoe in Hertfordshire 25th June 2022

On Tuesday last a lady went out to check on and feed some horses in a paddock at her animal rescue and rehabiliation centre in a village called Hinxton in Hertfordshire and that she runs voluntarily with her husband. She noticed a strange, pinkish coloured bird, its back and wings banded black and white and a head with a pointed crest and  long bill, wandering around in the middle of the paddock vigorously digging its bill into the ground, probing for grubs and worms.

Knowing it was unusual she looked it up in a bird book and correctly identified it as a Hoopoe and soon the bird's presence came to the notice of local birders and subsequently the news was broadcast on social media.

Hoopoes are not a very rare bird in Britain, being more a scarce migrant that does not breed here, but their exotic plumage and outlandish profile are sufficiently extraordinary to attract birders and casual admirers alike. They are irregular wanderers to Britain and can turn up anywhere and in unexpected places. I last saw a Hoopoe on someone's front lawn in an upmarket housing estate in Oxfordshire last year and the year before that another in a grass quadrangle on a technology park in Warwickshire.

They have a huge Old World distribution and are found across most of Africa and much of Eurasia from Iberia to China.

Slightly smaller than a Collared Dove, they have a cinnamon pink body, a long decurved bill and when raised, a spectacular fan like crest.When feeding on the ground they wander about probing the ground energetically and endlessly with their long bill, much as a Starling does. Mark Cocker's description of their flight cannot be bettered when he wrote 'In flight the geometric black and white patterns across the upperparts and the slow motion eloquence of its leisured butterfly action render the Hoopoe unmistakeable.'  

Mark (R), my twitching buddy, lives only a half hour's drive away from the horse sanctuary, in the neighbouring county of  Bedfordshire, and had already visited three times as the bird was confiding and allowed him to photograph it well. He eventually persuaded me that it would be good for me to also make a visit, in his company, on this Saturday. Being an enthusiastic and good photographer Mark wanted to get the best light conditions in which to photograph the Hoopoe and that entailed a 3am start for me to get to his house by 5am and then he would drive us to the small and pleasant village of Hinxton.

The owners of the horse sanctuary, not sure what would happen with news of the bird now broadcast on social media, had erected notices banning any birders from entering their yard and paddock.However the paddock could be easily viewed from a footpath that ran along the far side of the paddock.

Due to his previous visits and supplying the owners with two photographic prints of the Hoopoe, Mark was on very good terms  with them and had been granted special permission to enter the yard and even enter the paddock if he wished. The latter would not be wise as it would undoubtedly upset other birders and would only cause conflict so it was not even considered. After speaking further with the owners they agreed to allow other visiting birders onto their property so everyone was happy.

We arrived at the yard at 6am and walked across to the fence guarding the small paddock currently occupied by two rescued horses and although sunny it was, at this early hour, markedly chilly due to a fresh breeze blowing across the yard. We leaned on a gate and scanned the paddock.There was not a sign of the Hoopoe although it had been seen in the late evening yesterday.

The Paddock

A little downcast and tired due to my early start I scanned the paddock inumerable times hoping the Hoopoe would somehow magically appear. There was another paddock adjacent and this too we scanned regularly but of the Hoopoe there was no trace.

For a considerable period we saw nothing apart from swallows that were flying in and out of a small barn in the yard or feeding a couple of juveniles perched on a fenceline. I was feeling the cold due to my tiredness and actively wondering what else I could find to save the day when, in front of us, flying across the paddock to our right, a bird about the size of a woodpecker, flew in a bounding flight from right to left before us and up into a line of tall conifers on the far side of the paddock.It was the Hoopoe.

But that was it for the next forty five minutes. The Hoopoe, wherever it had perched, was invisible and we had to wait and hope it would eventually fly down to feed in its favourite paddock. Again I was almost at the point of losing faith when it did precisely that, its wings flashing black and white zebra stripes as it settled to sit in the sunshine on the short grass of the paddock.

It was in no hurry and I could almost sense it enjoying sitting quietly in the sun. For a couple of minutes it sat on the ground content, before rousing itself to wander erratically around the middle of the paddock probing and digging for worms. leatherjackets and any other invertebrates it could find. 

On seizing a worm or grub it would give the matter some consideration before tossing its prey up between its open mandibles and swallowing it. 

It was always a little distant in the paddock and Mark told me it might come closer as it had done on the other days but there was little sign of this happening.

Then a lucky break as, alarmed by an overflying Red Kite, it flew to perch in a tree and remained there for some time before flying to the far corner of the second paddock off to our right. The corner it alighted in was right by a hedge that bordered the road. No one else seemed to consider this might present an opportunity to get close to it but I went back out onto the road and walked up the road looking for a suitable opening in the hedge. It looked impenetrable  but my luck held as there was one narrow gap, which miraculously, was exactly adjacent to where the Hoopoe was currently feeding 

It could not see me due to the tangle of twigs, branches and brambles around the gap I had squeezed into and fortuitously there was just room enough for a clean line of sight for my camera and lens through  to the field. I clicked away happily as the Hoopoe probed for its living in the short grass 

Surprisingly no one else had recognised this opportunity and after taking as many photos as I wanted I returned to the yard feeling I had done the Hoopoe justice.

I must mention the generosity of Richard and his wife, the owners of the horse sanctuary. Allowing us and other visiting birders onto their property was a welcome enough gesture but to supply tea, coffee and biscuits as well as chairs to sit on was an almost overwhelming act of kindness. I do hope they make some money for their sanctuary in donations from visiting birders.

Thursday, 23 June 2022

The Great Reed Warbler in Nottinghamshire 22nd June 2022

Unable to sleep, a millon things churning in my head and with reading a book not doing the trick, I rose at 5am, reasoning that some sort of physical activity would take my mind off the cares and worries that steal up on one in the night. I headed for Nottinghamshire where a Great Reed Warbler has taken up territory, since June 4th, in a reedbed at the RSPB's Langford Lowfields Reserve which lies to the southwest of the small Nottinghamshire village of Collingham in the Trent Valley.

Great Reed Warblers are a rare vagrant to Britain (308 records to date) but one or more are recorded annually, with this year delivering another singing male to Snettisham in Norfolk. They are often first identified by their lusty singing and can remain for extended periods in the hope of attracting a mate which is very unlikely. Their breeding areas lie further to the south and east of Britain, in northwest Africa, continental Europe from southern Sweden, Estonia and western Russia to the Mediterranean and east as far as Ukraine and Asia Minor. They spend the winter in tropical Africa from Senegal and Kenya south to northern parts of the Cape Province in South Africa.

Despite the early hour the sun had already broken the horizon on this, the day after the summer solstice. Due to the timing of departure from my home in Oxfordshire I encountered little problem heading northwards on the roads and the day was promising to be fine, hot and sunny. My spirits were immediately lifted at the prospect of fine weather and a rare bird to see and arriving in the small deserted car park at the reserve at 7.30am I found I was the only person there and now feeling good about life.

The walk to the reserve proper takes about twenty minutes, following a narrow dusty track, first through a wood and then bounded by high hedgerows which at various points bower overhead to form a living tunnel of lush greenery. The hedges were alive with birds, warblers mainly. Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Common Whitethroats. A male Blackcap stopped on a branch to let me pass. Its bill full of a blue and black damselfly destined for its young in a nest nearby.

Further beyond the hedgerow, Reed and Sedge Warblers sang from their hiding places in reed fringed lagoons whose waters faithfully reflected a cloud free, blue, morning sky. Here, before and around me, was summer at its most bounteous and a day in which to rejoice at being alive, all cares now forgotten.

Reaching the wooden gate in the hedgerow that grants access to the reserve I could already hear the Great Reed Warbler singing despite it still being over a hundred metres distant. The strength of its voice is extraordinary. Passing through the gate I walked down to the grass track that winds around the main lagoon that lay, glass like, before me.

The reserve itself is a joint project between the RSPB and Tarmac, who were and are extracting sand and gravel from the here. The aim is to create wetland habitat on a grand scale. Initially, once quarrying had ceased in a 35 hectare area it was converted into a reserve of lagoons and large reedbeds with wild flower meadows, scrub and woodland. Further quarrying will take place in succession further along the river valley so the reserve has the potential to grow ever larger.

A gentle breeze blew intermittently but I sensed that today was going to be very warm indeed as I walked the fifty metres of grass track to where the warbler was in full voice.The reeds it has chosen are right by the track separated only by a thick bramble hedge, its white flowers in full bloom and a nectar paradise for bees, butterflies and other insects. 

The reedbed itself hardly looks substantial or extensive enough to be suitable for this larger cousin of our familiar Reed Warbler, being narrow and inconsequential compared to the much larger reedbeds scattered around other parts of the lagoon. However the warbler has decided this is the spot for him and has set up territory here accordingly.

Great Reed Warblers are about a third larger than a Reed Warbler, bulkier and thickset, with more clumsy movements but possess a similar plumage of warm brown upperparts and creamy buff underparts.The throat is pure white, especially noticeable when swollen in song and compared to a Reed Warbler its head is larger in proportion to the body and more strikingly marked with a broad pale supercilium over the eye and a darker line through each eye. Not a striking bird as such but its exceptionally strident song, and the sheer volume of a series of croaking, squeaking notes, make it unmistakeable and impossible to ignore.

I stationed myself opposite where the warbler's song was coming from, looking over the bramble hedge to the reeds just metres beyond and below. I could hear it plainly enough but where was it in the jumble of pale dead reed stems and emerging fresh green blades of reed? Eventually I found it on the far side of the reeds by the lagoon's calm blue waters, perched on a reed stem but very much obscured by other intervening reeds

To get a clear view of it and a decent image was not going to be easy if it remained partially concealed like this. However I had all day to wait if necessary and knew it would move position regularly through the reedbed. It was just a matter of being patient and hoping it would eventually choose to perch somewhere else which was more open. Two hours later and I was still hoping, having only achieved tantalising views of it in the reeds, always partially and frustratingly obscured. 

I was however still on my own with not another living soul anywhere to be seen on the reserve. It looked like it was me and the warbler to the finish.

The sun was now most definitely warming the land and shining on most of the reedbed and this brought about a  change in the warbler's behaviour. The increased warmth and sunlight seemed to embolden it and it showed definite signs of perching higher and more openly.

Through the first three hours it sang constantly, even when preening or chasing insects. It never stopped. A Cetti's Warbler was given short shrift as the Great Reed, espying it from its swaying perch on a reed stem, chased it out of the reedbed and into the hedge behind me, sending the Cetti's on its way with a volley of croaks, gurgles and explosive chattering. Satisfied the Cetti's had got the message it quickly returned to the reed bed and resumed its singing

The song is very, very loud and comes across as a series of hoarse guttural notes, delivered slightly rthymically. and at times  are an almost frog like croaking and at others a series of higher grating squeaks, both repeated over and over. Rarely silent, the song was to be an almost constant accompaniment as it moved through the reeds and there was no mistaking where it was, even when invisible, due to its ceaseless singing.When visible and in full song the rich orange colour of the inside of its wide open bill stood out as it moved its head from side to side.

Finally it began to show itself more  and now, at last, a few opportunities materialised to catch it fully or almost fully in the open. However there always seemed to be a reed head or reed stem to thwart my attempt at a decent image. 

In a way this was no bad thing as it retained my interest although at the same time trying my patience and equanimity to the very limit. Eventually it all came together for a few brief minutes.

That's photographing warblers for you, even ones as large as this magnificent Great Reed Warbler. 

Twenty five minutes drive further north is Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's Potteric Carr Nature Reserve currently blessed with  pair of Black winged Stilts and four young. This is quite a notable event and as I was so close it made sense to go and have a look.

After a rather slower drive than anticipated up the A1 I made it to the reserve and set about the half hour walk to the far end of the reserve where the stilts were viewable from a hide overlooking a shallow flash of water.

I was not disappointed as both adults and their four young were visible, albeit a trifle distantly.The parents birds were very attentive, chasing off anything that came too close to their offspring. This included Little Egrets and an unfortunate Gadwall, with one or the other of the stilts flying at them, calling loudly.

To see these elegant waders with unfeasibly long and delicate pink legs was a nice and unanticipated ending to what had already been an enjoyable day.