Thursday 18 July 2024

The Franklin's Gull in London 16th July 2024

On Saturday afternoon, the 13th of July, a first summer Franklin's Gull was discovered at the outfall of the Crossness Water Treatment Works which lies by the River Thames near Erith in Kent.

The outfall attracts huge numbers of mainly Black headed Gulls that come to feed on the tiny food particles discharged by the large volume of water being expelled from the pumping station into the Thames.

Franklin's Gull breeds in the central provinces of Canada and adjacent states in the northern USA and migrates to spend the winter in Argentina, The Caribbean, Chile and Peru.It has been recorded 86 times in Britain and 19 times in Ireland. 

In London it has only been recorded once before, again at Crossness in April 2000.

I was occupied for most of the weekend and the following Monday so Tuesday would be the first day I could go if I wished. I had however severe reservations about making the trip as to get to Crossness from Oxfordshire is a real pain. It either entails crossing London from west to east and having to  pay the congestion charge and putting up with horrendous stop start  traffic or take an enormous circuitous route via motorways around London which almost doubles the mileage and journey time but at least going this way you keep on the move.

I have been to Crossness once before to see a Bonaparte's Gull feeding at this very same outfall.That was in June 2018 and I recall the journey being a complete nightmare and when, with difficulty we finally got there, it entailed over a mile long walk along the Thames Path to access the outfall.

Having already seen three Franklin's Gulls in Britain I was happy to let this one pass.

Here are the three I have already seen in Britain:

The first was, remarkably, at my local Farmoor Reservoir in Oxfordshire, that is when it used to have birds! It was in the gull roost from the 17th to the 28th of August 2002 as it moulted its flight feathers.

My second was in March 2007 at Lelant in West Cornwall.

The third was also in a gull roost at Ibsley Water in Hampshire on the 1st of November 2014.

I spoke to Mark who lives in the next village to mine and he was keen to go having never seen a Franklin's Gull and as he offered to drive this put a different complexion on matters. He too could only go on Tuesday so we set this as the day when we would go. 

I suggested we relax in the meantime and see if the gull remained over the coming days and if it did, once we heard news of it on Tuesday, which should be reasonably early, we would set off for Crossness.

The gull was seen regularly on both Sunday and Monday, the last report of it on Monday being at 7.30pm and I went to bed that night content we would be going to Crossness on Tuesday morning. I even suggested to Mark we delayed our departure until 9am so we would miss the worst of the traffic. 

Tuesday arrived and I checked Birdguides at 7.30am but there was no report of the gull.I re-checked at 8am and again there was nothing about the gull.I called Mark and we discussed what to do.We agreed to leave it until 9am but Mark later sent me a text saying 

Let's take a chance and go

Mark came to my house as agreed at 9am and we had a coffee.There was still no positive report of the gull at Crossness but chatter on social media suggested it  was most likely somewhere nearby and could appear at the outfall at any moment

Now here is a familiar quandary that assails us twitching folk.Stick or bust is I believe the common parlance for the situation we now found ourselves in.

I was confident that the gull would turn up at Crossness at some point in the day but Mark, less used to this kind of situation began to waiver, especially when checking the weather forecast which predicted a good chance of rain.

In the end we agreed a compromise.

Let's go to Farmoor and if it comes on Birdguides while we are there we can set off immediately I suggested

On arriving at Farmoor, the reservoir was at its most depressing with virtually no birds to see. Just the usual scruffy Mallards, a  gaggle of Greylag Geese, Coots and one Black headed Gull that flew off. Meeting Phil on the causeway we retired to the cafe, telling him about the gull and how we had been  all set to go but it looked like it was not there.

We sat with our coffees and chatted, glumly looking out to the bleak waters of the reservoir.Almost without thinking I checked my phone expecting very little but instead learnt the gull had recently  flown in to feed at the outfall and was -

Showing well !!

It was 11am

It's back Mark. Let's go, a lifer awaits you!

Still uncertain Mark was dragged along in the wake of my new found enthusiasm and we boarded his Landrover Discovery and set forth for distant Crossness.

In the rush we had not really thought things through and dithered about which route to take.In the end we made the wrong choice and ended up crossing London which was predictably a complete and utter driving nightmare.Traffic hell. To add to our woes  Mark's car fell outside the ULEZ parameters and by going across the centre of London it meant we also had to pay the Congestion Charge. For once I managed to master the technology on my phone and paid both charges online.

Three hours later, frazzled and edgy from all the frustrations of the car journey from hell we drew up to a kerb in Lytham Close, as instructed by Birdguides, and prepared to walk along the adjacent Thames Path for half a mile which would bring us to the outfall at Crossness.

Did I mention a sewage outfall? You could hardly mistake it as a malodorous sickly sweet pong hung on the air and got ever stronger as we headed for the outfall.There was no escaping it.The River Thames was right by the path but the tide was a very long way out so vast banks of glistening mud stretched away from us to the distant river, currently a shining ribbon whilst on the far shore, strange shaped cargo vessels were moored alongside an ugly industrial landscape which would be depressing were it not for the romance of the river.

Our view of the river from the outfall after the tide had come in.Note the large number of gulls dotted on the water

We met a birder coming our way along the path.

Please let him say it's there and showing well I muttered to Mark

On enquiring of the gull we were told it had been at the outfall but had just flown off in our direction

Keep an eye on the river it will be somewhere along here we were told

Considering there were about a thousand gulls scattered over the acres of exposed mud it was not an enticing option.

Come on Mark we may as well wait at the outfall.It's bound to return there 

Rose ringed Parrakeets screeched from some nearby poplars which pleased Mark as he could add them to his year list  

On getting to the unoffical viewpoint that overlooks the outfall we found four other birders looking forlornly over a retaining wall at hordes of frenzied Black headed Gulls below, swimming mesmerisingly back and fore, round and round at the perimeter of the outfall, picking morsels from the churning water.

The sewage outfall

I realised that two of the birders were friends from Oxfordshire.They too had got here just after the gull had flown off.

For the next half an hour we scanned the hundreds of gulls paddling below us but saw nothing to get excited about. All were Black headed Gulls of various ages with a good number of juveniles amongst them. A Common Sandpiper bobbed and jinked along the shore below and a Little Egret stood on the mud, head sunk into its shoulders.

It's wearisome constantly scanning highly active, swimming and flying gulls but there is no alternative. You can never  relax as the Franklin's could slip in un-noticed at any time with so many gulls coming and going from the feeding throng.

Scan, scan and scan again but still without the desired result.

The weather up to now had been warm and sunny, warm enough to discard  jumpers and jackets but large dark grey clouds were looming and soon would be over us. The sun duly disappeared and the first spot of rain fell, heralding a prolonged shower.We sought shelter under some elder bushes and waited for it to pass.Twenty minutes saw the rain begin to lessen but it was still overcast with little sign of the sun returning.

Bored and frustrated with doing nothing I went back to the wall while.the others remained under the bushes, sheltering until the last of the rain departed.

I re-commenced scanning the feeding gulls below me. Methodically starting with the gulls to my right, but had hardly started when I saw-.

The Franklin's Gull!

A jolt of adrenalin and excitement pulsed through me.There is no better feeling for a birder believe me. 

It was swimming amongst the Black headed Gulls, picking food from the water's surface.There was no mistaking it, the dark grey upperparts were what first caught my eye, so obvious especially as it was amongst the much paler grey backs of the Black headed Gulls.Its head still retained a black hood although mottled white between eye and bill, chin and throat, looking a bit like a dog's muzzle that becomes grizzled in old age.A black bill and white eye crescents added to the identification as if that were needed 

I shouted to the others

It's here! I've got it! The Franklin's!

A concerted rush to my side ensued and I gave directions as best I could which was not easy with so many gulls and so few landmarks. Eventually three wooden posts and an unlikely Moorhen came to the rescue as pointers to its position on the water and everyone managed to get on it 

It then flew towards us, settling on one of the posts, close and almost bang in front of where we stood. 

It remained here for a minute or two before being chivvied off its post by a juvenile Black headed Gull and then flew around before settling further out at the back of the feeding gulls.

No matter. Everyone had seen it and really well when it was on the post.Mark had another lifer and I my fourth Franklin's Gull in Britain.

It swam around feeding for the next fifteen minutes but at quite a distance and  despite our hopes it would come closer eventually rose from the water and flew upriver and disappeared from sight.

We learned later it had joined a flock of loafing gulls on some rocks a few hundred metres upriver but you could not get to see it due to a large concrete wall between the Thames Path and the river obscuring any chance of viewing it.

I waited until almost 7pm at the outfall but it never returned.

We went home the long way round via the Dartford Tunnel and got home at 10pm.

Wednesday 17 July 2024

A Trio of Helleborines 15th July 2024

In this so far dreadful wet summer any chance of cheering myself up was not to be ignored.Today I was taking up a very kind invitation from Duncan D to join him so he could show me three species of helleborine, Broad leaved, Green flowered and Narrow lipped, all of which would be new for me.

Peter, my erstwhile orchid twitching companion came with me as he also had only seen Broad leaved Helleborine before.

On a mild yet depressingly grey morning we headed for Duncan's house in Cheltenham, a forty five minute drive over The Cotswolds. On arriving just before our agreed meeting time of 10am Duncan was already waiting for us at his front gate. The weather forecast was not very encouraging in that rain was predicted to arrive by noon and already intermittent spots of rain were hitting the car windscreen.

It was not the time to hang about so we set off without delay, heading deeper into rural Gloucestershire and coming to rest in a layby near Painswick.

Duncan pointed out our first target before we had left the car. Broad leaved Helleborines, a dozen or more of varying heights growing close to one another on an unremarkable bank rising up from the road. If so inclined we need not have got out of the car they were so near and obvious. Well obvious if you knew what to look for but having had them pointed out to us we got out of the car and set about photographing them as the rain became a little more persistent

Growing on this bank under overhanging bushes by a busy road they were  far removed from the exotic,charismatic image that one associates with the word orchid.

A very understated orchid, a very British orchid if you like, an appreciation of its intrinsic delicate beauty requiring some cerebral effort and contemplation to be realised. There is  no evidence of the rich colours and flamboyancy  I have seen in the tropical orchids of South America for example  but nonetheless they impart that indefinable sense of satisfaction and achievement one acquires at having seen them, innocuous though they were in their mundane habitat

With obvious broad and ribbed green leaves that spiral around the stem, some of the plants here stood quite tall, with the flowers that had opened showing a lip that was dull pink with a distinctive dark brown centre cradled by pointed green sepals. Plants that are more shaded are said to have flowers that are more green.

Most were yet to bloom but a few were just commencing coming into flower and maybe it will be even more rewarding to return in a week or so to see them all in full bloom.

They are not rare and have been described as widespread and common, growing in woodlands but, as they were here, also to be found on road and track verges where there is adequate sunlight.They have even been discovered in town gardens and in Glasgow, for instance, it is said to be relatively common on wasteground.

We took our time photographing and enjoying them and once satisfied we followed Duncan to a narrow track that led up the bank and onwards at a steep angle up the hillside.

It was now raining steadily but we remained undeterred as we passed a wealth of downland flora. A swathe of purple Betony heads roved across the bank to our left, the purple flowers beloved of butterflies remained untroubled due to the weather with only a lone bee chancing the rain to plunder their pollen.The purple colouration of the multitude of heads in the grass a natural impressionist carpet of colour.

Next came an increasingly scarce plant in the form of Dyer's Greenweed, its lurid yellow pea like flowers clustered on upright stems and looking unfeasibly bright in the dull conditions.I confess to never having heard of it but here it was and very striking it was too. Apparently the yellow flowers were once used for dying fabric yellow, hence the name.

We carried on as did the rain. I  could feel it matting my hair but we were on our way to see the much rarer Green flowered Helleborine so something as innocuous as light rain was hardly going to stand in our way. Duncan had found these helleborines himself and we were told to be really careful when we got to where they were growing, as they blended so well with the grass in which they grew and were quite small, almost insignificant, so being less obvious could be unwittingly crushed by a careless foot.

Arriving on a plateau Duncan pointed them out, a small colony of about ten in a slight depression and most were, as Duncan had said, very small but two were more sizeable. Again it was their rarity that provided that addictive frisson of excitement rather than their appearance and colour, both of which were superficially unremarkable. 

The flowers had a delicate beauty and had just begun to open. The flower buds, that can number up to twenty, hang individually downwards from a thin stalk, are green and pointed and barely open to reveal a paler green interior with a white lip.

The rain continued but we crouched under a birch, which provided some shelter from the rain, photographing and appreciating these much desired helleborines.

When it was time to leave them we carefully circumvented the small depression where they grew to avoid trampling any and departed downhill. The rain continued, light but annoying.

Duncan pointed out some Broad leaved Everlasting Pea, a blousy spectacular pink  but as he said probably a 'fence hopper' i.e not a native plant.The last time I saw this plant was on the Sussex Downs above Brighton when I went to see the Long tailed Blue butterflies that occur there every year and come to the Everlasting Pea to nectar.

Gently descending a track, still in the light rain we stopped to admire pink versions of Pyramid Orchids reminding me of those pink carnations men wore in buttonholes of white dinner jackets back in the day. 

Duncan found a roosting Marbled White, clinging fast to a thin stem of grass as the rain gently fell. Close up through the camera lens we could see one, possibly two tiny red mites attached to its head.

Eventually the track led us into some beech woodland where it was sheltered from the rain which had begun easing anyway. 

On a dull day such as this it was gloomy but here was where we would see our third and last helleborine - Narrow lipped Helleborine. A bank rose steeply to our right and near the top grew our prize.

Narrow lipped Helleborines grow on calcareous soil on steep wooded slopes where the soil is thin and shun sunlight, liking deep shade in ancient woodlands of mainly beech They are now scarce and declining due to loss of habitat from woodland being cleared and conifers being planted. Nowadays they are only found in the southern part of England from Worcestershire southwards.

There were only two of them here and Duncan told us that there had been more but the tops had been nibbled away by what he thought were deer.

To protect the remaining two he had surrounded them with twiggy branches to prevent the deer getting to them.We clambered up the bank to get close and took some photos although in truth it was far too dark for our cameras, made even worse by the dull weather but we did what we could.

Frankly it was exhilerating to see this now rare helleborine which, just like the others we had viewed this morning, was understated and insignificant in appearance but a joy to behold nonetheless.

Like the Green flowered it was pale green, the buds partially opening.The leaves are broad,yellowish green and droopy, growing on a thin stalk.The small flowers are pendulous and set all around the stem and are predominantly green, the sepal and petals being long and pointed, the lip whitish green.

So that was our helleborine treat done and dusted, all courtesy of Duncan. By way of a thank you we retired to a pub and bought Duncan lunch before driving him home.

However one more pleasant surprise lay in store for us close to Duncan's home

Have you ever seen Ivy Broomrape he enquired

Neither of us had.

Turn here and  park over there

I did as instructed and there on the other side of the road was a mass of ivy with the reddish brown spikes of the broomrape rising through and above the ivy leaves.

To all extents they looked like plants that had run their course for this year but on looking closer inconsequential dull pink flowers and buds yet to open were still visible at the tips of some of the spikes

You would hardly give them a second glance,certainly not in a road like this but thanks to Duncan they had not gone unnoticed. We duly did the honours with our cameras, watched by slightly bemused firemen standing beside their fire engine attending some minor emergency.

A truly life affirming morning and many thanks yet again to Duncan for his generosity of spirit and time.

Sunday 14 July 2024

Orchid Conundrums of the Marshy Kind 11th July 2024

Marsh Fragrant Orchid

My orchid education continues

Well, to a certain extent!

Peter called on Tuesday to tell me he had obtained permits to visit two of Hampshire Wildlife and Isle of Wight Trust's reserves near Basingstoke.

The reserves in question were Mapledurwell Fen and Greywell Moors Fen, both being lush and relatively wet fens.The former definitely requiring wellingtons to traverse, the other not so much.

Now here comes the difficult bit. Peter explained we were going to see Marsh Fragrant and Southern Marsh Orchid. All well and good as I had definitely not knowingly encountered a Marsh Fragrant Orchid before. However the group of orchids in the genus Dactylorhyza  to which Southern Marsh Orchid belongs are notorious for posing one of the more difficult identification tests  due to their tendency to readily hybridise with one another and with Marsh Fragrant which is in another genus.Gymnadenia This results in such a degree of complexity that it often prevents reliable identification and the parenting of such plants can only be guessed at. It requires expert knowledge to identify the orchid involved and even the experts can be flummoxed by some hybrids,so for a relative novice such as myself such a situation would prove a daunting prospect to tackle, if at all. 

As if this was not enough the Hampshire Wildlife Reserves Officer told us that Pugsleys Orchid, a very rare subspecies of Southern Marsh Orchid grew in Mapledurwell Fen but the latest official taxonomic pronouncement is that Pugsleys does not occur in England south of a line drawn from The Severn to The Wash and that any orchid thought to be this form found south of that line is now a subspecies  of Southern Marsh Orchid called schoenophila.

Rather than get in a tizz I decided that I would concentrate on the two main orchids and leave the minutiae of hybrid and subspecies identification for another day.Worrying about such differences would to my mind take a lot of the pleasure out of the day. Others may differ which is understandable but for now it is beyond my capabilities so best to leave well alone until I have studied more about the subject and feel more confident.

Our orchid day commenced with an early start at 7am to avoid the rush hour traffic around Oxford with our first destination being Mapledurwell Fen that lies close to the M3 motorway and the large conurbation of Basingstoke. 

For once it was a beautiful day, sunny and warm as we headed southwards to Hampshire.

Mapledurwell Fen, we were informed on our permit, is a three hectare area of wet fen, sandwiched between the large car park of the brilliantly named Conkers Garden Centre and a building site for new homes and  our permit told us access could be gained through a metal gate by entering a supplied four digit code to unlock the gate.It sounded so simple but wasn't as it took some time to find the gate, well hidden from the road down a bank of thick vegetation and when we did locate the gate it was obvious it had not been opened for months if not years and there certainly was nowhere to enter a code.Huh!

I surveyed the fen, a dense mass of tangled rampant vegetation that in places near the gate was almost neck high. Daunting but someone had to go in and find if this was the correct location.

This surely must be it  Peter. I'll climb the gate and go into the fen and see if there are any orchids. Wait here and I will come back and report

Gingerly climbing over the metal gate I entered the fen forcing my way through rushes, sedge and other  riparian vegetation at its summer lushest.

I found an uncertain corridor beaten through the burgeoning vegetation by a previous visitor and following this I made a  reconnoitre through the wet tangle in search of any orchids. At first it looked the most unlikely of places to find any but once I had forced a way through the thickest vegetation I could see that the part of the fen furthest from me was not so lush and more open, so slowly made my way there, finding pink Ragged Robins and tall, purple headed Marsh Thistles on the way but still no orchids. Almost at the furthest limit I came across a good number of orchids scattered amongst the rushes and sedge. Many were fighting their way through the almost overwhelming fen vegetation but there they stood, defiant and tall with large heads of varying shades of purple pink magnificence.

Southern Marsh Orchid

The Southern Marsh Orchids were obvious, you could call them robust, for their variable and impressive heads either towered above those rushes and sedge which had been flattened and beaten down by the previous days of wind and rain or remained half hidden but defiant in the rushes that enveloped them. Some had passed their best but others were in prime condition, standing resolutely on a single, long green stalk.

Southern Marsh Orchids

I returned to collect Peter and we made our way out to the orchids and set about photographing them. I found a Fragrant Marsh Orchid amongst the more numerous Southern Marsh and would like to say I did this by acute observation but achieved my identification  by bending to sniff the purple head and being rewarded by its sweet smell. Easy! Closer inspection did show it had narrower leaves than a nearby Southern Marsh Orchid and to my eyes it and the others of its kind I think I found seemed to consistently be a paler shade of pink than the Southern Marsh Orchids that shared the fen with them.

Marsh Fragrant Orchids

We spent a happy hour wandering through what was akin to a mini jungle of rush, sedge, grasses and areas that were wet underfoot.No one came to join us and it was as if we were in an alternative world, hidden by the waist high vegetation from so called civilisation that lay all around us beyond the fen's boundary hedge. 

Peter in action

We found Marsh Helleborines too.Their flowers can be quite variable in colour and some of the ones here appeared paler than the normal reddish brown although not as white as the variety ocroleuca which completely lacks the red brown colours of the commoner form. They are not particularly tall plants the tallest ones here standing no more than thirty centimetres high, coyly raising their flowering stalks amongst and through the rushes, each with its fragile cargo of pale flowers.

Marsh Helleborine

We took a last look around and our scan revealed some previously unobserved orchids in bud, almost invisible amongst the grass and rushes.Their flower spike came to a distinct point and we identified them as Marsh Fragrant and speculated that their pointed tops might be a way of distinguishing them from Southern Marsh Orchids which, to our eyes at least, tend to have more rounded tops.

Emergent Marsh Fragrant Orchids

In a flight of fancy I wondered if they might even be the Southern Marsh subspecies schoenophila that has replaced Pugsleys but honestly I did not have the skill or knowledge to tell. Hopefully one day I will.

The human condition  that everything must have a name  put to it and be classified has I suppose resulted in the confusing taxonomy concerning these and other related orchids. The ongoing discussion and changes are both interesting and stimulating I accept but standing here in the middle of this, the Hants Trust's smallest reserve, the sun warm on my face, chest high in rushes and marshland vegetation and surrounded by many magnificent native wild orchids was, to me rewarding in far more ways than if I had identified everything.

Content that we had made the most of our time here we returned to Conkers car park and availed ourselves of a rather good coffee in the  garden centre's cafe before moving onto our second reserve.

Our next destination was Greywell Moors Fen where we  would find more of the same orchids but in much greater numbers as there were meant to be hundreds of both species as well as many Marsh Helleborines, including the white variety ocroleuca, which although not particularly rare would be new to me and Peter. 

Located on the outskirts of the genteel village of Greywell in attractive rural surroundings, we concentrated on the northern part of the thirteen hectare reserve. After some confusion, as the reserve extends on both sides of the road and inevitably we tried the wrong side first, we found the entrance to the northern part of Greywell Fen behind Southeast Water's pumping station. Again access was via an unmarked metal gate, although we did not have to climb it this time as it was unlocked and immediately we passed through we were in similar surroundings to Mapledurwell Fen.

As earlier we followed an obvious track through the rich vegetation made by a volunteer doing a survey of the number of orchids and he pointed out the white form of Marsh Helleborine which both of us were pleased to see so early on our visit.

Marsh Helleborines - the white variation ocroleuca 

After a photography session with the white helleborine we followed the trail northwards, passing through an open wooden gate  to come across a veritable sea of Marsh Helleborines and a good number of Marsh Fragrant Orchids. Personally I have never seen Marsh Helleborines in such profusion as here.

There must have been well over a few hundred and the number must have far exceeded this over the entire northern part of the reserve.Walking further we came to a large dry reed bed and off to the right was a mix of both Marsh Fragrant and predominantly Southern Marsh Orchids with possibly some  hybrids amongst them.

Marsh Fragrant Orchids


Southern Marsh Orchids

The number of orchids at Greywell was one of the largest congregations I have ever seen, the large purple heads of the Southern Marsh Orchids dominating the scene as they stood statuesque in loose groups amongst the gently waving grasses. Groups of Marsh Helleborines were also growing amongst them although in much smaller numbers and we found one or two more of the white variety here as well

By early afternoon we felt we had done sufficient justice to the orchids of these two reserves and thanks must go to the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Trust and its volunteers for looking after these two reserves. It is nice to know they are protected for posterity and will remain as such for anyone with an interest to come and enjoy them.