Sunday 28 July 2013

I finally get to see the Caspian 28th July 2013

All of us have a UK bird species that seems to be impossible to see for a variety of reasons. No matter how hard one tries, no matter how much effort is put in to achieving a sighting something always seems to arise to thwart one's aims. Two particular species come to mind as far as I am concerned. Penduline Tit and Caspian Tern. As rarities go they are in the amber category, good to see and scarce but not a one off. I could have seen a Penduline Tit with Badger and Andy one winter Saturday earlier this year at Stodmarsh but I had family commitments.They went, they saw it easily and really well and I went on Sunday, envisaging no problems but waited nine hours to no avail. It never showed up and was never seen again. I have still to see one. Similarly Caspian Tern has always turned up when I am duty bound to other prior arrangements and by the time these have been satisfied the bird has long gone. So it was that on Friday I had another chance to get to see a Caspian Tern on UK soil or mud in this particular case. I noted this Caspian Tern seemed to be spending the day happily ensconced at a place called Rudyard Lake which is near Leek on the North Staffordshire/Cheshire border and had established a bit of a routine. I had nothing on for Saturday so resolved to make a bid to see it on Saturday morning if it was still there. 

This was about the best and only chance this year that I was going to have to finally see a Caspian Tern in the UK. I regularly checked the bird alert app. on my phone and it was still at the lake on Friday evening. One final check later in the evening elicited the fact it had flown north from the lake at around eight pm. Popular opinion suggested it usually flew to roost at a reservoir some eight miles distant in nearby Cheshire returniing next morning to Rudyard Lake. I hoped, as per it's routine of the last couple of days, that  it would as predicted come back to the lake on the next morning, so I went to bed, slept soundly and woke at seven next morning. I checked the bird alert update on my phone and bingo! the Caspian Tern had returned to Rudyard Lake. 

I left the house at eight and was at the lake by just after ten. After some navigational shenanigans with the Satnav I reverted to the old ways and consulted the map I had downloaded from the computer last night and found myself driving down a narrow, unsurfaced lane which ended at a small car park. This must be the spot. I walked along a broad track from the car park, completely overhung by trees on both sides forming a green tunnel that was rather pleasant in the warm sunlight, eventually coming to the northern end of Rudyard Lake which is designated as a nature reserve. A few birders were intently looking out onto an area of  dried mud in the middle of which was, unmistakably, a Caspian Tern. A little distant for any decent photo opportunity but a Caspian Tern nonetheless and the main point of my mission accomplished. 

I have seen them in many places around the world but they always thrill me. It's that bill. Huge, hefty and in the case of this individual  bright orange red. The whole tern is front heavy with a bull neck and full breast no doubt to provide a solid support for 'that bill'. It is the very essence of the bird. Almost the size of a large gull it stood on long black legs dwarfing several nearby Black headed Gulls, all of them dozing in the sun. Already in winter plumage with grizzled white and black on it's crown and a highwayman's mask of black from the eyes to the back of it's head,  it regularly opened it's monstrous bill to expose a bright red gape as the warmth of the sun caused it to overheat. Every so often it's head would droop and eyes close as if the heavy bill was just too much to bear but mostly it was ever alert constantly scanning the sky above with cocked head. It took a brief flight around the lake, front heavy with a shallow forked tail and long, gull grey wings before returning to the muddy expanse and loafing gulls at our end of the lake

The muddy area it frequented was liberally scattered with the shells of expired fresh water clams looking like brown stones as they stuck up from the mud. All the birds were almost comatose in the sun and an after party, post breeding atmosphere seemed to permeate them. This is the time of plenty. Long daylight hours and no urgency. It will soon change. High  summer is now upon us all, that dead time when nature metaphorically holds it's breath for a  few weeks, pressaging the slow decline into autumn, shorter days and the struggle to survive.  A flock of Lapwing stood relaxed, quiet and still on the grass with some resting Grey Herons listlessly preening behind them. Two Oystercatchers sat, wings akimbo on the mud, rested and now with no breeding responsibility. A Common Sandpiper and three Little Ringed Plovers were the only waders active as they moved hesitantly along the water's edge with juvenile Pied Wagtails, like children with an excess of energy, calling cheerily and flycatching energetically amongst the clam shells. The Caspian Tern stood half asleep. It was noon. I left it and walked, content and fulfilled, back to the car.I would be home by early afternoon.

Sunday 21 July 2013

New Forest Dragons 21st July 2013

My name, Ewan, translated into Scots Gaelic is Eoghian (pronounced eeooshgun) and in some translations means eternally young. I quite often live up to this by not really acting my age and as far as I am concerned there is nothing wrong in that. I take a childish delight in the natural world about me especially with the prospect of the enticing reward of a Cream Tea at the end of an adventure, so you can imagine how I was feeling as Badger and myself set off yet again for another jaunt in the New Forest, one of my favourite places to visit at any time of the year. 

Usually we are there within an hour and  half but today many other people seemed to have taken to the Motorway and it was nose to tail for a considerable spell as everyone headed for presumably the coast, on a delightful sunny Saturday morning. We finally turned left off a busy road, crossed a cattle grid and we were in the comparative tranquility of the Forest. Our first stop was at a place called Ipley Cross where four roads meet in an area of heathland covered with Bell Heather and Ling. 

Specifically we were looking for a pond on the heath where, courtesy of the estimable Wayne Bull, we knew we had a chance of encountering a scarce dragonfly species - a Black Darter. This would be a new one for both myself and Badger. We arrived at the chosen spot but there was nowhere to park so in the end in desperation we parked on the verge, off the road. I  subsequently got told off for doing this, although there were no notices to this effect, by way of a sticker found on my windscreen when we returned to the car. Apparently parking on the verge is now frowned upon and the sticker advised me of this. There always seems someone all too keen to tell you what you cannot do in this crowded island. Anyway, prior to the sticker we got out of the car and immediately encountered scores of Silver Studded Blues fluttering low over the heather avoiding the strong warm breeze blowing in from the northeast. 

Silver Studded Blues
The tiny butterflies were everywhere, many more males than females, flying up from our feet as we walked towards the distant pond through the heathland. Four Crossbills flew over, identifying themselves with their distinctive chipping calls and a Silver Y moth careered crazily off across the heathland, crash landing into another heather clump. The pond was teeming with dragonflies and damselflies, virtually all concentrating at one shallow muddy end and it was noticeable that when they were not cruising over the water the dragonflies would leave the pond and rest in oases of sun formed by the comparative shelter of the heather clumps. 

Badger videoing a Black Darter in the heather
A Blue Emperor zoomed unchallenged and unassailable around the pond with a number of Black tailed Skimmers demonstrating their usual aeronautical skills. Insect versions of Jump Jets but even more phenomenal in their manoueverability. As our eyes became accustomed to the insects about us we picked out a chunky Broad bodied Chaser, squat, powder blue and compact of body resting on the drying mud margin. Common Blue and Azure Damselflies, forever diffident, ventured no further than the edge of the water with many more remaining in the cover of the grassy and heathery margins, as did a few Common Darters and Four Spotted Chasers. 

Four Spotted Chaser
Common Darter male
Neither of us had seen a Black Darter so were not sure exactly what to look for except that the male was mainly black with yellow markings on the thorax and abdomen.We scanned the dragonflies but could see nothing that fitted the description. Time drifted by. Thirty possibly forty minutes at the most elapsed. I slowly walked the favoured margin of pond and heathery surrounds and after a short while, a small, slender and inconsequential dragonfly flew up briefly from the grasses and heather before settling back on a heather twig. 

Male Black Darter
I looked at it in the binoculars and a black body with  lemon yellow markings and noticeably emerald green eyes confirmed that I had found a male Black Darter. A dragonfly for the connoisseur, of such petite understated elegance and on close examination very smart colouring, it quite took my fancy, and I called to Badger to announce that our quest was now successful. We both respectively took copious photos and video of this little charmer which was very co-operative, allowing close approach and although occasionally moving position, always perching prominently. Sometimes we lost it in the heather when it moved but a quick search always managed to relocate it until eventually it joined the other dragonflies over the water at the edge of the pond. Due to it's unexpectedly small size, dark colouring and the dominance of the other larger dragonflies it was very hard to follow over the water as it was always moving incredibly fast in all directions to avoid harassment and finally we left it having watched it for almost an hour. We walked back through the heather to the car and now, as the air had become warmer, literally hundreds of Silver Studded Blues, possibly thousands, were on the move, fluttering, fragile as tissue but indomitable, into the breeze and settling to warm their wings on the purple heather flowers or sandy heathland soil. 

We moved on to Crockford Bridge where the small moorland stream that flowed under the bridge would hopefully yield up one or more Golden Ringed Dragonflies. In contrast to the Black Darter these are big, bold, unmissable dragonflies, incredibly smart in their black and gold colouring and only slightly smaller than the Blue Emperor. If we saw one there would be no mistaking it. 

The tiny car park near the bridge was empty as we drew in and then walked the short distance back down the road to the stream running under Crockford Bridge.The sun was now well and truly up in the heavens and the heat bore down on the dark green trees and diluted the peaty waters of the moorland stream into a clear, light amber colour. Small shoals of Gudgeon, lit by the water filtered sun shot like a shoal of torpedoes into the cover of the bank at our approach before tentatively re-emerging from their hiding place. 

The stream under Crockford Bridge
We followed the tiny stream's meandering course through the boggy moorland grass and scattered gorse bushes and a Golden Ringed Dragonfly cruised past us and frustratingly disappeared into the gorse. Large Skippers and Gatekeeper butterflies, all orange and brown, flittered onto and around the gorse, settling and opening their wings to the sun. 
Large Skipper

We passed through a small copse and came out on the other side following the stream as it emerged from the trees and into a boggy, acidic moorland with yellow spikes of Bog Asphodel standing sentinel amongst the heather and Cotton Grass. 
Bog Asphodel
It was a sight that gladdened our eyes but even better a Golden Ringed Dragonfly was ovipositing into the aquatic vegetation in the stream, completely oblivious of us. 

Golden Ringed Dragonfly ovipositing with attendant Keeled Skimmer top left
Up and down she pogoe'd, her black and gold body delicately dipping into the clear water countless times and depositing eggs for all her worth. Keeled Skimmers constantly harried her but she ignored them, her sheer size and bulk ensuring the skimmers afforded her a healthy respect. I walked to within a few feet of her. There was no reaction. She had one purpose and that was to concentrate on her role in reproduction. No time to lose. On and on, up and down she dipped, her long, dramatically coloured body held vertical and the tip of her abdomen dip, dip, dipping into the water whilst her black veined wings whirred and shimmered at speed. Egg after egg was deposited until finally it was over and she retired unseen to rest. Keeled Skimmers exhausted by their inquisitive attentiveness to the Golden Ringed Dragonfly's intrusion into their restricted universe rested on the warm earth, their bodies and wings flattened to maximise the recharging of their energies by the warm sun 

Keeled Skimmer male
Keeled Skimmer female
We walked on. Keeled Skimmers were everywhere we looked and there must have been in excess of sixty along and beside the few hundred metres of stream we followed, all busily investigating anything which took their notice. There were many more of the obvious blue bodied males than the less conspicuous yellow bodied females. At times the narrowness of the stream, no more than two feet wide at most and only a few inches deep meant it was lost from view, hidden under the surrounding low growing vegetation but always re-emerging further on. Other Golden Ringed Dragonflies cruised their particular territories further along the stream where it was open to the sky and in the end we counted no less than twelve patrolling the stream and surrounds. 

Golden Ringed Dragonfly
It seemed so strange for such a large dragonfly to inhabit such a restricted environment. One would think, due to their size, they would have looked and felt much more at home over a large lake or more open water but this inconsequential moorland stream, often no more than a trickle was their chosen and obviously favoured habitat.

Beautiful Demoiselles, the males impossibly elegant in their garb of blue green and metallic emerald fluttered their dark wings over the stream like long winged butterflies and shone like green jewels in the sun when they settled. Occasionally an orange winged female would put the males into a frenzy as she fluttered by and then they would settle again awaiting the next chance encounter.

Male Beautiful Demoiselle
Time wore on and we had achieved the satisfaction of finding two much desired dragonflies as well as having a thoroughly enjoyable time. 'Cream Tea Badger?' I enquired, feigning an air of casual innocence as if it was just an after thought but having planned it from the outset. I was confident of an answer in the affirmative and so it was that we made our way via sunlit forest lanes to Acres Down Farm. 

We knew only too well what to expect as we were serial cream tea afficionado's at this particular venue. We manouevred past some cows placidly strolling along, parked in the shade at the end of the forested lane and entered a garden, blousy and richly scented in the full bloom of high summer, seeking a table in the shade. The scents of flowers and aromatic bushes permeated the air and the bright, white afternoon sunlight gave a feeling of timelessness and a glimpse to a bygone age of slower pace and more gentility. The customary extravaganza of scones, jams, cream and reviving tea in a huge brown pot duly arrived. The delight of eating alfresco in warm summer air settled upon us. Good luck Badger my trusty friend. Here's to next time

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Butterfly Sunday Memoriam 16th July 2013

Scorchio! Yet another day of light and warmth lifting my spirit. It's just impossible to be downcast in this prolonged wonderful weather. Determined to make the most of it I was out again at the first opportunity looking this time for White Hairstreaks in the south of Oxfordshire. I was kindly shown this site by Peter who accompanied me and we arrived mid morning at a small area of elms flanking the side of a narrow and virtually traffic free lane with flowering bramble growing in profusion beneath the elms and on the opposite side of the lane. There was already one other hairstreak enthusiast there, otherwise we were alone. He told us he had not seen a hairstreak before we arrived so we spread out the better to cover the small area and increase our chances of seeing one. 

Even by mid morning it was getting uncomfortably hot so I sought the shade of a tree and scanned the brambles from there but without the desired result. Our fellow enthusiast briefly saw a hairstreak but it was gone in an instant and long before we could get to see it. There were plenty of other butterflies. A Peacock, with rich ruby red wings flashing four blue and white eyes on the uppersides, scrambled over the bramble flowerheads slowly flexing it's wings as if to gather in the sun. Gatekeepers fluttered on seemingly endless unsatisfied quests in and out of the bramble leaves together with Ringlets and Meadow Browns. An occasional Marbled White flew down the lane whilst Small Skippers fiddled about in the long grasses growing on the verges and a Small Tortoiseshell lazily inspected some nettles, possibly preparing to lay some eggs. 

Time wore on and the sun increased evermore in intensity. I was by now feeling just a little weary and careworn when a call from our fellow enthusiast further up the lane alerted us to the fact he had found a White Letter Hairstreak. He very kindly came down the lane to meet us and guide us to the spot, a bramble hedge opposite the elms, but by the time we got there in all of less than a minute, it had moved on. We followed the bramble hedge, inspecting the flowers, hoping, and there it was further up the hedge. 

We found it nectaring on a large clump of sunlit, pale purple bramble flowers and in typical fashion showing little obvious concern at our close proximity. As with all hairstreaks it was an understated gem of an insect, very similar on it's undersides to a Black Hairstreak but with an obvious white W on the brown underwings, a subtly different pattern of spotting on the brighter orange band on the lower hindwing and two obviously longer, white tipped tails at the tips of the lower hind wings. It fed unconcernedly, occasionally flitting onto another bramble flower and we watched it for about fifteen minutes before it suddenly flew off up into an elm. We waited awhile but it never returned and we reluctantly accepted that it was gone and unlikely to return. 

It was now noon so we did our best to live up to Noel Coward's Mad Dogs and Englishmen routine and instead of retiring to some shady nook to drowse the afternoon heat away we set off for Bradenham Banks in nearby Buckinghamshire. This is a well known butterfly site but neither of us had been here before so it was very much an open book. Reports of hundreds of Dark Green Fritillaries and slightly lesser numbers of Small Blues gave a definite impetus to our visit. 

Now a small diversion in my narrative, so please indulge me. Over twenty five years ago my wife and I were married in the very old and charming little Unitarian Church in the village of Ditchling which lies just under the north slope of the South Downs in the fair county of Sussex. 

Ditchling Unitarian Church
We were members of the twenty or so congregation and our cottage was just a few yards from the church. Every summer the church would hold a service in July called Butterfly Sunday.They had held this service every year since the early seventeen hundreds and it still goes on to this very day. It is called Butterfly Sunday because originally the worshippers were dissenters from the established churches and those who lived on the southern side of the Downs  had to walk over the Downs to The Unitarian Church in Ditchling. In those less intensively farmed times there was always a host of butterflies to accompany the worshippers as they made their way up and over the steep Downs via Ditchling Beacon and thence down to Ditchling Village.  I got a real feeling of dejavu when we arrived at Bradenham Banks as it is also a huge area of sloping grassland not dissimilar to the South Downs and absolutely teeming with butterflies and native flora. Looking at the vast area of grasses, the sheer variety of wildflowers and butterflies I imagined it must have been a very similar and heartlifting sight and experience for those dissenting worshippers in Sussex all those years ago. The number of butterflies here was just incredible. Dark Green Fritillaries were everywhere settling on Scabious and Knapweed to feed but constantly active, never remaining still for long. 

Dark Green Fritillary
Walking through the grasses and wild flowers, clouds of Marbled Whites, Meadow Browns and Ringlets flew up at my feet. Jinking and bouncing off into the sunlit grasses to seek sanctuary in the further depths of the field. There was a constant procession and movement of insect life as the butterflies urgently went about their lives, spiralling in twos and threes above the waving grasses, feeding on the native flower heads and just making the maximum of the benign weather and the poignantly short time they had to fulfil the final chapter in their brief life as a butterfly. How can such beauty be extinguished in so short a time? But then again it's very transience contributes in no mean manner to it's continued appeal.

Marbled Whites
As a finale we climbed up through another sloping grassy meadow to the edge of some dark green woods, passing through patches of Kidney Vetch, now mainly woolly with seed heads but still with the occasional butter yellow flower, Wild Thyme gloriously pungent as you ran a hand through the leaves, pale blue Scabious, bright yellow Lady's Bedstraw and a host of other wildflowers. On reaching the edge of the wood we followed a sun bleached track running between wood and meadow and sought the tiny and non descript Small Blue amongst the vegetation by the track. At first we could not find any but then Peter found one and as we became accustomed to what to look for we found a good number of them. Miniscule masterpieces almost like a speck of dust and so hard to follow as they flew amongst the grasses and their favourite Kidney Vetch. 

Small Blue female
So our day came to an end and we descended the sloping field and back down to the main path. We never saw another soul in this wonderful place until we were leaving. I was happy but a melancholy settled upon me for a while as I thought of Butterfly Sunday, my former church in Ditchling and my fellow congregationers all those many years ago, also enjoying the butterflies as they followed their hearts over the Downs. I like to think that maybe at Bradenham, just for today, we were united if not physically at least in spirit.

Monday 15 July 2013

Red Veined Dragons and Fun Running Damsels 15th August 2013

Meeting up with Badger in Abingdon at 9am we set off for Southampton. Reason? Four Red Veined Darters had been reported from the boating lake on Southampton Common yesterday. I was amazed as I never knew Southampton had a Common let alone it would attract such a rare migrant dragonfly. Normally RVD's are resident no nearer than southern Europe so this was definitely worth a visit and if seen would be a first for me and Badger. We arrived in Southampton at around 1030, perspiring freely in this continuing glorious and sunny weather and with the temperature rising rapidly. Unfortunately, unknown to us, a Fun Run for Cancer Relief was about to take place on the Common on this very morning. All roads leading to the Common were closed with the predictable ensuing traffic chaos, so after a serious contretemps with the Sat Nav and a tour of various Southampton back streets we abandoned technology, used common sense and just parked as near as possible to the Common and footed it as they say in Zimbabwe.

It wasn't far to go, in fact the Common was very close to where we parked and we entered the Common via a luridly graffitteed subway and then found ourselves surrounded by numerous lycra clad ladies of all ages and all shapes making their way to the assembly point for the Fun Run - apparently the Fun Run was for the fairer sex only and why not!

Thankfully the boating lake was close to where we exited the subway and soon we were walking around the concrete edge of the relatively small and shallow boating lake. The lake itself had the opaque, green consistency of mint sauce, along with the usual accompaniment of discarded lager cans, bottles and various other human detritus. Not promising.

Nonetheless on closer examination the lake surface was teeming with dragonflies of all shapes and sizes going about their business and almost immediately we saw a Red Veined Darter, distant but quite distinctive clinging to a twig in the middle of some lilies in the centre of the lake.

There was only one other dragonfly enthusiast present, a friendly fellow, local to Southampton who walked round to us and told us that  the best spot was on the opposite side of the lake where one was apparently settling on the concrete wall of the lake and allowing close approach. He was not exaggerating. Having walked around the lake we came to the aforementioned sunny spot and a Red Veined Darter answered all our prayers by not only settling on the edge of the lake wall but also on the tarmac pathway around the lake and giving us point blank views. Male Red Veined Darters are apparently territorial and this one by happy chance had decided that it would stake out this particular sunny and warm part of the containing wall and surrounding pathway to the lake. It showed little concern at our close presence and after making regular sorties over the lake always returned to within a few feet of us. At one stage Badger was prostrate on the tarmac getting close up and personal with our four winged friend and no one seemed to consider this exceptional. There were admittedly a few initial strange glances but in true British fashion Badger was then studiously ignored by anyone nearby

He's not with me!

The Red Veined Darter was a real beauty with a bright, wax red body and red head, prominent red veins to the forewings and a small saffron patch at the base of the wings that only showed at certain angles. Charisma in abundance. What a star. Others of it's kind were flying energetically hither and thither across the lake but none performed so obligingly as this particular individual. We watched it tilting it's body towards the sun adopting more and more extreme attitudes as it revelled in the warmth.

Although four had been reported yesterday we counted at least five males and our fellow enthusiast told us he thought they may have bred here although we did not see any females and thought it unlikely.

There were, as I mentioned earlier, many other dragonflies present, the most obvious of which were Blue Emperors, dominating the lake in their imperious manner, immediately investigating any other large dragonfly that came near and cruising around in the upper space above the lake. Broad bodied Chasers zipped at speed, low across the lake and countless Blue and Red Eyed Damselflies dithered and fluttered haltingly above the weed and lily pads, many in tandem, male and female together with the latter ovipositing. 

The Fun Run off to our left was now getting into full swing and as we took photos and video of the Red Veined Darter we were serenaded by various cheesy pop songs at high volume and the increasingly frantic exhortations and banter directed towards the hundreds of runners by the lady MC.

It was all in the worst possible taste but well organised, huge fun and for a very, very worthy cause. You couldn't help but get caught up in the sense of occasion and such was the heat at this stage mid morning I really feared for the welfare of the runners but once they set off no one seemed to succumb and everyone appeared to be having a good time. I could only wish them all the best for such a noble cause as we made our way against a tide of pink clad runners back to the car