Monday 26 May 2014

Top Geezer 26th May 2014

Paul Wren (Wreny), well known Oxonbirder and a twitching buddy is raising money for a very worthy cause and I would appeal to you to sponsor him. It would mean a lot and I have printed below an email from Paul explaining what he is doing and why

The fact he found a mega for Oxfordshire, a singing Wood Warbler, whilst resting under a tree in the Cotswolds on a training ride enabled many of us to get it onto our county list. If any of you went to see it and have not yet donated to his forthcoming epic bike ride now is the chance to show your appreciation and give some money to a really worthy cause.

Here is Paul's email

Hi Everyone

On June 1st I'll be starting a cycle ride from Lands End to Skaw in the Shetland Islands. It will be approximately 1200 miles and will hopefully take 16 days.
I'm  supporting The Stroke Support Unit at the John Radcliffe and The Oxford Centre for Enablement where people go to learn how to walk/talk etc after suffering a stroke. If anyone is interested in sponsoring me please go to  to donate.

Many thanks
Paul Wren (Wreny)


Friday 23 May 2014

Reading Reed 22nd May 2014

On the phone to Terry about a birding photographic trip to Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire we casually discussed the appearance of a Great Reed Warbler at a place called Green Park in  nearby Reading. I suggested we go and have a look for it that afternoon but Terry deferred so I was on my own. 

We had also discussed going to see a Baillon's Crake, a true mega, that was singing and showing itself every so often at Oare Marshes in Faversham Kent and decided we would go for it on Friday, weather permitting. Later the pager said the crake was no longer in evidence so another conversation with Terry ensued and we decided instead to go to Bempton  on Friday. Later Terry rang to say the forecast for Friday was not good and we put the trip off until Monday and Terry made the decision he would after all come and see the Great Reed Warbler this very afternoon.

Shortly after a text came through from Andy. A Calandra Lark, a mega of megas had been found on Fair Isle. An OMG moment. The long staying male Caspian Stonechat, yet another mega was still on Fair Isle and to combine a tilt at these two in a day trip would be sensational. I rang Colin who organises twitcher's charter flights on light aircraft but there were no planes available due to the coming weekend being Goodwood Race Festival and all his friends planes were committed to that event. He said he would do what he  could and I am currently on standby should a twitchers charter plane become available and more importantly the Calandra Lark stays put.

Praying the pager would now remain silent and no more emotional dilemnas would be presented to me I headed for Terry in Oxford. The weather turned decidedly nasty and torrential rain was soon the order of the day. The forecast however advised it would clear northwards and indeed it did, raining all the way to Reading and then clearing to sunshine as we arrived.

Green Park was not the municipal park I expected but a huge landscaped and very expensive looking business park with many household names in the high tech  sector occupying the vast modern buildings. Around these buildings were manicured stretches of land bisected by water and grassy walkways no doubt to soothe the fevered brows of the hard working and stressed  inhabitants of the buildings. There were many narrow reed beds fringing the stretches of water and in one of these was the Great Reed Warbler.

After some confusion about where to park- we 'borrowed' a space in one of the companies car parks - we could see half a dozen birders ranged along a grassy bank under some willows looking at a reed bed a little way in the distance. Tripping lightly down the tastefully landscaped walkway we soon joined them. The Great Reed Warbler was singing loudly, there was no mistaking it, the volume was mightily impressive, great guttural bursts of notes and grating calls drowning out the more demure scratchy notes of  normal Reed Warblers which also inhabited the reeds.

We could certainly hear the Great Reed Warbler but seeing it took us to another level. It was deep in the reeds but every so often a fleeting movement of a brown warbler would alert us and we would do our best to discern if it was a Reed Warbler or the Great Reed. We were reasonably certain we saw it on one occasion but the view was so brief that we were still in that zone of uncertainty and it definitely required a more extensive and definitive view before we could be satisfied we had truly seen it.

It moved through the reeds betraying its presence by its song and we followed but it was never visible. Then it all went quiet. We waited and we waited and yes - we waited. We moved our position to view that part of the reed bed where it was last heard. Nothing. Great Tits and Blue Tits  flying to and from  the reeds collecting food for their young regularly set our pulses racing. Even Reed Warblers flitting between the reeds finally showed themselves but of the Great Reed Warbler there was no sight or sound. Others went to check nearby stretches of reeds. We stayed put.

Then a staccato burst of unmistakeable notes betrayed its presence back where we originally had been standing so we retraced our steps and looked at the favoured stand of reeds directly opposite us. An occasional loud burst of notes came from the reeds and then suddenly it appeared at the edge of the reeds in the open. Terry fired off a volley of camera shots.

The bird itself was unmistakeable now. Bulky with a heavy bill and striking white supercilium and dark eye stripe. The upperparts rich brown and the underparts dull white with a noticeably white throat. It clung to the reeds picking off insects and then after a minute was gone back into cover. We waited a bit longer and I got the occasional scope view of it sitting in the top of the reeds before it disappeared down into the depths of the reeds to recommence singing.

Not wanting to wait any longer we called it a day. A very pleasant interlude in somewhat incongruous surroundings

Many thanks to Terry for the pictures

Saturday 17 May 2014

Marsh Mellow 16th May 2014

Marsh Fritillary
Waking up to another beautiful morning of sun and warmth I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and abandoned my plan to go for a morning run.This kind of weather does not come that often these days so I decided to postpone my attempts at fitness and make the most of the sun by seeking out some more rare butterflies.

My destination this time was Lydlinch Common in Dorset. This should have been a two hour drive but turned into a three hour marathon as I encountered traffic problems throughout the entire journey entailing regular cross country detours to avoid snarl ups. This did allow me to see some lovely villages and countryside but took its toll in time.

Finally back on course on the A303 I passed Stonehenge. A World Heritage Site it claims on a huge board by the road. Maybe, but its close proximity to the endless traffic on the road and the huge numbers of sightseers ringing the site remove any magic or mystery the place should hold. Such a shame. 

Onwards, and after winding through some tiny villages I arrived at Lydlinch and again following the instructions in David Newland's estimable book 'Discovering Butterflies in Britain' I found the small layby and entrance gate leading to hopefully my first ever encounter with Marsh Fritillaries.

Entrance to Lydlinch Common

The damp, in places boggy areas the fritillaries inhabit are on both sides of the road and to start with I tried the area south of the road walking up the short swampy track into the reserve and coming to an open area carpeted with the blue of Bugle.

The Common on the other side of the gate
I met a man called Dave staring at the ground. Dave was local and a butterfly enthusiast who kept a close eye on the butterflies of Lydlinch Common. He saved me any uncertainty and wasted time by pointing to the ground and there was a freshly emerged female Marsh Fritillary perched on a plantain. Her fat body, full of eggs waiting to be fertilised, betrayed her sex.

Newly hatched female Marsh Fritillary. Note the really fat body
Dave and I got talking and he told me how last year was very bad for the fritillaries here and how this year they were only now just appearing. At that moment another Marsh Fritillary, a male, flew low and rapidly over the area and then was gone. Dave told me these were the first he had seen in this small area but told me to follow him and led me across the Common to the other side of the road. He told me there was an area on the other side of the road, warmer and more sheltered where he had seen up to five Marsh Fritillaries in the last few days .

As we traversed the Common heading towards the road another orange coloured butterfly flew up and then landed on some Bugle. Both of us were thinking it was a Marsh Fritillary as we approached it but on getting closer Dave identified it as a Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary. This was a real bonus for me as I have never seen this species before. So in the space of fifteen minutes I had seen two new butterflies, well, new for me anyway.

Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary
We crossed the quiet road and passing through the hedgeline entered another open area of low vegetation sloping downwards to the east.

Lydlinch Common on the 'other' side of the road. Many Marsh Fritillaries
 were at the warmer, far end of the Common beyond the flowering Hawthorn
At first there was no activity but as we walked down towards the lower, warmer area, more and more Marsh Fritillaries flew low across the ground before us. The majority were in absolute pristine condition, beautiful in their chequered appearance. The complex strong patterning of orange overlaid with bands of buff, black and white spots is really pleasing and markedly different to most other fritillaries. Walking around encountering different individuals it became apparent that there was considerable variation in colouring and also size. I imagine the larger specimens with fatter bodies were females. Males hatch a few days before the females and some small males were already quite faded which accounts for their old colloquial name, Greasy Fritillary

Marsh Fritillaries- note the colour variation in the top three images
Slowly walking around this small area we reckoned we had seen at least twenty five Marsh Fritillaries, a mixture of males and females. It was apparent that the Marsh Fritillaries were hatching fast. Most were flying low and slow in a distinctive, fluttering flight over the short vegetation but when they met another of their kind, the two or sometimes even three would spiral up at speed to above head height, whirling around before separating and gliding back to almost ground level where they were remarkably hard to follow as they flew over the grass. Dave pointed out that the area had been specially planted with Devil's Bit Scabious, the Marsh Fritillary's foodplant, to encourage them and it certainly appeared to be working in this area.

Dave left and I was on my own in this little paradise. Just me with the fritillaries fluttering over the damp ground and flowers. I found a male trying to mate with a female but she was not interested in his attentions and they fell into the grass and separated. 

Marsh Fritillaries attempting to mate
Another female had just hatched and her wings were still slightly creased and drying. She delicately walked onto my proffered finger before I returned her to perch on a leaf. Her almost closed wings  showed the typical attractive fritillary patterning on the underwing.

Newly hatched Marsh Fritillary drying her wings
I spent a very pleasant hour here just wandering around looking for and at the fritillaries. A few male Brimstones hurried past along the bordering hedgerow and a couple of Small Coppers whizzed between favoured plants.

Small Copper
I left to retrace my steps back to the car, following the same route Dave and I had taken to get here. Where we had briefly seen the Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary I found another couple of butterfly enthusiasts looking intently at the ground. They were looking at a Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary nectaring on some Bugle.

     Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary showing the diagnostic black lines and numerous
silvery white spots on the underwing

There was some concern as to whether it was a Small Pearl or just a Pearl Bordered Fritillary but once we saw the underwing pattern we could discern the diagnostic features that showed it was a Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary. It flew, with a different, stronger, more prolonged and gliding flight than the fluttering Marsh Fritillaries, and was joined by another. 

A Nightingale started to sing from the dense bushes beyond at that very moment and the sun shone on and on, radiating that strong white light that makes the afternoon drowsy, almost timeless, with heat.

This was not heaven but it was close to how I would imagine it to be.

Butterflies seen

Marsh Fritillary 25+
Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary 2
Small Copper 2
Brimstone 5+
Small White 2

Wednesday 14 May 2014

I do like a Burgundy 14th May 2014

Duke of Burgundy
When I say I like a burgundy it is true that a nice bottle of the red infuriator goes down a treat but today I refer to something just as good, the Duke of Burgundy butterfly. I had never seen one and decided to rectify the matter by making a visit to Dunstable Downs in Bedfordshire. When I finally saw one, OOOH! I got a hint of cowslip, speedwell, kidney vetch, buttercup and meadow grasses. A bouquet of chalk downland. Just as good as any red burgundy.

I am getting ahead of myself though. Not quite sure where to go I found the location I was looking for courtesy of a book called 'Discover Butterflies in Britain' by David Newland. Arriving at just after 10am the weather was ideal with unbroken sun although a cool northwest breeze was blowing. Despite a small map in the book it was not absolutely clear what path to follow or what was the best area to check. I was high on a ridge overlooking the Vale of Aylesbury  and Whipsnade Zoo, with a steep slope below me and sunken tracks between high banks of chalk downland. With the steady breeze blowing logic suggested that the best bet was to drop down a little and wander along the sunken tracks which were free of wind and trapped the morning sun.

Sunken downland track. Along here were Duke of Burgundy, Green Hairstreak
Grizzled Skipper, Dingy Skipper, Brimstone and Orange Tip
I followed a track winding gently downhill and then came to a dip where the track rose up along the side of a slope. So far it was not that promising with only a Green Veined White and an Orange Tip putting in an appearance. Still, it was early from a butterfly point of view and it would warm up as the morning progressed. I followed the track for a few metres as it rose along the side of the slope and almost immediately came to a hawthorn bush festooned with blossom. 

The Green Hairstreak hawthorn headquarters.Up to fifteen  Green Hairstreaks
at least were on and around this particular bush
The scent from the blossom was overpowering, sickly sweet and pungent. Much more interesting was the sight of many small dark brown butterflies flying around the bush which they seemed to have made their headquarters. At first I could not make out what they were but as they settled I saw they were Green Hairstreaks. I have never seen so many in one small space. There must have been fifteen or more. As my eye became accustomed to them  I found yet more settled on the flowers or on the surrounding vegetation invariably with their wings closed and their emerald underwings angled to catch the rays of the sun. Ever restless they would fly up and tussle with each other regularly, sometimes with two flying together at incredible speed, whirling round and round, exactly mirroring each movement of the other. These appeared to be territorial spats between males but could just as easily be a male and female in courtship. I watched them in amazement, admiring their beauty and just savouring the moment.

Green Hairstreaks
Well, a good start but not the main item. A few more steps along the track and another small dark butterfly rose up from my feet and then another. I watched them spiralling together, low over the ground and then separating, they quickly settled. I looked in my bins where one had landed and there was a Duke of Burgundy butterfly. This one as luck would have it was a little ragged of wing but it was a Duke. My first ever.

A Duke fallen on hard times!
Small, hardly bigger than the hairstreaks and looking very dark to the naked eye. This one allowed very close approach, as indeed did all the ones I encountered later and I could see the upperwings were dark brown with the forewings showing a chequering of orange spots and the hindwings a border of  orange spots at the hind edge of the wings. The underside of the wings were very difficult to see as the Duke constantly kept its wings open to the sun.

Obviously I wanted a photo but this ragged specimen with torn wings was no good. I looked for the other one and in no time at all found it a little further up the track sunning itself on some bramble leaves. This was much better as it was in pristine condition. An absolute beauty.

Male Duke of Burgundy
For the next hour or so I just wandered  a few metres up and down the track admiring and photographing the Dukes. Invariably they would settle with their wings open to the sun and it took quite a while to get  a shot of the marvellous marbling on the underwings.

Duke of Burgundy showing the beautiful marbled underwing pattern
The Dukes seemed to confine themselves to a very small area which they patrolled and guarded. I counted three but whether they were all males or a mixture of male and female I could not tell although if guarding a territory, which appeared to be the case, presumably they were males

My wanderings found other goodies as well. A Grizzled Skipper superficially similar to the Duke but with white spots all over the four brown wings, white fringes to the wings and a fat furry body, settled on a buttercup and several Dingy Skippers, as ever looking washed out and threadbare even when in a pristine state, fluttered around and tussled with the Dukes. A host of other insects whose identity was beyond my knowledge shared the plants with the butterflies.

Grizzled Skippers

Dingy Skipper

Two unidentified bugs getting it on in  the sun.
Thanks to Wayne Bull for identifying these as sawflies
In the end, sated I sat on the bank amongst the cowslips, relaxed in the sun and just enjoyed my surroundings with butterflies all around me. Four Red Kites wheeled high overhead disputing the airspace with the next door Gliding Club. A Garden Warbler chortled its song from deep in the hawthorns and a Common Whitethroat, as ever irrepressibly cheery, warbled its frantic little song from some nearby scrub

Now with my aim well and truly achieved I felt the desire to enjoy and explore this special place some more. I was completely alone as I followed yet another sunken track.

At least 6 Duke of Burgundy were along this section of track
Sure enough more Dukes materialised and in the end I must have counted close to fifteen, all in groups of three or four. Another more chalky track harboured many Dingy Skippers and a few Dukes but Grizzled Skippers were much harder to find and I saw no more than three or four all morning. Green Hairstreaks must have been in three figures. They were everywhere, on hawthorns although never in such numbers as on the first hawthorn, in the chalkland grasses flying up from my feet and on low growing brambles.

Clustered Bellflower (id courtesy of Wayne)
I spent three hours in all, wandering around and enjoying this wonderful reserve. Weary and hot from climbing up steep slopes I rested under a beech, in the shade with the breeze whispering through leaves that in the sunlight coloured my skin pale green. I went back for one more look at the hawthorn bush with all the Green Hairstreaks. They were still hard at it, restless and energetic as ever, flying in and around the May blossom and with that lingering memory to cling to I left. What a magical morning 

Here in this short space were 3 Duke of Burgundy, 15 Green Hairstreaks,
6 Dingy Skippers, 2 Grizzled Skippers and 1 Brimstone
My final sight of a Duke of Burgundy

Butterflies seen:

Duke of Burgundy 15+
Green Hairstreak 100+
Grizzled Skipper 4+
Dingy Skipper 30+
Orange Tip 2
Green Veined White 1
Peacock 1
Large White 1
Brimstone 10+

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Serin Dippity 13th May 2014

Last Saturday I was all set to go and see a female Serin at Gibralter Point Nature Reserve near Skegness in Lincolnshire. In fact I got within twenty miles of it before turning back and returning to Oxfordshire to try and see a Spotted Sandpiper. That is another story that has been recounted in the post previous to this one

The following Sunday and Monday reports were still coming through of the Serin being seen regularly below the feeders at a place called The Plantation at Gibralter Point. I decided to make another attempt to see it on Tuesday provided it was still there. I resolved to wait until the first report of its continued presence appeared on RBA on Tuesday which it duly did at just before 10am. Anticipating a positive outcome on Tuesday reference the Serin's presence, the car was already loaded with my birding gear so it was very soon after ten when I left Kingham.

The forecast for Tuesday was showers up until lunchtime and then sunshine. This was good as it was a three hour drive to Skegness so I would be driving through the showers and hopefully watching the Serin in sunshine.We live in hopes!

Arriving in the flat topography of Lincolnshire I could see the bulk of Lincoln Cathedral dominating the skyline from miles away as I drove northwards. Quickly by-passing Lincoln I was soon in the Lincolnshire Wolds, a new and pleasurable experience for me. The rain had not materialised and it was wonderfully sunny and warm. The countryside was simply at its utter best. Gone were the brown fields of winter and the stark, leafless skeletal branches of tree and hedge. The hedgerows were now rounded, pillowed and soft with new leaf growth. The May blossom, the best I have seen for years, hung heavy and profuse on the hawthorns, dragging down the thin branches with their weight, creating a white canopy on each bush, like a tablecloth that all but smothered the green leaves. The heady, sickly sweet scent of the blossom came to me on the breeze through the open car window. I drove down winding rural roads bordered with the endless white May blossom hedges and every possible shade of green on the trees. I wish it would always be like this but then instead of being inspiring it would be mundane and familiar. This growing time creates such a restlessness in me. Caught up in the hurry of Spring it is both exhilarating and slightly un-settling.

I arrived at Gibralter Point at around one thirty, driving down a long and narrow road out of Skegness with a golf course on one side and large houses on the other to find myself in a car park with the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust's modern looking but rather ugly visitor centre beyond.

Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust Visitor Centre
The Plantation, which the Serin was frequenting was mercifully close by and I commenced a short walk along a track bordered with a froth of white and green created by the delicate fronds and flowers of Cow Parsley.

I met another birder coming along the track from the viewing screen and enquired about the Serin. He told me the Serin had been seen but was proving very elusive, He had waited an hour and a half to see it. Not to worry I had all the time in the world. I made my way to the viewing screen which overlooks a small pond with the feeders beyond it. 

The viewing screen. Otmoor regulars will be interested to hear that the
locals complain just as much here about the heights of the apertures 
The view from the screen with the pond and feeders beyond
Twenty minutes passed by pleasantly in the warm sunshine as I waited with half a dozen others for the Serin to arrive. Many other birds were coming to the feeders in the meantime so it was hardly boring. A Willow Warbler came down to drink and bathe. Greenfinches, the males green and yellow and quite beautiful, delicate Goldfinches, Chaffinches and a feisty Robin were regularly feeding on or below the feeders, drinking or bathing in the pool. Great, Blue and Coal Tits came and went as did a male Blackcap.

Willow Warbler
Male Greenfinch
Male Chaffinch bathing
Someone said they could see the Serin in one of the trees by the feeders but then it disappeared. I scanned the ground below the feeders and suddenly it was there on the ground. I remember noticing the prominent fork in its tail and streaked back as it faced away from me. No one else seemed to have noticed its arrival. I said 'There it is below the left hand feeder' and everyone jumped to it. The Serin shuffled around feeding on spilt sunflower seed. A classic little brown job. Grey brown, paler below with the merest hint of green on the back and with prominent darker streaks on its body. Totally non descript apart from two distinct buff wing bars, a hint of yellow around the neck and face and a vivid lemon yellow back and rump, only visible when it flew. Much smaller than the other finches with a stubby little bill it  held its own and fed happily on the seeds in the company of the other finches. It was superbly camouflaged on the sun dappled ground and frustratingly, with photography in mind, it was a nightmare to focus on as it kept in the cover of the nettles growing up around the feeder poles and moving from light to shade.Ten minutes passed all too quickly and then it flew up and away.

It did not go far but just into the nearby trees and was often visible quietly sitting there. Once it actually went to sleep in the sun but I suppose coming from the Continent it was just having a normal post midday siesta!

It revisited the feeders three times in the space of two hours and seemed to spend the rest of its time in the nearby trees so I was well pleased with my encounters.

On one occasion whilst waiting for the Serin to put in a re-appearance a Spotted Flycatcher made a typically hyperactive but all too brief appearance. My first for the year and a most welcome surprise

Four o' clock came and after watching the Serin for the third and final time, feeding for another ten minute spell before flying up into the trees, I made my way back to the car. The sun still shone and indeed did so until I left Lincolnshire. On the way home I reflected on what a difference a couple of days can make to my mood and the feeling of frustration from last Saturday 

The words at the bottom could apply to many things!