Sunday 28 June 2015

African Memories Part 1 - The Serengeti Tanzania

Both my wife and myself have over the years spent quite a lot of time in Africa either working there or visiting for pleasure. Some years ago we decided to visit Tanzania for a holiday looking at the mammals and birds of the Serengeti.

The Serengeti is rightly famed for its wildlife spectacles especially the Great Migration of Wildebeeste and Zebra. Comprising 5,700 square miles of  grassland, savannah, riverine forest and open woodland the Serengeti is a place of wonder and delight for anyone with an appreciation of the natural world and with an estimated population of one thousand Leopards as good a place as any to try and encounter this beautiful big cat.

On all our travels in Africa throughout the passing years we had seen all the famed animals of The Dark Continent; Lion, Cheetah, Leopard, Rhino, Giraffe, African Buffalo, Hippopotamus and of course Elephant. Of all of these it was the Leopard that had proved personally the most elusive for us and we could really only count two separate, fleeting and therefore unsatisfactory views of this big cat despite all our efforts.

With the abundance of wildlife, constituting both prey and predator, throughout the Serengeti we decided that this was our big opportunity and we would concentrate one whole day in trying to find a Leopard, preferably asleep in a tree so we could have prolonged views of one and finally lay our bogey to rest. I did not rate our chances too highly but we had to try.

So it was that one morning I instructed Njano our guide that today we wanted to find a Leopard. We set out from our camp in the early morning, three of us in a four wheel drive, heading into the vastness of the Serengeti. The air was still cool and the sun yet to rise. A group of Bat Eared Foxes diverted our attention as they examined the remains of a dead bird along the dirt road we were following, making their way back after a night's hunting, to their den. Possessing a high cuteness factor their sociable antics were entrancing as they ignored our presence and bounced and bickered amongst themselves, snuffling feathers and chasing after one last meal of locusts they had found in the scrub.Their ears are huge and constantly move and twitch as, like radar scanners they  pick up and assess each and every minute sound that may signal prey or danger.

We reluctantly left them and continued onwards, driving further out into the vastness of the awakening land, heading for the open woodland of Acacia trees where hopefully a Leopard was now sleeping, draped over a branch after a night's prowling.

The sun rose, which in Africa happens in minutes as we are so near to the Equator. One minute it is a deep orange orb rising above the Serengeti's horizon and then in a few minutes it is high in the sky. The heat rises exponentially and we have just  a few hours before it will be too hot to continue. By ten in the morning it is time to return to the camp, rest and sleep in the shade, allowing the heat of the day to burn on in a shimmering white light  across the plains, creating countless mirages in the heat haze.

We passed a small rise and a Lioness rested there, statuesque and haughty. We were very close and she looked directly into my eyes. A wild lion making eye contact is unnerving despite the safety of the vehicle and I instinctively looked away not relishing being the focus of this supreme predator. 

I need not have worried as after a few seconds she dismissively turned her head away as if I was of no consequence or interest. She looked into the far distance head raised. Her flanks heaved, then compressed and her neck stretched as she let out a series of roars, the sound coming from deep in her body and rising to the back of her throat from whence it was expelled and resonated across the plains. Again and again at regular intervals she roared. In between she listened intently for a response but none came.

This particular morning in our search for a Leopard we must have driven under and looked at hundreds of Acacia trees, big, small and between,  but it proved fruitless. No tail hanging down from a shaded lateral branch or dark lump prone along a bough. We gave up, with the intense heat now permeating every corner of the land and life slowed as everything sought the shade until the heat slowly died away in the late afternoon.

We returned to the camp, dusty and thirsty and after a couple of ice cold beers and a light meal slept away the heat of midday.

We rejoined Njano at four in the afternoon and once more set off out into the now cooling embrace of the Serengeti. This time we took a different route and headed for more Acacia trees but most of these were relatively small and looked hardly suitable for a Leopard. I was accustomed to thinking Leopards would seek out a big tree where they would feel more secure as I had seen this enacted on countless wildlife television programmes. We tried the largest trees but found nothing and slowly drove in a winding and haphazard route through the scattered smaller trees but our search was still fruitless.  It was now five and in another hour it would be sunset. The sun sinking as fast as it rises in this part of Africa.

Resigned to the fact we had done our very best we still had an hour and retained some forlorn hope. 

'Try over there Njano'. 

I pointed to yet another scattering of unpromising looking, spindly Acacias and we headed for them. We drove through them slowly and then came across an isolated Acacia of no consequence and sprawled like some discarded child's toy in the fork of a branch near the canopy was a Leopard.

A female, she could hardly be bothered to raise an eyelid or turn her head to register our presence. Njano turned off the engine and we sat in the evening air and whispered our excitement to each other as the Leopard lounged in the tree. There was no hurry as far as she was concerned. The sounds of Africa no longer drowned by the vehicle's engine filled the land. Strange exotic, tropical calls of birds came from far and wide accompanied by the rhythmic pulsing of cicadas.

We were well off the beaten track and entirely alone. One of the less enjoyable facets of game viewing on the Serengeti is that you are rarely left alone if other vehicles  notice you are stopped and looking at something. All the guides are keen to earn a good tip from grateful clients and know better than to ignore the opportunity to take advantage of someone else's good fortune. I do not really mind as we too have taken advantage of such situations but it is nice to have something all to yourself as then the communion between you and the animal is so much more personal and intense.

We sat for the next forty five minutes, just the three of us and the Leopard. Other vehicles passed us in the distance but failed to notice us or did not come our way, maybe assuming as we were not looking at the ground we were just having a sundowner (evening drink) and enjoying the cool of the evening. We drove closer to the Leopard, almost under the tree and she opened her eyes and yawned yet again. Casual and unafraid. Untroubled and completely at ease. She briefly shut her eyes and dozed some more but as the cooler air became more apparent soon stirred and moved position before standing up and stretching out her limbs in the familiar relaxed way of all cats great and small. The colouring and patterning of her coat was exquisite. Dull gold, lit by the waning sun, with clusters and lines of black spots from head to tail. Pale amber eyes scrutinised us as she awoke, responding to the timeless rhythms of the Serengeti.

Gradually she became more awake and attentive before delicately picking her way through the thorny branches and descending the tree head first, jumping the last few metres to the ground and landing light as a feather. 

She sat assessing her surroundings at ground level, still a little drowsy, then gently swishing her tail wandered over to some nearby vegetation and sprayed with her scent gland. Satisfied and with one more giant yawn she wandered away, a picture of insouciant ease and grace.

She came to a fallen tree trunk and stood with her forepaws on top of the trunk looking left, looking right and then, dropping from the trunk she melted into the embrace of Africa and was gone.

Monday 22 June 2015

The Cretzch at a Stretch 18th June 2015

The story begins well before the 18th June, commencing with the discovery of a male Cretzchmar's Bunting on the island of Bardsey which lies off the Lleyn Peninsula on the North Wales coast and is a National Nature Reserve with its very own Bird Observatory. In fact Bardsey ticks all the right boxes for anyone interested in the natural world, being a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Protection Area (SPA), an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) and last but by no means least an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

The bunting was discovered on the 10th June by two visiting birders, photographed and subsequently identified. 

The Cretzchmar's Bunting was originally found here on the hill at the North end
of the island
It then promptly disappeared and after much searching was re-found singing near the Lighthouse compound at the South End of the island on 12th June but remained elusive. Only five have been seen before in Britain and usually in remote and difficult places to access. The last one to be found was another male on Fair Isle in the Spring of last year. Whilst Bardsey is an island, it is normally relatively easy to access by a half hour boat trip from Porth Meudwy on the Lleyn Peninsula and so a major operation swung into action to try and allow as many birders  as possible and indeed anyone else interested, to see the bunting.

Seed was laid down in the Lighthouse compound and this persuaded the bunting to adopt a reasonably regular feeding pattern whereby it would visit for a few minutes at approximately hourly intervals before flying off, but the area from which to view it was so restricted that only a maximum of thirty six birders could be accommodated at any one time. 

An additional logistical difficulty is that the only way to access the island, as I said, is by boat from Porth Meudwy but the boat could not be booked in advance and only took twelve people and there were only five sailings a day.

It was going to be chaos as hundreds of the birding fraternity rushed to Wales to try and get on to the island to see the bunting.

I called Justin on Sunday and asked him if he wanted to go on Monday. He could not make it due to work commitments but suggested Tuesday. I agreed and we liased about the trip on Monday morning. We discussed the boat situation and I was worried about the fact it was first come first served and it was an awfully long way to drive over two hundred miles with a good chance of not getting on the only regular boat across to the island. In the end we chartered our own boat, which could take a maximum of twelve people, at the cost of £50.00 per head. Justin found the boat to charter, and four of us from Oxfordshire formed the nucleus of the charter and I agreed to find the rest of the people to fill it by putting out details on Rare Bird Alert (RBA) offering the spaces on a first come first served basis. It took about ten minutes after the appeal went out on RBA to get the first phone call and half an hour later the boat was full but the phone just kept ringing. I got RBA to put out another message that the charter was now full and life or at least the phone returned to normal.

We planned to sail from Pwhelli to Bardsey at 9am on Tuesday morning. This journey would take an hour and a half and was longer than the normal half hour crossing from Porth Meudwy  but before anything else Justin  had to ring Tony, the skipper of the boat, on Monday afternoon to check about the weather on Tuesday as there were doubts about the increasing wind strength and an approaching weather system. The bad news came in the early evening that we would not sail on Tuesday or Wednesday for that matter due to adverse weather conditions. Thursday was the earliest opportunity. I then had to ring everyone booked on our charter and advise about the delay. Fortunately all but two were happy to wait until Thursday, but would the bunting? My anxiety levels grew.

After a more than usually hectic Monday I went to bed that night happy in the knowledge that the boat was now chartered, we had a full complement of birders and we would sail on Thursday weather permitting.What could go wrong?

Tuesday morning arrived sunny and warm and my phone rang with an enquiry from one of the birders booked on our charter asking me if I  knew that my three Oxfordshire colleagues had driven to Wales last night and were now on Bardsey presumably looking at the bunting! I felt my heart sink not only in the knowledge that for whatever reason I had been left behind by my colleagues but I also now had the dubious responsibility, apparently not thought of by the other three, to tell each of the eight birders booked on the boat what had happened and that it was all off.

I sat, blankly looking out of the window and absorbed the unwelcome news. Upset as I was experience has taught me that a period of quiet contemplation is wise before doing or saying anything which I might regret later and would serve no constructive purpose. I thought about it for some considerable time before picking up the phone not to call the other eight birders but to call Justin. I thought at least I could salvage something from this unfortunate situation through keeping the charter and filling the extra spaces on the boat left by my impetuous three colleagues. I planned to fill the charter by putting out yet another appeal on RBA but first I had to get the name of the charter skipper and his phone number to confirm everything. Justin was the only person who knew it.

I tried calling Justin but could get no reply, doubtless because there was no phone reception on Bardsey or wherever in North Wales he was. I tried the phones of the other two but with the same negative result. I kept trying to call Justin from about ten in the morning until finally I got through to him at about three in the afternoon. Once I got the charter details from Justin I rang Tony Bruce, the charter boat skipper, explained what had happened and confirmed that I was now in charge of this operation and the charter should still go ahead on Thursday as planned. I asked for details of where we would meet and at what time, which Tony said he would give me on Wednesday once he was certain the weather would be OK to sail on Thursday. I then put out an appeal on RBA, called a couple of birder friends in Sussex and by Tuesday evening had another full complement of birders for the charter.
Finally I could relax apart from the nagging doubt that we had to wait another day before we could get to Bardsey. Surely the bunting, currently miles too far west from its usual home in the eastern Mediterranean would up and leave. It's happened before!
That evening was not exactly untroubled as some of the other birders booked on the boat betrayed their anxieties by calling me with various questions. 'Is the charter definitely on?'  'Yes it is'. 'Where do we meet exactly?' 'I do not know yet. I am speaking to Tony again on Wednesday and will call you with exact details afterwards'. 

Eventually the phone went quiet.My wife forgave me and we settled down to watch yet more of The Sopranos.

Wednesday arrived and the bunting was seen again on Bardsey. Phew - now there was only one anxious day to go but much could still go wrong in the meantime.

My fears appeared to be confirmed when I looked at the Bardsey Observatory twitter feed that evening and anxiety gripped me even more as I noted that they were specifically asking no-one to charter any boats and only use the regular sailing from Porth Meudwy! My heart sank again. Surely I and my fellow charter birders were not to be thwarted at the last moment. Oh dear! I just could not not contemplate cancelling this charter after all the effort that had been put in. It was just too late now to do anything about it although I certainly did not want to upset the wardens on Bardsey.

The regular boat in the meantime had increased the number of sailings to Bardsey to try and meet demand. Only thirty six people were wanted at any one time on the island to view the bird from the restricted area by the Lighthouse. Each boatload of twelve would be given three hours on the island before they had to leave and the next boatload would arrive. All the sailings from Port Meudwy were now fully booked for the next three days and still the demand was insatiable. 

I feared that our independent charter would not be allowed on the island so I rang Tony and he laid my worries to rest, telling me he had spoken to the Chairman of the Island Trust and been assured there was no problem in us landing and anyway he was one of only two boats licensed to land at the island and no one could prevent him from doing so. As a parting shot he told me that if we encountered any problems on landing he would deal with it. I got the distinct impression that Tony was not a man to be messed around and also he did not care too much for the other person running the regular sailings to Bardsey from Porth Meudwy. Local politics but definitely to be diplomatically avoided on our part if possible.

Tony told me the weather was good for Thursday so we would sail at nine from Pwllheli and land at Bardsey at 1030. I rang the others giving them confirmation that the charter was going ahead as well as specific instructions where to meet at the Marina and at what time. We were now, finally, all set, with me vowing never to allow myself to get involved in anything like this again.
I left the house at two am on Thursday morning in a glass half full frame of mind. Maybe it was a result of all the setbacks and disappointments of the last two days and the effort in surmounting them but I felt drained of the usual nervous energy and excitement such a twitch brings. It was a four hour drive to Pwllheli and I deliberately left early so I could drive at a modest speed, not be rushed and arrive in good time to meet my fellow participants. I left Kingham and drove through the dark deserted rural roads from my home towards the Motorway. A Badger ambled across my route and shortly afterwards two Muntjac stared, unmoving from the verge as I passed by.

The year is at the summer soltice now and pale fingers in the sky were prising apart the dark curtain of night even at the early hour of two thirty as I joined the M6 Motorway hell circumventing Birmingham and, turning west after Birmingham, found the M54 closed between junctions 3-5. This seems to happen more and more these days or should I say nights. The unwelcome diversion took me around the dubious delights of  Telford's industrial parks and in almost full daylight, at three thirty am, I rejoined the M54 Motorway and eventually crossed into Wales. The road signs were now bi-lingual with tongue strangling, eye straining spellings that I am sure were not pronounced the way they appeared. Thankfully the Satnav continued talking English.
I was alone in a still sleeping rural Wales and the Satnav took me on a wonderful scenic switchback route up and over the Snowdonia National Park with the sun just beginning to clear the surrounding crags and hills. The drive was just sublime through the most beautiful scenery of deep green valleys, high rounded  hills and gentle mountains, lit by the rising sun and all carpeted in the full green lushness of high summer. Then I crossed a wide expanse of  purple brown moorland before I descended from the hills through wooded slopes and arrived shortly after in Pwllheli at just after six in the morning.

Snowdonia National Park
I drove to the huge Marina where we were due to meet at eight thirty and found three of my boat companions already there, Dave from Lancashire, Tony and Derek from Hertfordshire. We chatted for a while and then I went in search of something to eat but soon learned that Pwllheli does not open before seven am so I was left to cool my heels for an hour and a half.  At this time in the morning a deserted Pwllheli looked an attractive compact little place by the sea with narrow one way streets  but I could imagine it would be hellish once the traffic got moving in a couple of hours and the summer tourists arrived later in the year.

Finally I assuaged the pangs of hunger with a bacon roll and hot chocolate from Costa Coffee when they opened their doors promptly at seven am. I sat outside on a bench and watched Pwllheli wake up as I ate and then I drove the short distance back to the Marina and rejoined the others. Some more participants had arrived and we introduced ourselves and indulged in the usual birder drivel and bravado to while away the time. Checking the pagers there was no news about the bunting.The laughter and joking took on a slightly more edgy  tone as the pager continued to give no news about the bunting. It was unsaid but all of us were aching for the re-assurance that the bunting was still on Bardsey. News should have come through by now as the first boat from Porth Meudwy had landed at Bardsey an hour ago.

Time drifted by, five, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes or more. All twelve of us were now ready and waiting for our charter boat to arrive. Dave made yet another pager check and YES YES!! the bunting was still there and had just been seen feeding on the seed in the Lighthouse compound. We relaxed. Well not really, as all we wanted to do now was get to the island and see the bunting. I called Tony who said he was fifteen minutes away and just bringing his boat along from Porthmadog. We went down to the landing stage and sure enough fifteen minutes later Tony steered the blue and white 'Highlander' securely into the dock and we boarded what was a relatively spacious and powerful boat with even the luxury of a toilet. Slowly we sidled out of the expansive up market Marina goggling at the conspicuous array of boating wealth tied up to the various landing stages.

Looking back as we leave the Marina
Once out of the Marina Tony opened up the engines and trailing an impressive wake we hurled ourselves westwards across the briny deep  towards the still invisible Bardsey Island. We headed first for two small islands, one owned by the scriptwriter and playwright Carla Lane and reputedly never visited by her in years, the other, nearby, was the home of Bear Grylls who when he is there lives in the lighthouse at the very top. We passed these two celebrity islands and headed out into rougher open sea, receiving a generous soaking of spray from the wind tossed waves we were either bouncing over or ploughing through. Tony was not hanging about but we were not complaining as the quicker we got to Bardsey the better. Manx Shearwaters and Razorbills whizzed past and around us as we careered onwards. We chatted amongst ourselves and finally Bardsey and the tiny, rudimentary landing stage were upon us. The red and white Lighthouse where all the action was taking place was clearly visible and a short ten minute walk would get us there. We could already see the knot of birders crammed into the restricted viewing space as we walked up from the beach and took the stony track towards the Lighthouse. A Northern Wheatear flirted along the seaweed strewn shoreline of the bay.

 The Lighthouse built in 1821
We were greeted half way up the track by two wardens who told us to stop. My heart skipped a beat. Were they going to turn us back? No, as it turned out they just wanted to tell us to approach the Lighthouse compound quietly in one group as the bunting was very susceptible to noise and disturbance.

The track back down from the Lighthouse to the harbour where we had landed
They led us up the track and we joined the throng of birders. To say 'we joined' is possibly a misnomer.We had to insinuate ourselves as best we could through tripod legs, scopes and bodies all tightly crammed into a very small area indeed. Space was at an absolute premium. I ended up stood at the back on a stool looking over  heads and bodies in front of me. Despite the lack of space everyone was very friendly and co-operative. A birder, muttering 'You're the lucky one then' directed me to the bunting which was feeding on the seed in amongst pink Thrift and yellow Horseshoe Vetch flowers. I could not see it at first, then I had it in my bins. Excitement enveloped me as I clapped my eyes for the first time ever on a Cretzchmar's Bunting. A lifer for me. The trials and tribulations of the last three days were extinguished in this blissful moment and I was swept away by a feeling that is just indescribable when it all comes to a successful conclusion such as this.

Showing brown streaky upperparts, a grey head and orange underparts, the male Cretzchmar's Bunting shuffled into full view and then in a trice flew between the Lighthouse and a cottage and was gone. Such good luck that I had seen it immediately on arriving as the other birder told me he had waited over an hour to see it. The sighting was not brilliant as it was only brief and through binoculars but I had seen the bunting. That for now was priority number one taken care of but now priority number two was to watch and enjoy it at leisure

I erected my tripod and scope, not without difficulty and a lot of 'sorrys' and 'excuse me's' as I inadvertently prodded and skewered random legs and bodies with the tripod's legs before sighting the scope between one birder's head and another's shoulders, focusing it on the area where the bunting had been feeding.

My original view through the crowd to the Lighthouse Compound
Then we stood and waited. All of us were remarkably and of necessity quiet which meant there was no one indulging in a tedious monologue about past twitches, trips abroad, how many moths they had caught last night in their garden or whatever, and which can be so intensely irritating to those forced to listen. Some people seem to have such a problem in just standing and remaining silent but thankfully here they were constrained by the vigilance of the wardens and the rest of us.

Time seemed to stand still but it was not unpleasant in the sun with the blue sea off to our right. It must have been an hour or so before the bunting returned. In the meantime we had been entertained with various ornithological cameos such as four or more Chough flying around calling loudly, a pair of House Martins nest building under the Lighthouse cottage eaves and a Herring Gull making off with an Oystercatcher's chick.

Red billed Chough c Matt Eade
Suddenly the bunting appeared for a second time from behind the Lighthouse cottage, a dark bulky shape flying in at great speed and then settling in the thrift before coming right out into the open to feed on the seed. The scope now came into its own, apart from when a fellow birder's hand or head got in the way but generally it all worked out fine. I absorbed the plumage features, the grey head and breast, orange underparts, white eye ring, pink bill and streaky upperparts. What a beauty. Four minutes passed very quickly and as before and for no apparent reason it flew off fast and was gone. This had been its behaviour in the previous days so we knew that in another forty five to sixty minutes it would be back.

Cretzchmar's Bunting c Matt Eade
After the bunting had flown for the second time the birders in front of us left as they had to catch their allotted boat back to the mainland, so we were now in the front stalls so to speak with an unobstructed view. Our view looked out over the small unkempt Lighthouse compound covered in Thrift, Horseshoe Vetch, grass and gravel, bounded by a retaining wall on one side and the Lighthouse and associated buildings on the other.

c Matt Eade

The Lighthouse compound. The bunting would land at the far end of the white
cottage amongst the Thrift and Horseshoe Vetch to feed on the seed put out for it
I noticed that despite the dire warnings about the numbers of birders that could be accommodated there was now only thirteen of us here, my group plus Keith Vinicombe who provided a minor birding celebrity twitch for us all.

Cretzchmar twitchers c Matt Eade

The tiny restricted area we viewed the compound from. Note the stools in the
background. Normally there would be three times as many birders here but for
 some reason at this time there was only thirteen of us so we made the most of it
While we were waiting for the bunting to re-appear someone mentioned to the warden it would be nice to see a Thrift Clearwing, a very rare species of moth found on the island and to be found, especially, near the Lighthouse. One had been found and photographed a couple of days ago. Ten minutes later he was back with a very much alive clearwing in a small see through plastic container.What a great gesture and this saved us having to look for one. I doubt we would ever have found one as they were a lot smaller than I imagined and there was an awful lot of Thrift to choose from. It was widely admired by one and all and I gave Emma, the lady warden, a tenner for the collection bucket.

Thrift Clearwing c Steve Smith

The Donation bucket containing many ten pound notes from happy birders!
The warden requested that when the next boat arrived we should make way for the newcomers but no one was inclined to do that as we had also to wait our turn with the other birders earlier. In the end it worked out that the bunting came and went before the other boat load of birders arrived so all was well and there was no potential for conflict. We stood silent and or talking in whispers. Twenty minutes passed and then without warning, from behind us, the bunting swooped down onto the thrift and vetch in the compound, much closer than before and gave eye watering views as it fed for five wonderful minutes before flying off as before. I turned to the others and we were all agreed we had done very well and were all satisfied with events.

In what was now a glorious day of blue sky and sunshine we wandered back down the track to the landing stage, all of us in that incomparable haze of benificence that comes after a successful twitch especially one as fraught as this. We passed the next arriving group of birders, intense with anxiety and expectation and intent on getting to the Lighthouse compound as quickly as possible.No time to stop and talk. Great blubbery Atlantic Grey Seals were hauled out close inshore on the seaweed and rocks in the bay, wailing, snorting and roaring constantly. I have never known them to do this kind of thing before and we speculated that it was maybe something to do with mating.

The bay where we landed. The landing stage is at the far side of  the bay
While we were watching the bunting at the Lighthouse compound Tony had no choice but to take the Highlander back out to sea as the tide ebbed, as he did not want to be grounded. He inflated a dinghy and came back to ferry us, three at a time, back to the waiting Highlander moored a little way offshore.

Tony the skipper ferrying Matt, Jake and  Dave back to the Highlander
Then it was up, up and away, heading back to Pwllheli at speed. Some of us fell asleep, the early start and subsiding adrenalin bringing on a pleasant drowsiness. Tony produced a large pot of tea, some milk, sugar and cups. 'Help yourself lads.'

Tony did, however, have one more treat in store and on the way back made a diversion that took us in close to 'Puffin Island' where not un-naturally we saw many Puffins, flying, swimming, carrying beakfuls of sandeels and generally being their charming charismatic selves. It was good to see them as indeed it was to see the ever so smart Razorbills, one of my all time favourites when in summer plumage, and the sleek chocolate brown Guillemots clustered together on their breeding ledges. Matt even found a 'bridled' Guillemot amongst them. Sensory overload was achieved with a sickly stench of guano and fish coming downwind, accompanied by the incessant raucous cries of Kittiwakes echoing amongst the cave ledges on which they were nesting.

We headed for home, stopping briefly to admire a group of Bottle nosed Dolphins playing around the boat. Back on shore it was goodbye and thanks to Tony and my great bunch of companions before I took the long drive home, retracing my route across Snowdonia, the land now bathed in the warm sun of early evening and the trees and valleys possibly looking even greener than this morning.

Quite a day.

Yours truly - happy and relieved that everything went according to plan

Many thanks must go to the Observatory staff who were unfailingly helpful and did their utmost to make our stay welcome and pleasurable despite having such an extra workload coping with the hordes of birders coming to see the Cretzchmar's Bunting day after day.

Saturday 13 June 2015

Hudsonian Whimbrel at Church Norton 11th June 2015

Hudsonian Whimbrel c Matt Eade

Two in the morning, awake and alert and I am feeling good about life. Quietly exiting from the still of the house, rural darkness surrounds me, unsullied by any artificial light. The Black Audi purrs along the country roads heading south for the Motorway and Sussex.

Two hours later I pass the county boundary sign for West Sussex. My spirits lift and I feel at home. Traffic is increasing and the eastern sky is lightening rapidly. It is going to be a fine day. Four thirty in the morning and I come to rest in the car park at Church Norton. Alone in the dawn I walk down the familiar track to the harbour. A brisk easterly wind scours my face and there are open skies before me. The tide is visiting the horizon, leaving a harbour glistening wet and grey from exposed mud. The light is sullen and dull. The sun still below the horizon.

I scan the grey folds of mud but there are just a few birds. Pairs of Oystercatchers mainly. Then two Curlew. Then two Whimbrel. I am joined by other birders and we watch the two Whimbrel. Could one of these be the Hudsonian Whimbrel? The light is still too low to discern any plumage detail. We watch the two Whimbrel. Feeding constantly on small crabs, whelks and worms, the birds show no preference for their prey which they prise from the mud. Delicately held in decurved bills the victim is washed free of mud in sea pools before being consumed.  

We wait for the Whimbrel to fly or shake their feathers so we can see the colour of their backs and rumps. It takes an hour of intense silent observation before we ascertain that both show white on their backs and rumps. Not the Hudsonian Whimbrel then. It has an all brown back and rump.


Now what to do? Stand here, wait and hope? A crowd of around thirty birders are now assembled on the sloping shingle, one heroically in a wheelchair and all of us waiting as the tide comes in. The mud flats decrease from fat ovals to narrow slivers of grey. Optimism turns to forlorn hope which subsides to mute resignation. Maybe it has gone. No other whimbrels can be found.

A huge blood orange orb rises through the trees on the other side of the harbour. Sunrise.

Another thirty minutes pass. I leave the throng. Last night I did some research. The Hudsonian Whimbrel was last seen yesterday much further east in the harbour. I know this area intimately. Why not? Two chances. Let's go.

I head along the footpath, narrowed now by the lushness of early summer growth, skirting the harbour. I walk for almost half a mile. East. Alone in a solitude of saltmarsh and seascape. Most of Sussex is still asleep. I look again. Far out to a middle harbour mud bank. Another Whimbrel! Not a Curlew. Definitely a Whimbrel. This one is subtly different from the previous two Whimbrel. Its bill longer than 'our' Whimbrel. Almost Curlew like in dimension. Its body though is slender and definitely that of a Whimbrel. Excited, I hurry further to get closer and opposite. It is distant. The sun now illuminating the bird which is backlit from the East.

I find two other birders. Confirmation comes with thumbs up. They have seen it fly already.They say it has a dark brown back and rump. The Hudsonian Whimbrel. Here it is. At last! We know it is 'the bird'. Even so we watch it for some time just to make absolutely sure. Doubly sure. Trebly sure. We will have to tell the others. Doubts? Ninety nine per cent sure, which is good enough but still we hesitate.

We really should alert the others. Now! Go for it! Reputations on the line! One of us goes to spread the news. I remain watching the Hudsonian Whimbrel. It turns its head to the sun showing a  pale face accentuating alternate black and white lines across its head. Yes. We are right. There is no reason for doubt.

The 'throng' arrive. Some look at the wrong bird. A Curlew. They claim we have got it wrong but are sheepish once they are directed to the correct bird. Discomfited by the rising tide it flies. Dark brown upperparts all over. Not a trace of white. Diagnostic. Cinnamon brown underwings also. It pitches down in the saltmarsh and is gone from sight.

Hudsonian Whimbrel c Matt Eade
A Cuckoo calls from an Oak behind us. Swaying and swinging on a bough as it calls. Hypnotic in sound and movement.

We walk on a little way East. Opposite to where we think the Hudsonian Whimbrel is. We hope. We wait as minutes pass into eternity. We find it roosting by a gully of sea water. It wakes. Unsettled. Slithers about on the mud. Uncertain. Sidles into the saltmarsh vegetation and is now invisible. It flies once more. but only briefly before it is lost in the saltmarsh, again!  More hope.  More waiting. The sun is now warm and the wind chill finally subdued.

The Hudsonian Whimbrel flies once more and back into visibility. Just a short way, only to disappear yet again into the enveloping security of the saltmarsh vegetation. Occasionally it becomes visible feeding. Tantalising. Giving brief views as it leaves the ditches and channels to rise and look about. I watch it for one last time and depart at nine. 

Five hours. Enough is enough.

It was not seen again until four in the afternoon.

A Lesser Whitethroat rattled from the hedgerow. A ratchety rhythmical song from the reeds betrays a Reed Warbler. A family of Long tailed Tits, slurring their baby rattle alarm calls, fly ahead of my progress back to the car.

Many thanks to Matt Eade for allowing me to use two of his excellent images to illustrate this blog

Saturday 6 June 2015

If you go down to the woods ........ 5th June 2015

Following our success at seeing a Glanville Fritillary last Saturday Peter and myself made a date to go and look for both Pearl-bordered and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries at a place called Bentley Wood that just straddles the border of Hampshire but is mainly in Wiltshire.

Friday arrived and as usual the weather, just like the forecasters, could not really make up its mind. I called Peter from my home in Kingham where the sun was shining only to hear it was pouring with rain in Oxford just some twenty miles away. However the forecast suggested that the further west we went the better the weather would be, and crucially it would be sunny, so we took a chance and resolved to head for Bentley Wood.

Traversing westward through a patchwork of various shades of green that comprised the gently undulating contours of rural  Hampshire and Wiltshire, the sun emerged and we finally came to the turn off for Bentley Wood and proceeded to the small  secluded Eastern Car Park, up a track bowered by leaf flickering green and gold sunlight shining through a myriad of trees.

Bentley Wood SSS1 comprises around 655 hectares of mixed woodland much of it planted in the 20th century. The woods were purchased from the Forestry Commission in 1983 with funds provided by Lady Coleman of Winterslow. The wood is now administered by a charitable trust whose aims are to provide a natural amenity, to ensure its conservation for future generations to enjoy and to provide an income from timber production. Laudably the collecting and or netting of butterflies is strictly prohibited. Over 40 butterfly species have been recorded from here and it is considered one of the best sites in Britain to see Purple Emperors. These occur in July and hundreds of people come to try and see them. Thankfully today there were not hundreds of people and only two other cars were in the car park.

An area called the Eastern Clearing has been felled of trees to create an open habitat suitable for the two species of fritillary we were seeking, with the Pearl-bordered Fritillary frequenting the upper drier parts whilst the lower damper areas attract the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary. These two butterflies are very similar in appearance and are hard to distinguish unless they can be seen settled and the undersides of their hindwings studied, so it would be fun and educational putting our observational skills to the test.

The Eastern Clearing  showing habitat created and maintained for the fritillaries
and at the bottom more suitable habitat being created by clearing trees
With the car safely parked in the shade we walked a little way back down the entrance track and turned off into the adjacent Eastern Clearing which is regularly cleared of scrub for the benefit of the fritillaries and comprises a wide, open area of grass and emerging bracken, interspersed with the occasional tree and studded with orchids and wild flowers of various sorts. Purple and yellow flowers are said to be preferred by Pearl-bordered Fritillaries and both species seemed, today at least, to favour the spikes of  the purple blue Bugle.

Various indistinct tracks run through the grassland and bracken and carefully following these we separated as we searched for the fritillaries, each going our own way but still walking roughly parallel and in close enough contact to be able to call to one another. Not a butterfly was to be seen and we carried on further into the clearing. Then a small ginger brown butterfly flew past me keeping very low but not settling and disappeared into the distance. A fritillary for sure and judging by the size a Pearl-bordered. I called Peter but by the time he got to me it had long gone. We carried on and then Peter encountered another fritillary. I saw it too. To my eyes it was smaller and probably a Small Pearl-bordered but it too was forever restless and flew away into the distance and was lost to sight against the vegetation.

We subsequently saw several more of both species but none settled long enough to allow us to take a picture but I did eventually locate a very worn Pearl Bordered which settled and enabled us to take some images of it. Pearl-bordered Fritillaries are almost at the end of their short lives now, they hatch earlier than Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, and this one definitely showed the inevitable wear and tear!

Pearl Bordered Fritillary
Our luck changed for much the better as a little later we encountered the ideal situation for photographing butterflies when Peter found a pair of mating Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries. Clinging to the grass almost at ground level, in congress, they would remain here for ages, hardly moving. The wonderful dappled pattern of their underwings reminding me of the opening line from the poem Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins, himself from Oxford,  'Glory be to God for dappled things .....'. The patterns on their underwings were an exquisite mosaic. Indeed for most butterflies I personally find the intricate and subtle patterns of the underwings aesthetically more pleasing than the upperwing pattern.

Mating Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries
When we first ventured on the reserve there was no one else to be seen but  as we admired and photographed the mating fritillaries we were noticed by other enthusiasts who had subsequently arrived and inevitably they rushed over to join us. The pleasure of our isolated communion with the mating fritillaries was now over and we left to wander further around the clearing finding yet more fritillaries of both species although never in any number and always singly, apart from the pair mating. Also noticeable were the large numbers of Common Lizards, their presence betrayed by the gentle rustle and movement of the grass as they left the warm earth and scuttled for cover.

A Tree Pipit sang, the long terminal notes of its song coming from some tall trees in the distance and a Garden Warbler serenaded the morning from a large Oak nearby. The morning wore on and at mid day Peter suggested we go back to the car for some lunch and then we could resume our search for more fritillaries in the afternoon.

Forty or so minutes later we returned to again wander the Eastern Clearing following roughly our course of this morning. There were now markedly less fritillaries in evidence. Later at home, reading up about these two fritillaries I learnt that they are generally most active at the beginning and end of the day with the males patrolling and feeding but during the middle of the day mating and egg laying take priority. 

The mating fritillary pair had now been commandeered by three people who, despite requests to photographers on the notice board in the car park not to trample the vegetation, were flattening the surrounding vegetation in their quest to get the ultimate image. It really is so annoying. We studiously circumvented them and resumed our fritillary search further away, following a track that headed down and westwards. Pretty soon we came across a single Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary fluttering low in the grasses which obligingly settled on a leaf with its wings spread. This is what Peter wanted, what both of us wanted and we got our pictures.

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary
Happy with this outcome we made to leave. The mating fritillaries were still attended by one of the inconsiderate photographers. He had been there over an hour. How many images can you take before it all gets silly? We left and as there was plenty of time remaining in the day decided to go to Cotley Hill on the other side of Salisbury, where if we were lucky, we would find yet another fritillary species but this time it would be a Marsh Fritillary.

It had all been going so well up to now but the Friday afternoon traffic, never good around Salisbury began to get on Peter's nerves. Everything was perceived to be going against him as he drove us to our destination. Slow moving tractors, lorries, narrow lanes, buses, camper vans, road works and inconsiderate drivers. It was nothing more than the normal Friday afternoon traffic to me but to Peter it was something almost personal. Thankfully before any other hazards imagined or otherwise materialised we arrived at Cotley Hill, an understated chalk downland reserve on Ministry of Defence Land and equanimity of mind and body was restored. 

We stepped over a stile and then through an entrance gate, heading uphill, following a narrow, sinuous chalk white track between banks of nettles and Cow Parsley whose pungent sickly smell permeated the air. A frayed and faded Peacock and then a slick fresh Red Admiral flew onwards up the path before our progress until the path opened out onto an area with a wonderful bank of chalk downland flora and summer grasses to our right. Almost immediately we saw a Marsh Fritillary, a little faded but quickly followed by another completely fresh specimen and then another. A newly emerged Adonis Blue put in a welcome appearance. Electric shining blue against the rich yellow  of the Horseshoe Vetch flowers. A jewel of a butterfly. The bank was alive with various butterflies, not only a profusion of Marsh Fritillaries and Adonis Blues but a full supporting cast of Common Blue, Small Blue and feisty little Brown Argus complemented by Grizzled and Dingy Skippers whilst Five Spot Burnet Moths, like red and black humbugs flew dreamily amongst the yellow catsears and buttercups.

Marsh Fritillary

Adonis Blue
Grizzled Skipper
It was at this moment my camera gave up the ghost, announcing on the screen that it was terminally incompatible with my lens and resisted all attempts at rectification. I did not do a full Basil Fawlty but remained calm. Peter had his camera so he could do the honours while I just luxuriated in this precious and all too brief time at this lovely spot.