Tuesday 30 July 2019

Spot the Fly 29th July 2019

I know of a place in northwest Oxfordshire that currently defies the general situation concerning Spotted Flycatchers. For those who are unaware, Spotted Flycatchers in Britain have suffered a catastrophic decline of 86% in their population during the period 1967-2006 and this is being repeated in Europe where numbers have fallen by 59% since 1980. The alarming and depressing decline in Britain continues to this day and is especially marked in south and east England and at the moment there is not a lot of optimism about the future, as the causes of the decline are unknown. What is known is that there is some factor causing first year birds to die before they return to breed. Why this is happening and whether this happens in Britain before they depart for their first winter in Africa or, more likely, in the areas they pass through on their southward migration or where they spend the winter, is currently an unknown

They are now a hard bird to find in Oxfordshire. Would that we could go back thirty years when they were to be found in every churchyard and village, not just in Oxfordshire but throughout England. I can recall them being commonplace in the wooded parkland near my childhood home and up to four pairs bred in Kingham, the Oxfordshire village I lived in for thirty years, even nesting in the clematis climbing the wall of our house but these are now long gone, just distant and fading memories.

The small village I drove to today is tucked away in quintessentially English countryside, the stuff beloved of coffee table glossy magazines and has now become a very upmarket place with a defunct church but carefully tended churchyard plus a few very grand houses and their landscaped gardens, containing mature oak trees and paddocks. 

It is typical Spotted Flycatcher habitat and it is here that at least two pairs of Spotted Flycatchers are nesting in very close proximity and defying the current downward trend of their species.

It was reported only a few days ago that up to thirteen Spotted Flycatchers had been seen here, which in this day and age is almost unheard of and if I had not seen it with my own eyes would not have believed it possible.  I determined to see for myself, yesterday, and indeed found two pairs, one pair still feeding their young in a nest wedged into ivy climbing up a rather grand oak tree while other fledged young were calling from the surrounding trees.While not quite managing to see thirteen I did see or hear at least ten.

Spotted Flycatchers are unremarkable in virtually all aspects, being an  unobtrusive bird apart from when they make themselves obvious by perching on prominent twigs, fences and telephone wires, even gravestones, from which they fly out to chase and seize passing insects. Their song is also nothing to write home about, being a series of unmelodic hesitant squeaks. They are also not spotted, at least not the adults, but the young, after fledging have spots on their scaly upperpart feathers but these are moulted before they migrate south. The adult is nothing short of drab, appearing dull greyish brown on the upperparts and  dull white with grey streaks on its underparts, the streaking also prominent on its forehead. 

However its migration to Britain is remarkable, being one of the latest if not last migrant breeding bird to arrive here, the bulk of those arriving no earlier than the middle of May. They can begin to move south again as early as late July but the majority return south from August to September.They follow a route through western France and Iberia and reach North Africa in September with many spending the winter in coastal West Africa. Others continue further, crossing the Equator and even reaching South Africa. Personally I have seen a few wintering in northern Tanzania when they were in heavy wing moult.

The weather on Sunday was dull and cloudy and although I saw the flycatchers well I decided to return this Monday morning for another look. After all, this unprecedented flycatcher bonanza surely deserved a second look, especially as today was forecast to be pleasantly sunny throughout. 

I set off on a half hour drive through rural Oxfordshire, with a pale blue sky stretching forever above me, punctuated by occasional meringue shaped white clouds. The journey was idyllic, through dappled sunlight and along tree shaded roads, running through a pastoral landscape burgeoning with summer's plenty.

I came, as I did yesterday, to the village church and parked in a quiet gated lane by an ancient wall. 

As soon as I left the car I could hear and see the Spotted Flycatchers doing pretty much what they were doing yesterday, ceaselessly and acrobatically flying from exposed perches, swooping low over the ground, to seize an unfortunate insect then returning to their perch, before making another frenzied flight after another unsuspecting insect. 

I walked a few yards up the lane and leant on the graveyard wall by a tall oak and watched a pair of Spotted Flycatchers using a metal rail and wooden fence to sally forth after insects. They hardly ever stopped, frantically chasing and catching insects for their young. Forever looking around and up to seek their next victim, then flying and swooping at great speed after it. They were inactive for no more than a few seconds as they garnered beakful after beakful of prey and then flew up to the nest to deliver the insects, then down to the railing once more. It was ceaseless movement and action and I marvelled at these small birds stamina and resolve.

Although they are here for such a short time, Spotted Flycatchers can usually manage to raise two broods.The first brood has four or five young but the second, more often than not is only three or four, possibly reflecting the lack of insect prey later in the season. Although primarily insectivorous the Spotted Flycatcher can adapt on cold or rainy days to gleaning small invertebrates amongst the foliage of trees but such periods of weather can also adversely affect the success of a second brood.

So I stood for an hour in the sunlight, quietly content in this forgotten and peaceful corner of Oxfordshire.No one came up the lane and I was alone with the Spotted Flycatchers. listening to their bills snapping as they caught insects for their young.What does the future hold for these particular birds? Will they return next year to this lovely spot? 

I do hope so.

Saturday 27 July 2019

The Travellers Return 26th July 2019

Today, almost at the end of July, it was warm and sultry, light cloud shrouding the sun but only just, so the light was still harsh, too bright at times as it reflected off the reservoir's waters to dazzle my eyes. It was not the kind of day to expect much birdlife to be apparent but a vast unheralded movement involving millions of birds was taking place that would continue for the next two months, un-noticed by anyone other than birders such as myself. 

The latter part of July heralds the beginning of the return of long distance migratory waders from the High Arctic. The short window for breeding will soon be closing in those extreme northern latitudes they have travelled to and the first birds to leave have already begun to arrive at Farmoor and other parts of Britain. They are, in the main, either failed breeders or adults. The latter, often females, are still in breeding plumage, having left the males to take care of the young until they too return later, in August and September.

It was only a short time ago, a matter of weeks, that I was watching Turnstones and Dunlins on their way north as they made a brief stop at Farmoor Reservoir but now they are back, running along the water's edge by the shelving concrete apron of the reservoir. This return journey is a more relaxed affair and the birds have time to linger, often for days as there is now no pressing need to find a mate, lay eggs and raise young. This sense of laissez faire permeates the whole reservoir and seems ideally suited to a day of heat such as this.

Today there was a single Turnstone and five Dunlin, all adults, pattering gently along through a frieze of spume and green algae at the edge of the reservoir.

As is often the case they showed little alarm at my presence or that of anyone else and carried on feeding, quite unconcerned. They do not have the capacity to reflect but I do, and watching them I thought how strange it must be to spend five or six weeks breeding in parts of the earth that see hardly a human and be totally undisturbed, then having to migrate southwards, back through ever more crowded and industrialised parts of the globe where there is now so little space to live out their lives without constant interruption. It does not worry them as they can only react to the instant, living entirely in the present here and now. They cannot speculate about the future but I can and it certainly worries me.

However, for today, I endeavoured to banish such thoughts and enjoy their company. They were safe from any major disturbance and as much as a bird can relax they did so, happy to wander the shoreline picking at morsels hidden in the cracks of the concrete or washed up by the wavelets lapping at the shore.

The Turnstone's rich chestnut plumage was very worn, most of the colourful fringes to the feathers frayed to virtually nothing, so it looked dark with just a vestige of chestnut remaining and the white on its head was sullied with brown. I think it was a female judging by the muted patterning of its plumage. Soon it will moult into a duller brown and white plumage for winter although  retaining its bright orange legs and feet. I watched it using its short stout bill, slightly uptilted, to turn over the algae looking for anything edible hidden underneath. Its legs were short and thick. its body stocky, making it appear bulky amongst the smaller demure Dunlins it was associating with.

The Dunlins in contrast to the Turnstone were the more delicate, their long, downcurved,black bills and thin black legs giving them a touch of elegance and fragility denied the Turnstone. They kept very much together and called a trilling note to themselves on occasions.

I left them in peace, conscious I too could be disturbing them if I lingered too long. They still had a long way to go to wherever they would, if they could, call home.

Friday 26 July 2019

A Good Tern 24th July 2019

I was watching a couple of Mediterranean Gulls, preening on a muddy shore, the cares and stresses of breeding forgotten and their focus now directed to sorting moulting feathers as they acquired their new winter plumage, their heads already beginning to become grizzled as the black is replaced by white. Can it be so soon that it is all over for another year and the ever so  gentle, long decline into autumn and then winter is upon us? The gull's behaviour told me it was indeed so.

Mediterranean Gull - adult
Two Greater Black-backed Gulls, dwarfing the other gulls nearby, were 'dismantling' a large crab, leg by leg. Stabbing and tearing the still live crab to pieces with their formidable bills. Totally pitiless. killers of the tideline, ever ready to seize anything showing weakness or vulnerability.

Greater Black-backed Gulls
Two large terns, a parent and its offspring flew in with the incoming tide, as I stood on the mud and seaweed, watching the seawater creeping inexorably from Weymouth Bay into the Fleet Lagoon that lies between the huge shingle spit of Chesil Bank and where I stood under the seawall. This is a place called Ferrybridge, near Portland in Dorset, and is now a nature reserve. It was still early enough in the morning for the light to be benign, only later would it be harsh and bright on a day predicted to be one of the hottest of the year.

The Fleet Lagoon at Ferrybridge which forms part of the nature reserve
A southwest wind blew hard enough to keep the temperature on the cool side for now but that would change in the next hour or two. The two terns in question were Sandwich Terns. They had noticed the small group of Black headed and Mediterranean Gulls that were idling away time on a spit of shingle and decided to join them. Gulls and terns are sociable birds for virtually their whole lives, having an affinity with each other and will always seek company if it is available. 

Sandwich Terns are Britain's largest breeding tern, similar in size to Black headed Gulls, but their shorter legs make them appear slightly smaller and their profile is slimmer and more elongated compared to the gulls, the long wings, especially those of the parent bird creating an impression of elegance and no little grace. 

The gulls at this popular spot are used to the close presence of humans  and they showed no alarm as I edged towards them. This gave the terns a similar confidence  so I was able to move ever closer until I could advance no further, for I would be standing in the sea.

The adult tern was already beginning to moult and spent much time picking at its feathers with its long and narrow bill. A rapier and a formidable tool, black with a sulphur yellow tip. The black crown of breeding feathers was being replaced by white feathering on the forehead but the rear crown still sported a ragged halo and mane of black feathers. 

The juvenile was recently fledged and altogether more squat, with less of the elegance of its parent, lacking the extremely pointed wings and having a shorter and thicker bill. Its head was capped sooty brown while the dull white upperparts were profusely patterned with greyish brown chevrons and vermiculations, its underparts, like its parent, were pure white. In a time long past, so different was the appearance of a young Sandwich Tern from the adult, it was considered to be a separate species and given the name Striated Tern.

Sandwich Tern - adult

Sandwich Tern - juvenile
The name Sandwich Tern was first coined in 1787 by a gentleman going by the name of Latham who gave it the Latin name Sterna sandvicensis owing to it being found " in vast flocks making a screaming noise" at Sandwich in Kent. They have had many colloquial names since and now lost in history, such as Sparling, Kek and Kek Swallow, Kip and Screecher Kip, Screecher, Skrike, Pearl Gull, Cat Swallow, Great Sea Swallow and Big Sea Swallow.The origin of these names is in many cases obvious, others not so.

Once the young have fledged it is not unusual to encounter a parent bird and single youngster, such as this, wandering along our coasts in summer, the young bird still following its parent around although by now fully grown, and making a mewing call, insistent and querulous, to which the adult will occasionally respond but otherwise ignores, although seeming happy enough to endure the  young bird's persistent begging and cajoling.

All terns are noisy birds, virtually no action is performed without an accompaniment of raucous cries that are harsh and un-musical to human ears and Sandwich Terns are no exception, forever screaming with angry complaint in their breeding colonies or communicating with an excitable kirrick kirrick as they fish in the sea

These two Sandwich Terns, like all of their kind, would give vent to their feelings at the slightest provocation, the adult responding with harsh cries whenever the gulls started calling and the youngster forever begging of its parent. They stood on the spit as the sea slowly rose about their legs and as the water began to reach their underparts, the adult called harshly and repeatedly, raised its wings and lifted off, to be followed by its offspring. Still calling they departed towards the open sea and were gone although I could still hear them calling after they became invisible.

Sandwich Terns breed in scattered colonies around much of Britain and along the coast of northwest Europe and most will migrate south for the winter, following the seaboard of western Europe and Africa to as far as the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of South Africa. Sometimes they round the Cape and fly onwards into the Indian Ocean, reaching as far as Natal in eastern South Africa. In direct contrast a very small number now spend the winter around the south coast of England.

I looked at the two terns and wondered where they would be in a month or so. Still here patrolling the shores of southern England or heading southwards across the sea? Guided by an incomprehensible instinctive stimulus that points the way clearly to these feathered beings and enables them to successfully migrate to their ultimate destination off the coast of Africa..

Tuesday 23 July 2019

Valezina Victorious 20th July 2019

Today I returned to Bernwood, again in search of Silver washed Fritillarys but not for the 'normal' ones but seeking the much less common form called f.valezina. Between 5-15% of the larger populations of Silver washed Fritillary  in central southern England are of this form, which is an exceedingly lovely insect and is eagerly sought after by butterfly enthusiasts such as myself and in my case, to date, with little success.

In this form there is no orange on the wings at all, which is replaced by mainly a dusky grey brown and bronze green but still with the familiar dark markings. On the lower wings there is a distinct greenish hue which from certain angles as the light catches the wings can even shine emerald or aquamarine. The fur on the thorax also has a distinct greenish hue. The underwings too show the greenish hue, often markedly and are slightly paler than normal, with a pink tinge for added delight. It is without doubt a most striking butterfly to look at and is prone to be the cause of mild celebration whenever one is found. This form is always a female, a circumstance controlled by genetics and it is most often found in central southern areas of England which includes my county of Oxfordshire amongst others.

The origin of the name valezina is unknown but the most plausible explanation so far is thought to come from a Greek verb which translated into Latin comes out as valizo meaning 'to be green like glass'. and this form has been given the alternative name of Greenish Silver-washed Fritillary. Frederick William Frohawk, a renowned lepidopterist who lived from 1861-1946 was so enchanted by this butterfly he named his only daughter Valezina.

Their comparative rarity is thought to be due to the fact they appear less attractive to males and that they also behave differently to a normal female Silver-washed Fritillary, in that they prefer to seek out the shaded edges of woodland  or even areas inside the woodland, avoiding the sun to a certain extent. This is thought to be because their dusky bodies are prone to overheating in hot sunny weather. It also, from an enthusiasts point of view, makes them harder to locate, concealed in shade and camouflaged as they are by their dark colouring in the open woodland they favour.

I have to admit that valezina's have become a bit of a bogey butterfly for me over the years. My only glimpse involved a seconds only view of one on a bramble flower before it flew deep into a wood that was inaccessible and, apart from that frustrating moment, it became a sorry tale, whereby I would miss one by minutes or other enthusiasts would tell of one seen the day before and I would go looking the day after and there would be no sign of it. Pictures on the internet of various people's minor triumphs at finding one would add to my angst and even a few days prior to this very morning, Chris, a fellow enthusiast had seen one here at Bernwood on the main track but before he could take a photo it slipped away into the wood whilst I stood just yards away. It has become something of a cause celebre for me to see one and I determined that this summer I would make a supreme effort.

I got to Bernwood at around nine thirty on a day that did not hold out great prospects weatherwise but after a dull and cloudy beginning, which deterred any other butterfly fans from putting in an appearance, the sun won its battle over the clouds and for the most part shone down uninterrupted. I stood on the main track near to the car park and watched as male Silver washed Fritillarys swooped and glided past me as they endlessly patrolled the woodland edge, while others swarmed over a large flowering bramble or visited a patch of  Betony, the striking purple red flowers conspicuous in the green grass

A male Silver-washed Fritillary on a Betony flower
It was far from unpleasant to be standing alone in the sun with a mild warm wind blowing across the track and butterflies streaming past. In fact it was a joy as days like this are all too few.

A Purple Emperor, high above me, sailed imperiously in arrogant magnificence over the tops of the oaks bordering the track and was gone in an instant whilst the delicate silvery underwings of Purple Hairstreaks betrayed their fussy meanderings amongst the dark green foliage of the oaks. An hour and more passed during which time I became aware that a couple of female Silver washed Fritillarys were flying low and enquiringly around the narrow trunks of two Sallow trees opposite me, examining them for a suitable crack in the bark in which to place an egg before moving on to find another. They fluttered around the tree trunks for a moment or two but seemed dissatisfied and moved on. 

The two Sallow trees with the woodland edge behind
Another fritillary came along the track and stopped to examine the slender trunk of one of the trees, but on the side of the trunk concealed from me. For no reason I can account for I thought it looked a little dark. Valezinas have been described as rather like a giant Ringlet (another dark brown butterfly) when flying but then I remembered that female Silver-washed Fritillarys are darker in their general overall colour than the males and dismissed thoughts of a valezina as fanciful on my part.

It was, however, worth a look, despite my doubts and so I left the track and took a few steps through the grass to the slender trunk but could see nothing. Assuming the butterfly had evaded me I was about to turn to regain the track when the same butterfly flew up from the base of the trunk and fluttered a few yards further into the dappled shade just inside the edge of the wood,  settling on a sunlit patch of dead leaves and twigs. It was so brown it was barely visible against the background of dead leaves on which it rested. From the initial angle at which  I saw the butterfly I could see no black markings on its open wings, just an overall brown. Was it an aberrant White Admiral, where the white markings are absent and which I have seen here before? Cautiously I moved closer, praying it would not move off but it remained content in the sunlight on the woodland floor. I stood behind it and there at last I could see the dark markings on its dusky wings and the green hue sometimes shining emerald or blue in the sun - f.valezina! What a moment as years of frustrated hope was finally resolved in this delightful moment of discovery.

I watched the valezina for five minutes as it sat unperturbed in the dead leaves, occasionally shuffling about to adjust its position but then it flew up and I lost sight of it against the dark background of trees as it headed deeper into the wood.  I would have liked to watch it for longer but it was not to be and though I searched around the general area, it was gone.

Let us fast forward another hour, during which I encountered only one other butterfly enthusiast but more than my fair share of dog walkers! The time was enlivened by finding a Roesel's Bush Cricket in some long grass and then another Purple Emperor glided above me and settled high up on an oak leaf. It remained for a few minutes but then as I checked my camera for a brief second, on looking back I found it had gone and I never saw it again.

Roesel's Bush Cricket
Purple Emperor
Eventually I found myself standing by a 'crossroads' of tracks where the main hardcore track was met by a grass track  just a hundred yards down from the car park. Turning onto the grass track which forms part of a signposted butterfly walk, courtesy of the Forestry Commission, I commenced to follow this pleasantly secluded  butterfly trail, enclosed by bushes and trees of high summer on either side.

Part of the Butterfly Trail at Bernwood
The margins to the track abound with wild flowers and are consequently alive with butterflies. The prominent presence of many Silver washed Fritillarys was augmented by hordes of the ever appealing bright eyed Gatekeepers, their wings flicking open to reveal the eyes on their orange splashed brown upperwings and then closing, as if they are winking at you. Feisty Large Skippers, which belie their name and are in fact very small, were also here in large numbers, zooming up from their perches low in the grass or brambles to intercept others of their kind or even the much larger fritillarys. Ringlets and Meadow Browns, those journeymen amongst the rarer more exotic  butterflies, jinked along amongst the grass or sat on sun baked bare patches of earth and a Peacock suddenly opened its wings, to startle me with four huge colourful eyes, one to each wing. If the butterfly was not so comparatively common its beauty would be far more remarked upon and marvelled at, I am sure.

Large Skipper

The Silver-washed Fritillary's were concentrating on the profusion of betony flowers growing between the track and the woodland edge and, as I passed by, their bright orange presence seemed to be everywhere, flitting from betony flower to betony flower, hardly still for more than a few seconds. 

Half way down I came across yet another patch of betony with its ever attendant fritillarys. I caste an eye over them and there, right before my unbelieving eyes was another valezina. Contrary to all that is advised about them liking shade, this one was fully in the sun though not far from the wood's edge, feeding avidly on a betony before flitting to another flower, showing no particular hurry and it even allowed me to approach to within inches of its dusky presence.

This individual was in slightly better condition than the earlier one and I stood in the sun and photographed it from every angle possible and then stood back and just admired it, again savouring the rare satisfaction of finding my very own valezina .

It was obvious it was going nowhere and appeared to like this small particular area of betony. I must have remained with it for over thirty minutes and then decided to walk to the end of the trail before coming back to watch the valezina some more.

I returned to the spot where the valezina had been and of course, on arriving, found it had gone. A slight feeling of disappointment was soon forgotten as I reminded myself that today I had certainly rectified my ongoing failure to find a valezina. I rejoined the main track and on an impulse walked to the far end of Bernwood and then walked back. On getting to the butterfly trail, my obsessive nature persuaded me to again venture along the trail in the hope that the  valezina would, by some slim chance, have returned but predictably  I was disappointed. I walked onwards to the end of the trail and turned to walk back marvelling yet again at the profusion of butterflies making the most of the sun and sheltered warmth of the track. 

As I began my return  I found two Silver washed Fritillarys mating, one of which was a valezina! There is little subtlety about the process with each insect joined end on end by their fat bodies and there they remain until the process is over. They looked very vulnerable and exposed lying in the grass and an attempt at flight was heavy and laboured. However the male persisted on seeking flower heads from which to nectar on - a bit like having a pint whilst having sex - and the female had no choice but to be dragged around until the process of mating was complete and they could separate. Procreation is the be all and end all for butterflies and with such a short time on this earth there can be no delay. The still firmly attached couple finally fell back to earth in the grass and I left them to it

I walked on and arrived to where the valezina had been about an hour ago and looked once more at the purple spikes of betony standing proud of the grass and the first butterfly I saw was a valezina! It was on top of a betony flower, sitting quietly, not feeding but quiescent, if butterflies ever are such a thing. I could hardly believe my eyes but here it was inches from me. 

Had I missed its inconspicuous presence on the way down or had it arrived in my absence?  It did not really matter. What did though was, that on closer inspection, I could see this individual was different to the other two I had seen. So now I had seen four valezinas in the space of  five hours after years of hardly seeing one at all. Consequently yet another thirty minutes passed in blissful worship of this most coveted of insects.

There is of course a point where sensory overload sets in and my senses told me that such a point had been reached, if not passed, but it was impossible to leave the valezina. The dilemna was resolved when the butterfly flew up from the flower and then around me and with a final flourish ascended up into the surrounding birches and oaks to disappear into the forest. I waited but it never reappeared.

It had been quite a day and now, hot and thirsty but absolutely elated, I finally left Bernwood Forest at three in the afternoon.What is it that they say about buses?