|Immature male Scarce Chaser|
|First summer female Red footed Falcon|
|Immature male Scarce Chaser|
|First summer female Red footed Falcon|
Until today I had only ever seen one Chequered Skipper and that was on a family holiday near Strontian on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula in northwest Scotland, where I found one in Purple Moor Grass on a dull afternoon in June, more years ago than I care to remember
In Scotland they were first discovered in 1939 and remain to this day a rare and restricted butterfly, being generally found within a twenty five mile radius of Fort William, a notable location being Glasdrum Wood. They were extinct in England by 1976, as coppicing in their woodland habitats had fallen out of favour, allowing the sunny, open woodland glades and rides they favoured to become dark, overgrown and unsuitable.
Butterfly Conservation set about restoring suitable habitat for this butterfly in England by consulting with Forestry England and local, sympathetic landowners and finally, after four years of dialogue between the UK and Belgium, Chequered Skipper butterflies, collected from the Belgian Ardenne Forest, were released at a secret location in Northamptonshire in 2018.
In May 2019 the first English born Chequered Skipper since 1976 was seen on the wing in its secret location.Further re-introductions bolstered the existing population and the project was declared a success. However the survival and continued existence of these re-introductions will always require that their habitat is artificially maintained by working closely with Forestry England and other involved landowners. Re-introductions in other suitable locations are now planned for the future .
With the re-introduction declared a success and sufficient numbers of this butterfly on the wing, the secret location was made public in 2022 and was revealed to be Fineshade Wood, part of a much larger area of woodland in Northamptonshire called Rockingham Forest.
Today I arranged to meet Mark (R) at Fineshade Wood around 1pm as the weather was going to be ideal for butterflies, being sunny and warm.
All went to plan and after being relieved of a rather excessive £6.00 each for car parking, we eventually found a warden at the Visitor Centre who was able to direct us to the right area to look for the skipper. Being a sunny Sunday the car park and Visitor Centre were very busy but following the warden's directions we soon left most people behind and followed a wide track towards an area called Westhay Wood which was considered the best place to look for the Chequered Skippers.
It has to be said we set off with some trepidation, brought on by the fact we were told that a guided 6km walk that morning had only managed to find one Chequered Skipper. Would we do better?
Well yes, we got off to a good start, as once in the sun and out of the wooded area I saw a small dark brown butterfly zigzagging low over the short grass and bramble growing by the track. It flew further into the brambles but there we had to leave it, as we had been cautioned to remain on the track and if we found a Chequered Skipper under no circumstances stray off the track in pursuit of it.
Frustratingly, the tiny insect footled around for a minute, half hidden amongst bramble leaves growing in a ditch and then flew even further into the wood and was gone. At least we could say we had seen one and within ten minutes, if that, and our expectations were raised accordingly although I hoped to see one for longer and have better views.
We followed the track for one of its 6kms, losing sight of each other in the process.Mark had wandered off along one of the rides that ran off the main track. I opted to continue to follow the main track but consequently had no idea where Mark had got to. No matter, we could liase, whenever our phones got a signal!
The sun shone across the open track, it was very warm and it was down to shirtsleeves as I diligently cased the specially created habitat of short grass and low bramble by the main track but failed to get the desired result.
Various other butterfly enthusiasts came along the track, greeting me and asking if I had any luck in finding a Chequered Skipper. I told them of our brief encounter with one but for the next hour I saw nothing apart from a few Dingy Skippers, which set my pulse racing but not for long.
I began to become weary and despondent at my lack of success.Was I only going to see one Chequered Skipper, like those on the guided walk earlier? Tiring and now half way around the 6km trail I tried calling Mark and as luck would have it my phone finally had a signal
Where are you Mark?
Where are you? he asked
There was not a sign or landmark for us to use as a directional aid
Mark then informed me he had just found a Chequered Skipper and excused himself to photograph it.
I was bereft
A minute or so later he called back but we had the same problem, neither of us knew where the other was.
I gave up, frustrated, and ending the call carried on walking the track. I came to a ride running off to my left.
Ewan! Over here!
By sheer chance I had found Mark, currently standing guard over a Chequered Skipper half way down the ride. I walked, as fast as I could, the short distance to Mark.He pointed to the grass on the left of the ride and there in all its brown and cream spotted glory was a very obliging and pristine Chequered Skipper, perched on a stem of grass. We made the most of this very co-operative individual, which could not have posed more obligingly on various leaves and grass stems.It became obvious this was a male holding terrtory, waiting for a female to pass by and although it flew regularly it never went far, remaining within a thirty metre stretch of the ride
All of us got the images we wished for, you literally could not fail, and it was a total delight to watch and photograph this very rare butterly for an hour or so.
They are very small, around 3cm and have a fast and erratic flight which sometimes makes it hard to follow the butterfly as it zips low over the grass. This individual spent most of its time basking in the sun and never nectared on any of the wild flowers around it. They are said to prefer Bugle for nectar but not this one.
This re-introduced butterfly's food plant is also different to that of the Scottish population, being grasses such as False Brome and Wood Smallreed rather than Purple Moor Grass.
After an hour we were sated with close up views and photographs of this beautifully marked butterfly and made our way back along the remaining 2km of track to the Visitor Centre, noting a rather nice Grizzled Skipper and another three Chequered Skippers on the way.
There is nothing wrong in that but the large number of people, the majority unaware of the birding potential at the reservoir means that for most of the day there is almost constant, unwitting disturbance and few birds, especially migrating waders, hang around.
However, in the early morning and evening the reservoir can be almost deserted and these have now become the most opportune times to find birds, especially the waders that touch down to rest and feed before continuing their long journies north.
It fascinates me that those that do descend to the reservoir must be but a tiny fraction of the birds that pass invisibly, high overhead, heading northwards across England towards their far flung destinations.
This evening I got to the reservoir at 6pm and as anticipated it was comparatively quiet. These visits can go either way, the majority resulting in little to see but occasionally I get lucky. It's all a matter of persistence.The more visits one makes the greater the chance of eventually finding something of interest. This is the reality of birding an inland reservoir.
Walking up to where the central causeway commences, dividing the two basins that comprise the reservoir, I scanned the eastern shore of the smaller basin, the sun still bright and warm and a moderate southwest wind corrugating the blue waters of the reservoir.
When most folk have departed, the yacht's people and surfboarders have ceased their activities and the cafe closed its doors, the reservoir takes on an entirely different character. Less functional and busy, the resulting sense of quiet brings a more relaxed atmosphere as the soothing sound of waves lapping concrete shores re-asserts itself after the noise and bustle of the day.
This sense of calm is compounded by the fact that I too feel the vibe, knowing that if I find a good bird at this time I am less likely to have to endure the frustration of it being flushed by innocent passers by.Tension is now a stranger as expectation and hope transcend any anxiousness.
Looking along a shoreline stained olive green with algae due to the extended warm spell I could see two birds wandering the shore, the sun in the west turning them to no more than black silhouettes. Shape and behaviour however, can be just as good a means of identification as colour.
One was a Pied Wagtail, speed darting and pirouetting, as only they can, chasing after flies to feed its young in a nest in the adjacent waterworks buildings. The other was more bulky and compared to the wagtail methodical in its feeding, picking gently at the algae as it slowly walked along the shore. Wader? Surely not, as most waders settle on the central causeway rather than here
I walked closer and in my bins could see it was indeed a small wader, a Turnstone no less, my first this year. Such is the nature of birding at Farmoor, this formed a triumph, a good record and total justification for my visit.
I moved closer still and settled myself on the retaining wall, waiting for the bird to walk towards me, which it slowly did, and checking over my shoulder that there was no one approaching that would disturb me or the bird, prepared to indulge myself with the camera.
Turnstones in summer plumage are transformed from a winter garb of drab brown and white into a colourful, hotch potch, harlequin mix of black, white and rufous. and judging by the brightness and bold markings of this bird's plumage, it was a male. The panda like black and white patterning on its head was striking in its definition, the breast an apron of black on otherwise snow white underparts. The upperparts a broth of rich chestnut, paler rufous and black feathers, mimicking the colours of the seaweed festooned rocks they so love to frequent. They are sturdy birds, possessing a low slung body supported by short and thick orange legs that provide the power and thrust to enable a stubby pick like bill to upturn the stones and weed where hides their prey. It has the heft of a wrestler, squat and muscular. A no nonsense wader, so very different in demeanour to the more frequently occurring Dunlin and Sanderlings, that are also spring migrant visitors to the reservoir.
In the absence of rocks and weed at the reservoir it contented itself by picking up lesser morsels from the concrete shoreline. It is a long way from its coastal winter home which can be as far away as South Africa and has much further yet to fly but for now this inauspicious concrete corner of the reservoir will serve a purpose until it moves on to breed anywhere from Canada or Greenland to Scandinavia and northern Russia.
I moved on, deciding to walk around the smaller basin rather than up the causeway. Sometimes waders disturbed from the causeway will fly to the opposite side of the basin. It's always worth a look but rarely lives up to expectations. Maybe a Common Sandpiper or two will be there. Today was the exception as I disturbed a curiously dowdy Ringed Plover, its dull, grey brown plumage rendering it almost invisible against the shelving concrete on which it stood.
It looked scruffy, like an unfinished drawing, as if the artist had yet to colour in the rings of black on its head and neck, currently sullied with pale brown and the upperpart feathers, the colour of wet sand, were much worn and abraded. Was it a non breeder or was its moult somehow retarded? There always seems to be an unanswerable question about such birds.
It stood, uncertain, not sure whether to stick or twist, bobbing its head in anxiety, a common wader characteristic, as it regarded me with a large, dark, plover eye. I left it, still stood immobile and looking at me, making its own mind up about my intentions.
I completed the remaining two thirds circuit of the reservoir basin and turned to make my way down the central causeway. Waders, usually Dunlin and Sanderling sometimes drop in here of an evening during May, and today my luck persisted as now there were four of my favourite wader, Sanderlings, standing by the water on the shelving concrete.
Relaxed, if such a word can be used to describe a bird's existence, looking content and with rest very much a priority, they only fed in a desultory fashion preferring to preen, stretch tired wings or even to briefly sleep. Their's is a life lived at breakneck speed and one unimaginable to our sedate, controlled existence. No rules or regulations. No constraints. Everything counted in seconds, reactions immediate, always having to be alert to a multitude of threats to their lives.
As is normal with Sanderlings, the plumage of each bird was variable, with at one extreme, an individual showing much orange and chestnut on its head and uppperparts, to others retaining variable amounts of grey and white winter feathers, less advanced in their moult to the full glowing richness of summer plumage.
The bright plumage tones of the one Sanderling were a delight to behold. It was quite literally transformed from a prosaic grey to various shades of orange on its head and upperparts Not a plumage one sees very often anywhere, and Farmoor, in spring, is virtually the only place where it is possible to enjoy such a sight in Oxfordshire.
This was a very productive visit by Farmoor standards.It does not happpen that often but when it does it fills one with renewed enthusiasm and compensates for the knowledge that inevitably most days will not be like this, as the reservoir reverts to normal and will not deliver such delights.