Friday 23 June 2023

Red White and Bluethroat 22nd June 2023

I called Mark(P) on Monday evening suggesting we make a trip to Slimbridge  to see a male White spotted Bluethroat that had returned there for a remarkable third year to sing, so far unsuccessfully, for a  mate. A mate that would surely never come as it was so far removed from its normal breeding range. 

There are are 11 recognised subspecies of bluethroat ranging from Europe and Scandinavia to the Far East and all are fundamentally similar in plumage apart from male birds having either a red or white spot in the blue of their breast or far less frequently no spot at all, just blue.The red spotted birds are the commoner of the two forms and are found more in the north and east of the species range.

The white spotted bluethroat being the more southerly form is found breeding discontinuously throughout Europe from northwest France, Belgium,The Netherlands and Germany to west and central Russia, Romania, then to west and central Ukraine and winters in southwest and southern Europe, North Africa and sub saharan West Africa. 

The hot weather would certainly suit the current incumbent at Slimbridge and make it feel at home but the chances of attracting a similarly overshooting female are, sadly, slim There are however five records of bluethroats breeding in Britain, four of the red spotted form in Scotland in 1968/1985/1995/2016 and one of the white spotted form in England in 1996. 

Single males like the individual at Slimbridge have occasionally set up territory in Britain, as for example, a White spotted Bluethroat that returned for two years in succession to sing at Welney in Norfolk in 2020/21 but like the bird now at Slimbridge failed to attract a mate. Normally bluethroats are scarce passage migrants mainly to be found on the east coast of Britain.

The Slimbridge bluethroat had made its home in an area of rank grass and reeds by the tidal River Severn, a typical habitat and after the previous two years of being highly elusive and hard to see this year it showed a marked change in behaviour with a willingness to show itself well at regular intervals, albeit distantly, singing and displaying from various elevated perches such as wooden fence posts, thin branches and the tops of reeds.

We arrived at 8.15am when the Slimbridge gates are first opened to members and made a pleasant half mile walk in already warm sunshine along what is called the Summer Walkway to a location called Middle Point where there is a hide called The Shepherd's Hut.  Most of us eschewed entering the hide but chose to stand outside on a raised bank that acts as a seawall to look over the reeds and grass that lay between us and the River Severn.

It took less than a minute to see the bluethroat which was singing from a thin branch rising out of the reeds on the far side of the reedbed.The heat haze, even at this comparatively early hour was already a hindrance  and posing viewing problems but the bird nevertheless stood out reasonably clearly in the telescope. Initially facing away from us we could only see its earth brown upperparts, a frequently cocked tail with bright chestnut flashes  and dull white underparts. It reversed on its perch to face in our direction and it was as if a coloured light show had been switched on. A transformation that left you almost gasping in wonder at the sheer jewel like magnificence of the combined colours The iridescent bright blue throat and breast  shone in the sun, with bands of unequal breadth, black and mostly chestnut dividing the blue from a white belly A broad pale eyebrow crossed each side of its head and in the midst of the blue a prominent white spot was visibly pulsing as the bird sang.

For Mark it was a lifer and for me a chance to once more enjoy another view of this spectacularly colourful bird. Its behaviour and the attitudes it adopted were reminiscent of a Robin as it dropped down into the reeds and then popped up again with much tail cocking and body  bobbing on long legs.Minor conflcts with a male Reed Bunting ensued as the two birds disputed who perched at the top of the branch. It eventually flew towards us and landed on a fence post to our left where it sang as it moved away from us post by post, before flying back to the far side of the reeds where it showed almost continuously for the next hour.

The heat haze was now burdensome, especially when viewing the magnified bird at distance through camera lens or telescope and the sun was surprisingly hot on our necks .More and more people were arriving and we decided that it looked like the bluethroat had every intention of remaining on the far side of the reeds, so we departed back to the main reserve for a welcome ice cream and to sit outside the cafe in the shade as a couple of Rooks hung about our table on the off chance of a scrap or two. 

We had nothing for them but doubtless as the cafe got busier their fortunes would change. Moving on we made our way to the South Lake and its Discovery Hide to see the long staying male Black winged Stilt.

Again the bird was on immediate view and in fact came quite close. Supremely elegant on its astonishingly long coral pink legs akin to knitting needles. Stilt is by no means a  misnomer as it stalked through the shallow water of South Lake on those amazing legs supporting a slim black and white body. The legs looked so incredibly fragile you feared they might break at the slightest opportunity.   

Black winged Stilts, formerly a real rarity are becoming an increasingly frequent spring and summer visitor to Britain in small numbers and are now breeding here successfully, albeit only one or two pairs.I predict this may well be one of those southern European species that will colonise Britain as have Great, Little and Cattle Egrets. Certainly our warming climate and our current heatwave will be an undoubted encouragement.

Other waders were beginning to build up on the lake as returning birds arrived from their northern breeding grounds, with at least three Green Sandpipers, two soot black, summer plumaged Spotted Redshanks hiding amongst some roosting Common Redshanks. Numerous Lapwings and Black tailed Godwits of various ages, were also scattered around the lake amidst over a hundred Avocets, both adult and young.

The sun was against us as it had been all morning, dazzlingly bright, reflecting off the water and making photography a lottery. Even just observing birds was difficult as they became mere silhouettes in the white reflected light.

We called it a day at noon. 

Thursday 15 June 2023

First of The Year 15th June 2023

It was noon when I turned into the tiny car park of the reserve with room for no more than four cars.The white heat of the midday sun, in this early summer heatwave, bore down on the land, oppressive and sultry, the wind of the preceding weeks now no more than an occasional whisper.

Bird song had all but ceased, apart from a Garden Warbler that persisted in singing loudly from the depths of a venerable oak, all other avian vocalists having retreated to the shade and shadows of the surrounding oak woods.

The managed meadows of the reserve had become a terrestrial firmanent, wild flowers substituting for stars; yellow rattle, buttercup, oxeye daisy and spotted orchid studded the summer grasses with countless individual points of colour. 

The particular meadow I had in mind was but a short walk from the car park.A meadow enclosed by thick blackthorn twice my height, the countless tiny leaves dark green, their hard surfaces shiny in the sun. Bramble grew through parts of the thick mesh of blackthorn but the flowers were still in bud and would not provide a nectar source for the butterfly I sought for a few days yet. 

I was searching for the Black Hairstreak, the rarest of the five hairstreak species found in Britain and restricted to an area of low lying clays, stretching from Peterborough to Oxford with only fifty or so known colonies. Black Hairstreaks are usually only on the wing from around the last ten days in June to the end of the first week in July,  allowing twenty days, give or take, to seek them out, so any opportunity to see them is not to be ignored.

They are frustratingly elusive, spending a large part of their time perched high and out of sight at the top of the blackthorn.It usually requires much patience and persistence to see one well and even more to photograph one but given time, often a lot of time, one or more will venture down to head height and pootle around on a bramble or blackthorn leaf, imbibing aphid honeydew from the leaf's surface.

I wandered along beside the blackthorn looking for this thumbnail sized dark butterfly with its distinctive jerky, jinking flight but found nothing but Meadow Browns and Marbled Whites.

I have visited this particular site many times, over the years I have lived in Oxfordshire, and have come to know the hotspots in the blackthorn where one can hope to have more than an even chance of encountering a Black Hairstreak. I  stopped at one of these and waited.

This is my preferred method but it requires some leap of faith and often an hour or more can pass with nothing to show for it.Today was different. Ten minutes had hardly elapsed and then at head height a Black Hairstreak jinked its uncertain way towards me and settled on a bramble leaf at eye level.

This minor miracle of chance was not about to be ignored by me and I took the insect's image many times, too many probably but the excitement of the moment can enthuse you this way. The butterfly was pristine, maybe just hatched today, not a scratch or bramble tear in its wings to disfigure its perfection. Judging by the upward angle of the tails on its hind wing it was a female. A miniature triangle of furled wings, it edged its way around the leaf's surface on thread thin legs, its alternately banded black and white antennae probing for the desired honeydew.

I was pleased with the results from my new camera but as I reviewed the images in the camera's viewfinder the butterfly gave me the slip, for on looking back to the leaf where it had perched there was nothing.I chided myself for taking my eye off the butterfly if only for seconds and now had no idea where it had gone, maybe some distance or it could be hidden in the dense foliage almost in front of me.I would never know unless it flew again. 

I stood for twenty minutes more and eventually saw the hairstreak rise from the blackthorn a few yards to my left and disappear over the top of the hedge. 

Ninety minutes had passed. I considered myself fortunate to have been granted this brief audience with such an uncommon butterfly and left it at that.

Wednesday 14 June 2023

Burnt Orchids 13th June 2023

It has been a long time since I had the opportunity and indeed pleasure to see the highly attractive Burnt Orchid or Burnt tipped  Orchid. as it is also called. The last time was when I lived in Sussex over thirty years ago and I can still clearly recall going to see them growing in profusion on Caburn Hill,  part of the South Downs, near Lewes in East Sussex.

I was instantly charmed by their demure presence and attractive colouring of pink purple (burnt) tops and whiter lower flowers, this attractive combination giving rise to their name.

When Peter told me he had visited Clattinger Farm on the Gloucestershire/Wiltshire border a few days ago to see them and which resulted in a four hour marathon but ultimately successful search of hay meadows to find them, I never thought that a few days later I would be accompanying him to the same  location to see for myself but that is how it worked out.

Earlier in the day an abortive search for them at another location in Gloucestershire left us hot, tired and frustrated on yet another humid and sunny day in this prolonged spell of mediterranean weather. We abandoned our search at noon with the hardly compensating find of three Greater Butterfly Orchids and transferred to Clattinger Farm  which is part of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Lower Moors Reserve and consists of a lake and no less than fourteen unimproved hay meadows.

Greater Butterfly Orchid

As Peter had already found the 'burnt tips' on his earlier trip here I had the distinct luxury of not having to commence a long search but just to follow him across two very large meadows to a third. 

No its not a scarecrow but Peter my good pal indicating the orchids

Upon opening the gate to this meadow I was astounded to see hundreds upon hundreds of Southern  Marsh and Common Spotted Orchids, although many appeared to be hybrids.  Nevertheless it was a splendid sight to see the spikes of varying purple even occasionally white, growing amongst the grass.

We followed a narrow track through the grass, reluctant to encroach further on the meadow for fear of trampling the profusion of orchids and other wildflowers.

The track turned to our right and quickly terminated in a slightly trampled area and there, discretely hidden in the grass, was our first Burnt tipped Orchid, no more than, I would say, 9cms tall. Nearby were the single spikes of others, similarly concealed in the grass, some more advanced than others but all unfailingly attractive.

Burnt tips bloom in two forms, the early flowering form which is what we were viewing and that bloom from May to June, reaching between 5-10cms in height whilst a second, later form appears in July and August and grows slightly taller, from 8-15cms.The later form does not grow in the same place as the early ones but both have  identical cylindrical flower spikes and colouring.

As with much of our flora and fauna they have suffered a drastic decline in the last seventy years. Disturbance from over eager orchid enthusiasts, even collectors and lack of suitably grazed meadows have been major contributory causes to its decline as have extremes of temperature.

We took it in turns to photo these nationally scarce delights, coyly concealed amongst the burgeoning grasses and meadow flora. A true botanical gem, we counted I think, thirteen.

Gazing at these orchids, yet another natural wonder of our world, I felt a sense of achievement and my eye was drawn ever closer to examine the perfection of each tiny flower forming a column of white and deep pink.For these few minutes the world around me was absent as I concentrated on this small orchid in its unexceptional patch of the vast meadow and then fell to wondering how many other similar hidden enclaves of Burnt tip Orchids there might be in this and the other meadows. 

It would be nice to think there are others.

Forty five minutes spent admiring and photographing this small group seemed a justified expenditure of both time and sheer delight and for me brought a long awaited chance to renew my acquaintance with one of our most lovely native orchids

Monday 12 June 2023

A Poignant Visit to Cemlyn Bay 6th June 2023

Whilst doing a week of volunteering for the RSPB at South Stack in Anglesey, on two successive evenings after my duties were over for the day, I drove ten miles to spend the evening at Cemlyn Bay Nature Reserve to view the tern colony and enjoy the tranquil rural surrounds in which it is situated. At this time of day it is not unusual to find one's self entirely alone here and after a full on day of welcoming and talking to the many visitors at South Stack it was a welcome opportunity to bring body and soul back into harmony.

The lagoon and the main tern island

A tern colony is never quiet, in fact quite the opposite, especially as this colony is predominantly made up of Sandwich Terns, one of the larger and more raucous species of tern and that come to breed at Cemlyn. White and pearl grey birds with an ink black cap and yellow tipped dagger of a bill.

The noise they generate, night and day, non stop, is quite incredible but despite this auditory jarring one is also impressed by Cemlyn's overall calm, engendered by the peaceful ambience of a wide sweep of bay and open sea beyond. It is as if the noisy colony is subsumed into the overall landscape and becomes part of rather than distinct from the whole.
Cemlyn Bay

Sandwich Terns, despite their harsh calls are supremely elegant birds, built for a life at sea and amongst the Sandwich Terns there are also lesser numbers of equally elegant but smaller Arctic Terns and Common Terns. All are summer visitors, the Sandwich and Common Terns coming to us from West Africa, the Arctic Terns, as their name implies covering incredible distances from a winter home ten thousand miles away.

Sandwich Terns

Common Tern
I made my way across a million rounded stones that comprise the unique elliptical shingle ridge called Esgair Cemlyn, liberally studded with green and white clumps of sea kale, to stand opposite the colony which is situated on two islands in a large lagoon. 

Sea Kale

A constant passage of individual terns passed very close to me,  leaving the colony with loud cries as if excited to be returning to the sea, their true home,  passing over the ridge of stones where I stood, thence to sweep down across the stony shore and out to sea while others returned, often carrying a gift of a small fish for their mate on its nest.

Viewing the departing or arriving terns passing so close, you can see how lithe and muscular are their slim bodies, propelled on long wings which cause their bodies to rise slightly with each upwards beat of wings. Grace personified, the speed at which they fly is deceptive as they power past me and away out to sea and I struggle to focus the camera on them before they are past and gone..

Two Arctic Terns were discreetly courting on the shoreline of the lagoon, having removed themselves well away from any possible interruption, the birds contorting and adopting exaggerated poses to impress each other whilst two Black headed Gulls indulged in their own ritualised, synchronised  two step strutting display, both species genetically programmed to perform these actions and innocent of the natural elegance that so delighted me.

Arctic Terns

Black headed Gulls

Turning away from the colony I looked out to the bay and then to the beauty of its pastoral surrounds. It was a calm evening, the inexorable decline of the sun heralding that golden hour when the land is transformed with a mellow light. 

A melancholy came over me as I gazed from shore to sea, the gentle waves rippling on the stones with not another soul to be seen and the tern's incessant cries coming from behind me. Idyllic maybe but all is not well here despite the spectacle of the breeding terns. The colony is only half the size it should be, the terns  unaware of the deadly virus that stalks them as they gather close, to nest on the islands. The latest mutation of avian flu, virulent and lethal has claimed many of their number and is infecting others every day. A sick Common Tern, weak and unable to stand, sat on the stones with eyes closed awaiting its fate. A lonely death for such a sociable bird.

The other terns, uncaring of its plight carry on as if their world was normal but it is not and I fear for them and for their future.

Sunday 11 June 2023

A Shrike at South Stack, Anglesey 6th June 2023

This last week,  one of glorious sunshine but unusually strong northerly winds, I have been a residential volunteer at the RSPB's South Stack Reserve at Holy Island on Anglesey in North Wales. They provide very pleasant free accommodation in a cottage with views that would normally cost a fortune if you were to rent the place, in return for my carrying out various less than onerous duties on their behalf on the reserve for four days out of five.

It really is no hardship, in fact the opposite as my bedroom window gave me an uninterrupted panoramic view over fields to the Irish Sea and Snowdon in the distance. The reserve itself must be one of the most scenic that the RSPB possess. At this time of year it looks at its absolute best with an abundance of coastal flora, including mounds of pink thrift growing in profusion by the sandy coastal tracks that run through the heathland, the rich purples of bell heather, yellow clusters of rock rose and bird's foot trefoil and the ultimate prize of the unassuming, cliff hugging Spatulate Fleawort, a sub species of the Field Fleawort that grows nowhere else in the world. 

Spatulate Fleawort (Tephroseris integrifolia maritima)
sometimes known as South Stack Fleawort

The spectacular cliffs provide  home for ten pairs of Choughs, eleven thousand Guillemots, fifteen hundred Razorbills and just twelve Puffins. For a naturalist it is heaven on earth at such a vibrant time of the year.

On Tuesday morning at about 7.30 a female Red backed Shrike was found in the reserve's lower car park, right beside my accommodation, by a researcher setting out to survey the seabird colonies.

Gallingly I was in the house at the time, literally metres away from the shrike but unaware of its presence. It was photographed and subsequently seen for the next hour in various gardens of the isolated homes that lie by the road leading up to the RSPB's visitor centre but then it disappeared and no one could relocate it.

I resolved to chalk this one up as  'the one that got away' as I was on duty in an hour but Andrew, one of the top birders on Anglesey and a long term volunteer at South Stack re-found it just after 5pm, just as my day of volunteering finished, the bird having moved less than a quarter of a mile inland. He called me and gave me directions to where it was and we arranged to meet near a place called Ffoel, this being but a ten minute walk from my temporary home.

On getting there I was saddened but unsurprised to hear it had flown off across the surrounding heathland minutes earlier, being hotly pursued by mobbing Blackbirds, Dunnocks and even a Willow Warbler. 

We wandered various tracks through the surrounding gorse and heather following in the direction it had flown but with no joy. I left Andrew and two of his local birding colleagues still hoping to find it as I was tired after a hard day of showing visitors Puffins, so called it a day and learnt later they were unsuccessful in finding the shrike. Hardly surprising as there was such a large area of heathland where it could hide itself. 

The next day was my day off and I had planned to go to Cemlyn Bay some ten miles away to see the large Sandwich Tern colony there but that was soon forgotten when I received a text from Andrew who does a daily early morning bird survey of the reserve, telling me that Ken, a birding friend of his, had discovered the shrike not very far from where Andrew had re-found it yesterday afternoon.

Walking to the site I met Ken who told me it was showing well, perched on telephone wires and fence posts further up the road beyond a house where the road ends. Filled with optimism I walked the last few hundred yards only to find no sign of it.

I followed a track round the back of the house and made my way around the garden and paddock in front of the house. 

A pair of stonechats were hunting invertebrates in the paddock to feed to their fledged young in the gorse and heather behind me but there was still no sign of a shrike on either fence post or telephone wires.

I walked further down a slope towards a line of conifers known locally as 'the plantation' as that was where Ken  told me he had last seen the shrike fly.Again I found nothing there and in the process scratched my hand badly on a bramble so decided discretion was the better part of valour and retreated back to the track by the paddock where I met another birder who said he had just seen the shrike briefly, perched in a small isolated tree in the paddock I had been checking only minutes earlier!

Such is birding.

We stood here for fifteen minutes and chatted as birders do while keeping a close watch on the paddock hoping the shrike would show itself again.

There it is!

And sure enough the shrike flew from our right into one of the small trees in the paddock.

It then came closer, perching on the boundary fence no more than thirty metres from where we stood. 

Its arrival caused some consternation to a pair of Meadow Pipits which voiced their concern about the shrike's presence from nearby wooden fence posts before it promptly disappeared.

We waited for it to re-appear but after forty five minutes with no sign of it returning my new found colleague decided to leave and go down to 'the plantation' to look for Spotted Flycatchers of which there had been no less than four present yesterday.

Within five minutes of his departure the shrike re-appeared and for the next hour spent its time hunting from the three small trees in the paddock or from the posts and wires of the boundary fence, coming very close at times. 

By now it was mid morning and the sun was so very bright it made photography difficult. The weather has been fabulous so far this week and today was no different.The sunlight in the clear coastal air possessing an  extra luminosity which while most welcome is not ideal for bird photography.

Despite the difficulties with the sun I had more than enough images of the shrike and made my way back to the house for some lunch,  resolving to return in the late afternoon when the sun was lower and the light more conducive to photography.

Although I regard myself as a birder rather than a photographer I confess that these days I find great pleasure in taking photos of my various bird encounters but try to remember to forgo the camera for a while and watch the subject in question too.It is all too easy to forget about this when desirous of that ultimate image. I feel I still maintain the right balance - just!

Returning in the afternoon I came across a couple looking for the shrike but they were not in the right area and I suggested they follow me to the paddock, feeling confident the shrike would be performing there much as it did this morning.

We came across one other birder by the paddock who told us the shrike had been here five minutes ago but he had lost sight of it.

Don't worry, I advised the couple, it will be back soon. 

An hour later my credibility was rapidly on the wane as there was no sign of the elusive shrike and. eventually the couple, very politely told me they had to leave.

I told them about my companion this morning who had done the same and as soon as he left the shrike showed up.

They laughed and set off to walk back around the paddock.

They were half way round when the shrike returned.

It's back! I called, whilst waving to them.

They came hurrying back to join me.

It's almost in front of us on the fence wire. Really close.

I pointed to the fence

The shrike had certainly returned and now perched on the fence was giving excellent views as it hunted from the wires and wooden posts. Slowly it worked its way along the fence line, dropping on prey from its elevated perches and then returning to a fresh perch,coming ever closer.

Finally, becoming aware of our presence it decided to approach no closer and flew fast and low to the middle of the paddock, then up into one of the small trees and perched there looking for prey.It was almost constantly active, the strong wind buffeting it but not really causing the shrike any major inconvenience.

Andrew arrived and we watched the shrike for an hour before deciding we had more than done it justice and could leave feeling fulfilled. and if I am honest rather thrilled at this close encounter with a formerly common breeding bird in Britain but now only an uncommon summer visitor.