Ortolan Bunting at Ports Down, Hants – 15th Sep

There has been a seeming glut of southern English records of Ortolan Bunting in the first half of September, but none of these birds stuck around for long enough to be twitchable from Oxford. Needing this passage passerine for my British list I kept an eye on things as more and more sightings came in from Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Gloucestershire; but time and again a negative would go out on RBA after the initial report. And as some of these migrants were being noted at well watched coastal locations, they were being identified only as fly-overs on call and sometimes at night using sonogram equipment.

ortolan bunting.1804_01 ports down hill

Distant, blurry Ortolan Bunting, but hey I’ve ticked one for Blighty

Yesterday evening, I fixed on RBA postings from a site on the South Downs just to the north of Portsmouth, where an Ortolan (pictured above) was first reported at 2:45 and was still being watched at 6pm. This sounded like it could be my bird and I decided if it was still there in the morning I would go to see it. Today I noticed the first report at around 7:15 and 45 minutes later I hit the road. That’s quite quick for me!

portsmouth harbour.1801

Portsmouth and harbour featuring the Spinnaker Tower (centre) and Mordor (top right)

From the M27 I drove through the Portsmouth suburb of Cosham then up a road to Ports Down (SU648067) from where the views to the south were worth capturing. Arriving on site at around 9:20 I made a reconnoitre of Pigeon House Lane, and on finding a sizeable group of birders all intensely focusing on a corner of the field in question, assumed they must be onto the Ortolan. So I parked on the end of the closest line of cars, to be told my quest had last been seen around 20 minutes previously, showing well on a Hawthorn beneath an electricity pylon.

Joining the twitch line I was greeted once more by Adam who this time had not arrived in the nick of time and so had yet to see the bird himself. A patient wait then ensued until after an hour with no views a group of birders made the decision to flush the bird with the approval of the gathering. Given this nudge the concealed Ortolan Bunting, an adult male (I assume) then broke cover from long grass on the far side of the field to perch prominently anew in the same Hawthorn to which the day’s earlier reports had referred.

Our bird remained there for some time, taking in it’s surroundings and all the attention it was attracting. In the right hand picture (above) it is just visible to the left of the hazard warning sign on the pylon (click to enlarge). I was hardly likely to gain good images but the digiscoped records below are still clear enough to present what I had observed today. The medium-sized Bunting’s diagnostic greenish-grey head, pink bill and pale yellow moustachial stripe and throat are all discernible.

Eventually the Bunting dropped down into the ground level vegetation below the pylon again, presumably to resume feeding on insects and seeds. I at once wondered if this behaviour could be the reason why so many earlier reported birds had not been seen subsequently, since they clearly spend a deal of their time keeping out of sight.

Ortolan Bunting breeds across much of continental Europe and parts of western Asia, but not in the British Isles. Across that range it is a not uncommon inhabitant of agricultural land, woodland and upland areas. Since Roman times the bird has been regarded as a culinary delicacy, especially in France, resulting in huge losses from the wild each season. Despite a 1999 EU directive banning hunting up to 50,000 birds each year continued to be slaughtered on autumn migration in that country alone, until at least 2007 when stricter enforcement was said to have been put in place.

The species, that I had recorded myself once before in Cyprus in April 2012, winters in tropical Africa. Closer to home I had tended until now to regard this passerine as a migrant reported mostly from remote offshore islands far beyond my preferred range, or heard flying over the Portland Bird Observatory. So to gain this very positive experience, my 345th British bird, just 90 miles from home was very pleasing.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Observing new birds in Great Britain remains a diminishing return, given my reluctance to travel very long distances. But I keep on chipping away, and three species – Roseate Tern, Marbled Duck (if accepted) and now Ortolan Bunting – within range in the 2018 return passage season so far is not a bad tally. Hopefully there will be one or two more long-sought British or even life list additions in the weeks ahead.


Two Spotted Crake at Willen Lakes, Bucks; and Eton Wick, Berks – 30th Aug and 1st Sep

August was a good month for Spotted Crake in England, with birds being reported on RBA from 10 different locations. In the last week two of those have been within easy reach and so I opted to take a look and hopefully update my personal experience of what is an easily overlooked, even enigmatic species. At this time of year immature birds often stop on migration to moult, sometimes rendering them flightless for up to three weeks

This secretive aquatic bird breeds locally in bogs and wet meadows across much of Europe and into western Asia, but is rare in Britain other than in northern Scotland. Further south most sightings occur on passage in marsh vegetation but Crakes are at all times difficult to view well. My only past sighting I can recall clearly was at Titchwell Marsh, Norfolk in August 1997. Then as now I also saw one two days previously at Dinton Pastures, Berks; and an even older record was in Holland in August 1988. So the presence of two Spotted Crake this week around 40 miles from home was a good opportunity to bring a little encountered scarcity into the present.

spotted crake.1801.eton wick

Spotted Crake at Eton Wick

Last Thursday (30th) I opted for what seemed the more difficult of the two Crakes at Willen Lakes in Milton Keynes. There are two landscaped former gravel pits in this large public park, and I had visited the southern one before in November 2016 (see here) to see Velvet Scoter. This time my quest was being reported from the reed fringed side of the northern lake, close to the park’s Peace Pagoda and maze.

Arriving late morning in the Pavilion car park (SP 87658 41075) I first reconnoitred to find the area in question could be viewed from the opposite side of the lake where there were a number of gaps in the waterside vegetation. Then I retrieved my optics, chair and sandwiches before secreting myself in one of these spots away from any anxious enquiry of passing parents. Before me was a very open location (pictured below) and any views of the bird were going to be distant.

willen lake.1801

The Crake habitat at Willen Lake (N), Milton Keynes

In shallows at one point on the opposite shore there were several Green or Common Sandpiper, as well as a few Lapwing and Moorhen; the last of which would provide a good size reference for the other bird I sought. Spotted Crake is about 10cm shorter in length than a Moorhen, and a little smaller than Water Rail that it resembles in shape and habits. After a while I picked out a small brown form and this indeed was the Spotted Crake.

A very pleasing hour then passed in which this bird went through a full repertoire of Crake behaviour, alternately foraging busily in the open, moving through the reed edge, dashing back into cover on becoming alarmed, then reappearing from close by. Though always distant I could clearly discern it’s blue-ish head; short, straight bill and upheld tail with striking buff under-tail feathers. I was at all times struck by how small this bird seemed compared to the other species around it. The encounter was indeed an education in all things Spotted Crake.

Yesterday I went for the second bird at Dorney Common by Eton Wick, in company with fellow Oxon birder Sally who had not seen one before. There were a couple of pager reports while we began our day walking Oxford’s Farmoor Reservoir with other birding colleagues, suggesting the Berks’ Crake was receiving a little attention. Then upon our arrival on site we enquired of a departing birder who pointed out a group of observers in the common’s north-east corner.

eton wick.1801

The second Crake location at Eton Wick

This was the same place (SU 94289 78986) where I had seen my second Pectoral Sandpiper in September 2012, though the habitat was now rather different with deeper water. The Spotted Crake was active in the paler green area between the two taller, darker areas of reeds on the far shore in the above picture. It would emerge from either end of the brighter vegetation, presumably spending most of it’s time concealed further back in the space in between.

Once again we came equipped with chairs and sandwiches. After a while the other birders all left and we continued to watch the Crake intermittently for an hour or more. I then realised there was another gap in the Willow fringe a little to our left, probably the viewing location described rather vaguely on RBA, from where there was a better view of the right hand spot the bird favoured. So I set up my digiscoping kit trained onto this place, while Sally continued to watch the left hand spot. Either side of 3pm the Crake emerged again in both places and I acquired these blurry records (below).

This second and closer encounter was as pleasing as the earlier one, and so my experience of a difficult species has been duly updated. Despite their reputed elusiveness, these birds were fairly easy to observe once located and with patience. Soon both will move on to their African wintering grounds and I am very glad to have spent a little time in their presence as they disperse south.

Marbled Duck at Grimley, Worcs – 27th Aug

August was in danger of passing without a blog post until upon my rising a little late today a British and European bird list addition leapt out at me from RBA. The previous evening a Marbled Duck, the first in Great Britain since 2014, had been discovered on gravel pits by the village of Grimley, near Worcester. At 85 miles this was well within my preferred range and so would offer an ideal day out after a weekend spent mostly at home.

This duck, also known as Marbled Teal, is a scarce and localised breeder in the southern Iberian peninsula, north-west Africa and western Asia. I had previously failed to find it in Spain, where there is a small and declining population, in May 2012. Later in November 2015 I enjoyed a very good experience of them in the Souss Massa national park on Morocco’s Atlantic coast (see here). I was now intrigued that this Worcs individual, a juvenile was not being treated as plastic by RBA. So I checked local birding resources to see what was being said about its provenance.

Worcestershire and West Midlands’ birders who had already filmed and gained pictures of the visitor (see here and here) described it as being un-ringed, fully-winged and wary; all good credentials for a genuine vagrant rather than an escape from captivity. Late August is also the right time of year for a juvenile to disperse from its breeding ground and in this case stray rather too far. But it remains to be seen what the BOURC will decide.

grimley GPs.1801

Camp Lane GPs, Grimley, Worcs

After a thankfully stress-free drive west along the A40 from Oxford then north on the M5 motorway, I easily located the site described as Camp Lane GPs (SO831598) about 10 miles from junction 6 north of Worcester. After following a public right of way out to where a group of maybe 30-something birders were gathered (pictured above), I was at once put onto the Marbled Duck that was sitting in the top of a shrub on the far side of the pit. Later arriving birders who I assisted all seemed as puzzled as myself initially to realise they were looking for a duck in such a situation rather than on the water.

Apparently the bird had barely moved from this position for an hour previously, and so it remained alternately dozing then preening and occasionally putting its head up to look around. This medium-sized, slender, pale sandy brown duck with a dusky oval eye-patch certainly stood out amongst the drab, eclipse-plumaged wildfowl with which it had settled. The body plumage is diffusely blotched with off-white spotting that is more prominent in juveniles. Marbled Duck also has a long-necked, large and round-headed appearance with a slim, dark-toned bill.

In the circumstances the digiscoped images (above) were as good as I was likely to get, and at least record that I was there and saw this bird, which is always my first priority. After around 30 minutes I was joined by fellow Oxon Birder Adam, who maintained his knack of arriving at just the right moment since shortly afterwards the duck hunkered down into the shore-side vegetation and was lost to view for a while.

We both scanned around hoping our quest would re-emerge onto the water and offer some better picture opportunities, but that was not to be. Eventually the MD sat up again in exactly the same spot, before stretching its wings with a brief fly around. After returning to the exact same place and climbing up to the favourite perch once again the former routine was resumed. In flight the wings appeared long and pale without a marked pattern (see here). When it next flew the duck landed in an area away to our right though still distantly, and two local patch watchers suggested we might get better views from other spots they knew.

We then followed those birders on a circuit of the site (pictured above) that struck me as a superb location for attracting migrants. It seemed difficult to believe these former gravel pits are not already managed as a nature reserve, such was their wildlife and visitor friendliness alike. But we could not re-locate the Marbled Duck that as a species is known for being secretive, often hiding in vegetation. So pleased with our views already we left after what had been a very satisfying bijou twitchette.

I haven’t been inactive in the five weeks since this journal’s last post, but have just not done anything that I can make a decent story of. So though my wildlife garden at home is looking rather more tidy, lethargy has been in danger of setting in. What a contrast a new and different bird to go and see, and the buzz that comes from it makes.

Southern Emerald: an unexpected extra English damselfly – 19th & 22nd July

Since 22nd June a newly revealed colony of Southern Emerald has been reported in the British Dragonfly Society (BDS) online sightings log. This is in Buckinghamshire close to the M40 motorway. I first heard about it a week ago when Adam told me he had obtained precise location details and invited me to go with him to check things out at the site. On Thursday (19th) his work commitments allowed us to do that.

Two years ago I wrote in this journal of finding my last regularly occurring English damselfly, Scarce Emerald at a site on the Thames estuary in Essex (see here). Then a year later I observed many more of that very localised species at Canvey Island in the same county (see here). Southern Emerald is much rarer in the British Isles, with (as I understand) just two established populations in Kent and the Isle of Wight and small numbers seen occasionally elsewhere. So the emergence of this new colony is attracting much interest amongst odonata enthusiasts.

southern emerald.1803 beaconsfield

Southern Emerald (note the cream and brown two tone pterostigma)

We followed a public right of way towards a woodland where Adam had been advised to start looking for these insects, and once there it wasn’t long before he spotted a first damselfly in the trackside vegetation, then another and another. Yes they were Emeralds and yes they had bi-coloured cream and brown pterostigma (wing tags), the easiest diagnostic for Southern Emerald. Mission accomplished! Then we met another Oxon naturalist making his way back, who said there were many more of them a little further along the track.

At that hotspot I took the pictures in the next two collages. One entry on the BDS sightings page quoted 50+ and another 100+, and there were certainly plenty. Southern Emerald is about the same size as Common and Scarce Emerald, and smaller than Willow Emerald (see here); these being the four of their genus that occur in the British Isles. Southern is the only one of this metallic green quartet with bicoloured pterostigma. The lower rear of the head is entirely yellow, the thorax exhibits broad, pale anti-humeral stripes; and yes males can be distinguished by their diverging inferior anal appendages. Don’t forget that last one!

It was striking at this spot how many mating pairs were on the wing (pictured below). To quote Brooks and Lewington, eggs are laid by solitary females or tandem pairs into emergent aquatic plants or the branches of waterside trees and shrubs; and there was plenty of evidence of that. The egg is the over-wintering stage and larvae emerge the following spring.

This is a widely distributed species throughout central and southern Europe, except in Alpine regions. It is more common in the southern part of it’s range, but has been expanding north since the late 1980s. My own first record was in Sardinia in June of this year (see here). The discovery of a new colony so close to Oxford begs the question of how many more might be out there nationally, awaiting the sharp eyes of intrepid odo hunters.

The situation strikes me as another of those open secrets, that is meant to be kept quiet but which everyone with an interest knows about. The BDS requests that visitors respect limited roadside parking and public rights of way at the Bucks site, and pay due attention to personal safety. But the society is not consistent since in it’s log people are urged not to visit, then a few posts later a contributor gives away the exact location. So I have chosen not to do that, but working things out is a matter of common sense on consulting the BDS sightings page.

Three days later (22nd) I went back to this place to try to obtain less cluttered pictures. The two above were amongst my better results until the walk back, when I was able to capture Southern Emerald in the long yellowing grass by the trackside. The images below are more like what I seek in recording insects and made this return visit well worthwhile.

Far fewer insects were on the wing this time, so perhaps their emergence had peaked at around the time of our first visit and hopefully some of them might have dispersed. In the interim one contributor to the BDS sightings page had spoken of tandem pairs rising in clouds from his footfall. There were still some pairs propagating their species on this day, and I managed a few more pictorial records (below).

A few years ago a small number of Blue-eyed (or Southern Migrant) Hawker dragonflies arrived in Britain in the same area of Essex as the Scarce Emeralds referred to at the start of this post. That colony is now thriving, and as of today BEH has also been reported in 2018 from Kent, Sussex, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire and even as far south-west as Cornwall. I do hope this latest continental European migrant, Southern Emerald damselfly is as successful in expanding it’s own range and that before too long we might find them just up the M40 motorway in Oxfordshire.

Roseate Terns at Hill Head, Hants – 17th July

This is a bird I really should have connected with long before now, but one circumstances have always seemed to conspire against. One of only two regularly occurring migratory Terns in Europe I had not observed until now (the other being Sooty), there are good numbers of British records each year. So most seasoned birders will have it on their lists. These credentials all gave Roseate Tern “huge lifer” status.

My long standing ill luck concerning this species looked set to continue when on going away from home a week ago two adult Roseate were reported daily during my absence at a convenient location, the Solent by Titchfield Haven NNR. Mid-July is when failed breeders begin to move around, and birds were also reported from other places nationally. Then upon my return last Saturday the Hants Terns relocated to Poole Harbour though not for long.

roseate tern.1801 hill head

Two adult Roseate Terns (centre) with Common Terns (right)

Yesterday (16th) they were back on the Solent, resuming a routine of loafing with Common Terns and Gulls on mud and shingle by Hill Head Harbour (SU534023), then moving onto the adjacent reserve’s Meon Shore scrape at high tide. I didn’t hear about their return until mid-afternoon, and my first reaction was to go down the following morning. That thought lasted about five minutes before I upped and went, and didn’t the buzz that comes from a bijou twitchette such as this feel good.

I arrived 80 miles later at some time after 5pm to find the tide lapping against the sea wall and Titchfield Haven already closed to the public. It would be wrong to take issue with that, since the reserve is manned by volunteers and health and safety legislation no doubt rules against visitors entering out of hours, but such an early 5pm closure was still inconvenient. I checked through the Terns on the nearest lagoon, then explored further to ascertain there were indeed no viewpoints from where the scrape could be viewed from distance.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Returning to Hill Head Harbour at around 6pm I found the tide was going out again and Terns were beginning to congregate on the exposed “beach”. Two more birders joined me and for the next 90 minutes we watched the comings and goings on the falling tide, though all of the Terns present were Common. But this morning (17th) the Roseates were reported again first thing from this exact same spot and so I reverted to plan A.

The second attempt was at the opposite end of the fortune scale to the first. On re-arriving at around 11am I enquired of a departing birder, to be told the two adult Roseate Tern were out on the shingle and a few people were watching them from the sea wall. I parked (it’s free here) then hurried over, observing my usual priorities of see the bird first, get any kind of picture, then try for a better picture. Someone told me where to look and one Tern immediately stood out as being different. Then I found the second Roseate.

I had got here just in time since shortly afterwards the birds flew out into the Solent to feed. I then walked around the harbour to join more birders sitting on a breakwater and when the Terns came back I took all of the digiscoped pictures herein. One predictable outcome of this post’s return to bird matters is a reduction in image quality, but I can see what these birds are. I even learned to recognise their distinctive, high-pitched call as they came and went. When the tide came right in they flew off again towards the Meon Shore scrape.

To quote the Helm guide to confusion species, Roseate Tern is slightly smaller and more delicate than Common with shorter, narrower wings; and even longer tail streamers than Arctic Tern. The previous evening I had concentrated on looking for more black in the bill. But having now read up on other diagnostics before setting out I at once picked out the pale upper side, lack of black in the tail and very bright legs that my earlier companions had discussed. All these features show fairly well in the picture that heads up this post and the two blurry crops above. The difference from the greyer-toned Common Terns was striking.

roseate tern.1803 hill head

In this picture the Roseate Terns are the paler-toned outer birds

Currently in 2018 there are around 116 breeding pairs of Roseate Tern in the UK (per RBA), restricted mainly to Coquet Island in Northumberland with a few pairs scattered elsewhere. A much larger population occurs in Ireland. The species takes its name from a pink tinge that is visible on the breast during the breeding season. Small post-breeding numbers are seen on migration in southern and eastern English counties, and it was an absolute pleasure to finally catch up with this very attractive Tern today.

Butterflies of Mount Parnassos, Greece: 20th – 22nd June

The second part of the Naturetrek tour to southern Greece I joined last month was to a further renowned location amongst lepidopterists, Mount Parnassos above the northern shore of the Gulf of Corinth. There we spent two days exploring several high meadow and roadside sites that were known to our tour leader as holding butterflies of interest. The outcome was 10 more life-list additions including Niobe Fritillary (pictured below), Great Sooty Satyr, Purple Shot Copper and various new Blues, Graylings and Skippers.

niobe fritillary.1803 mt parnassos

Niobe Fritillary

Our base was the hillside town of Delphi, a tourist trap that serves the nearby ancient site of the Sanctuary of Apollo. After arriving on 20th we walked down to some waste ground below the streets lined with hotels, eating places and souvenir shops to see what was about. Here I managed some pictures of Scarce Swallowtail (below) that in this part of Greece can belie it’s name by being more plentiful than continental Swallowtail. In my experience this big, floppy butterfly is difficult to capture well but reasonable results if obtained can be quite pleasing.

Another common Mediterranean species that yielded above average images here was Eastern Bath White (above, right). And in the town itself we came across the only certain sighting for the trip of Southern Comma (below). The latter has sparser black markings on the top side than regular Comma and the unh marking that gives this species its name is Y rather than C shaped. The latter’s European range is from south-east France through Italy, the southern Balkans and Greece.

Three new (for me) Blues were observed at higher sites. Members of this group can often look more similar in pictures than they do in the field where jizz comes into play. Then something will just look or seem different from what has been observed more commonly before, and it is then a matter of identifying exactly what the newcomer is. I felt that when butterflying alone in les Cévennes (see here), and again here in Greece amongst very knowledgeable, Lafranchis-equipped tour colleagues.

A roadside male Amanda’s Blue (below) really stood out in this respect. Its dark outer borders to the upper forewings and pale ones to the inner lower hind-wings were both very apparent, but do not stand out so much in my pictures. But the underside is more clear-cut in ID terms having less orange than related species, and the clean looking unf with no cell spot is characteristic. The female, found at the same bramble patch as the White-letter Hairstreaks of an earlier post (see here) was less difficult to confuse. This was also a pleasing sighting since like many Blues females tend to keep a lower profile than territorial males.

Amanda’s is distributed across much of central and eastern Europe from the Baltic southwards into more mountainous Mediterranean areas. Perhaps surprisingly we found the even more widespread Idas Blue at just one meadow location. This common European Blue is similar in size and appearance to Silver-studded but with narrower forewing borders and other subtle differences. A clearer diagnostic is the array of black dots along the bottom edge. I only managed to gain images of our specimen (below) in the tour leader’s jar.

The rather more scarce Blue Argus (pictured below), another resident of the Balkans, Greece and Turkey, was located at one stony, high altitude site. There we came across a mating pair (far right), in which the Chapman’s-like white patch on the unh stood out in the female. Otherwise this butterfly rather suggested a smaller version of Chalkhill Blue. And that is the last of this complex and fascinating group for these two trip posts.

Two more regional Graylings made up their own group’s quota for the trip. Unlike some of its very similar members that have featured in this journal recently, Freyer’s Grayling (pictured below) was unmistakeable due to it’s underwing pattern. The pictures below were taken at Galixidi on the Gulf of Corinth during our relocation from Kalavrita. But we also encountered this butterfly at the Sanctuary of Apollo and on Mount Parnassos itself.

The evocative sounding Great Sooty Satyr is one of those Graylings with a rather more interesting name, like The Hermit near Kalavrita earlier in the week. We recorded this larger species (pictured below) a number of times in dry, grassy places at medium altitude such as it favours. The butterfly exhibits a degree of variation between individuals in colouration and markings, especially in females.

The last new Skipper for the trip was Orbed Red Underwing Skipper (below, left and top right) that is also known as Hungarian Skipper. That brought the total of Grizzled-type species lifers from southern Greece to four and I can now tell the difference between all of them. So someone is bound now to tell me I have mis-ID’d Persian Skipper (below, bottom right) that was also observed on Mount Parnassos a number of times.

Two more familiar brown Skippers demonstrated the silliness of their parochial English names here. Essex and Lulworth Skipper (pictured below) were both encountered on Parnassos far from their attributed homes, but both species are of course distributed widely across Europe. “Norfolk Hawker” in the dragonfly world is another example of what must be some kind of historical anachronism, and I rather wish that like Green-eyed Hawker the two butterflies referred to above might also be accorded more sensible international names. Lastly, Mallow Skipper (below, bottom left) that crops up wherever I butterfly in Europe was observed here a number of times.

On 21st we were about to head back down the mountain in overcast conditions, but still stopped at one high meadow for a quick look around. The sun then broke through and the location gradually but steadily revealed its treasures. Heath Fritillary was plentiful, the first time I have encountered it outside England. Revisiting the species’ stronghold of East Blean Wood in Kent (see here) had fallen off my agenda this year because of these travels, so I was pleased to encounter it again on Parnassos. HF has pretty much a pan-European distribution apart from the southern Iberian peninsula.

Two more common and widespread continental Fritillaries also showed themselves in the meadow being discussed. I have yet to gain an acceptable top-side picture of Queen of Spain Fritillary (below left) but Spotted Fritillary (right) is often photogenic.

This was where I succeeded in recording Greek Clouded Yellow for the trip, having seen it fly by a few times on Mount Chelmos. Males have a deep orange upper side that really stands out in the field, though differences from other Clouded Yellows in the underside (below left and centre) are not so obvious. The head colour in the picture does give some clue to the top-side colouring. A pale helice form of regular Clouded Yellow (right), observed several times during this tour, also gave itself up to the camera here.

Two more Coppers for the trip were added in the same meadow. Having gained good images of male Sooty Copper in les Cévennes, I was pleased to add a female (below left) to my collection here. Still more satisfying was self-finding Purple-shot Copper (right), a butterfly I have wanted to experience for some time. What a pity about that unsightly tear in one upper wing. Both these Coppers range widely across continental Europe.

A last featured sighting from this place is Southern White Admiral (below) that a number of times in my butterflying past has provided excellent value. I already possess some premium top-side pictures taken in Provence (see here) and now I was able to add good underside images to my collection for the first time.

It remains to present four more butterflies of note. At one roadside location regular Marbled White were flying as well as Balkan MW. But these were of the M g procida form that occurs in the southern Balkans and Greece. They appear very black and white by comparison either with their Balkan cousins or the browner and most widespread Melanargia galathea that is a common sight in the English high summer.

On another mountain road we searched for Niobe Fritillary that features at the head of this post. This widely distributed larger Fritillary favours roadside Valerian and so was not difficult to locate. It is similar to the as widespread High Brown Fritillary but is distinguishable by black veins on the underside hind-wing and certain other diagnostics. I only managed acceptable pictures of the top side (below).

This Oriental Meadow Brown (below, left) was observed at the same ski resort bramble patch as the female Amanda’s Blue and White-letter Hairstreaks. By comparison with regular Meadow Brown the underside top wings have a rather cleaner look while the outer edges of the hind-wings are more scalloped. The upper side if seen is very different. This species occurs in the Iberian peninsula, southern Balkans, Greece and Turkey; as well as parts of southern France and Italy.

Lastly, on the afternoon of 22nd we drove up almost to the summit of Parnassos and walked into possibly the highest meadow of the trip. Conditions were overcast on our arrival but as soon as the sun came out the rocky slope before us became alive with Clouded Apollo (above right). Europe’s four Apollo species are butterflies I very much want to experience, but having been on the wing since early May those active here were all quite worn. We had encountered even more ragged individuals twice already.

The full species count for the two part tour of Mount Chelmos and Mount Parnassos, with life-list additions in bold, is: Swallowtail <P m gorganus>, Scarce Swallowtail, Clouded Apollo, Black-veined White, Large White, Small White, (Krueper’s Small White), Eastern Bath White, Greek Clouded Yellow, Clouded Yellow, Helice Clouded Yellow, Brimstone, Cleopatra, Eastern Wood White, (Purple Hairstreak), Sloe Hairstreak, Ilex Hairstreak, White-letter Hairstreak, Small Copper, Grecian Copper, Sooty Copper,  Purple Shot Copper, Lesser Fiery Copper, Long-tailed Blue, Holly Blue, Iolas Blue, Eastern Baton Blue, Zephyr Blue, Silver-studded Blue, Idas Blue, Brown Argus, Blue Argus, Chelmos Blue, Escher’s Blue, Amanda’s Blue, Chapman’s Blue, Ripart’s Anomalous Blue, Turquoise Blue, Meleager’s Blue, Adonis Blue, Common Blue, Southern White Admiral, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Queen of Spain Fritillary, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Southern Comma, (Cardinal), Silver-washed Fritillary, Dark Green Fritillary, Niobe Fritillary, Spotted Fritillary, Lesser Spotted Fritillary, Heath Fritillary, Marbled White <f procida>, Balkan Marbled White, Woodland Grayling, Delattin’s Grayling, Freyer’s Grayling, The Hermit, Great Sooty Satyr, Great Banded Grayling, Meadow Brown, Oriental Meadow Brown, Small Heath, Speckled Wood <P a aegeria>, Wall Brown, Large Wall Brown, Lattice Brown, Oberthür’s Grizzled Skipper, Olive Skipper, Orbed Red Underwing Skipper, Persian Skipper, Mallow Skipper, Dingy Skipper, Lulworth Skipper, Essex Skipper, Small Skipper, Large Skipper.

(Butterflies in parentheses were seen by other group members but not myself).

Turkish Clubtail dragonfly and some other insects in southern Greece: 17th – 22nd June

After the relative failure of my recent week in Sardinia (see here) I was glad of securing a further dragonfly life-list addition on this second June trip to Greece. Just about the only odonata-oriented location on our butterfly dominated agenda was the Strimonas valley near Kalavrita and it was there that Turkish Clubtail (pictured below) was located.

turkish clubtail.1802 kalavrita

Turkish Clubtail (male)

This dragonfly (Gomphus schneiderii) replaces the far more widespread Common Clubtail (G. vulgatissimus) in the southern Balkans, Greece and as the name suggests Turkey. Its range also extends into the Caucasus, Lebanon and Iran. The overlap of the two species in Greece is poorly understood. Turkish Clubtail is generally smaller and more slender than Common, and in mature males the eyes are much bluer, not green as the pictures in this post show clearly.

The Dijkstra and Lewington field guide states that other differences between the two species are minor, but to me these Greek specimens looked much blacker than Common Clubtails at home in England. But that could be because I have only previously observed newly emerged individuals (see here). I also wondered if the Turkish variety is less prone to taking to the tree tops immediately after emergence, never to be seen again by frustrated odo hunters, since some of those in the riverside vegetation were quite ragged (pictured below).

2018 was an above average year for Common Clubtail sightings in Oxfordshire (see here), but I myself only had time to look for them once and did not repeat my success of a year ago. Six more Clubtail species in Europe all have limited or highly localised ranges. But I have now experienced all of the three that occur more widely, having self-found Western Clubtail (below, right) in Portugal in May 2014. These (below) are both archive pictures.

The main other odonata interest along the River Strimonas in Greece was Blue Featherleg, or White-legged Damselfly as the species is known in Great Britain. I was pleased to capture images of some new colour forms here, since most of those I had come across before in England were immature or maturing males. The blue mature male form (below, left and top right) is really quite striking and just look at those splendid white legs. The immature female (bottom right) was another pleasing new find.

The default Demoiselle in the areas we visited appeared to be Beautiful Demoiselle (pictured below, top) that was abundant along both the Strimonas and Vouraikos rivers close to Kalavrita. This largest and darkest of its genus is always photogenic with entirely metallic cobalt blue wings in males and transparently greenish to dark ebony tones in females. Some Banded Demoiselle (below, bottom) were also present here. Both species are common and abundant throughout Europe.

A purely chance sample of other insects now follow that caught my attention during the week under review. I can always find space for Grasshoppers and Crickets in this journal. Greece is especially blessed with this order since the majority of its 17,000 known European members are confined either there or in the Iberian peninsula. Only around 250 species extend into central Europe while the British isles have just 30. Given those numbers I can rarely match what I find on my travels to field guides and so have no idea of what species the individuals pictured below actually are.

The top left picture is of the biggest Grasshopper I have ever encountered, while the colourful Bush Cricket was seen a number of times. I am intrigued as to whether some of these insects can alter their colouration to blend with their surroundings, having previously seen a red-toned grasshopper against red soil in Portugal (below left) and now this blue-toned individual (below right) here in Greece. The two do look superficially similar in size and shape.

Ant-lions, Ascalaphids and Lacewings are another complex order that no field guide appears to do justice to. These are soft-bodied flying insects with membranous wingspans ranging from about 3mm to more than 100mm. The large Ant-lion species pictured below left confused proceedings a number of times by resembling a dragonfly at first sight, but they are much narrower bodied and once settled pull their wings in tightly and so are then difficult to pick out from the vegetation in which they rest.

Lastly Ascalaphids provided variety on a number of times here as in Sardinia. The right hand picture is of the only one I managed to capture adequately. These fast flying relatives of the Ant-lions are generally shorter and stouter with long clubbed antennae. There are 15 European species occurring mainly in the south.