2021 Duke of Burgundy at Incombe Hole, Bucks – 27 & 30th Apr

One of just three BC Upper Thames Branch area butterflies I failed to record in 2020 was Duke of Burgundy, since by the end of Lockdown 1.0 they had largely ceased to fly. In recent years I have preferred to observe this early season speciality in Hampshire and Sussex, but to evolve for 2021 I chose a classic UTB site just 40 miles from home.

Incombe Hole is a steep sided dry valley immediately to the south of Steps Hill in the National Trust’s Ivinghoe Beacon AoNB in Buckinghamshire. The area as a whole is the largest complex of chalk grassland anywhere on the Chilterns escarpment. As soon as I approached the feature from the smaller car park on Beacon Road at SP963155, I recalled a similar geological trench running off the South Downs at Butser Hill in Sussex, where I observed Duke of Burgundy, Grizzled Skipper and Green Hairstreak in 2018 (see here).

Male Duke of Burgundy

In the past I had joined Butterfly Conservation field trips to Beacon and Steps Hills in this Bucks’ locality but had not been to Incombe Hole before. Walking further along the top of the less lofty southern slope and looking downward there stretched out ideal habitat for Duke of Burgundy and those other spring butterflies. On selecting what looked like a manageable descent (hiking pole recommended) the valley floor contained swathes of Cowslip, my quest’s food plant. Now this site also reminded me very much of the popular Duke site Noar Hill in Hampshire (see here and here).

Incombe Hole on the Chilterns escarprment

I was in another beautiful, evocative location upon which I at once decided to focus my early butterflying activity for the new season. But on this morning the sun just did not want to come out. After making a thorough reconnoitre up and down the length of the valley I climbed back out again and rested for a while. It was now just before 1pm and a patch of blue sky was approaching that I attempted to walk back down into.

At the foot of my earlier descent two other observers were sitting on the ground staking out an expanse of blooming Hawthorn. As I approached them and quite by coincidence they jumped up, exclaiming: “It’s a Duke!” In the transient sunshine a butterfly had landed in a very small Hawthorn sapling right beside them. I hung back to let them get their pictures first, not wishing to barge in on what was reward for a patient wait, but they were friendly and talkative. Then I managed to gain acceptable images of my own (below).

We were soon joined by two other observers and so things became already a little crowded for my liking, though all of us got on perfectly well. One of these colleagues was a regular surveyor here who at the end of March found a Large Tortoiseshell in Incombe Hole (see here), and he briefed the rest of us further on the site. We were apparently at an especially good spot for Dukes since they like to nectar on the Hawthorn blossom. That may be due in part this year to the Cowslips being more under-developed than usual due to April’s dry, cold climate pattern.

I was led to expect a count potential of 20-something Dukes of Burgundy on a good day here once the weather improves, and checking back through BC UTB’s sightings records confirmed that. The 27th’s window of opportunity soon passed and conditions became cooler and more overcast than in the morning. I was the last of the five people present to leave, having gained a good understanding of the location and resolving to re-visit at the earliest opportunity.

Returning after three more days in the late morning of 30th I was at first the only person at this same spot, quickly finding one each of Green Hairstreak, Dingy and Grizzled Skipper in the sunshine. Then a male Duke began basking on the ground near to me (pictured above, left), at which a second observer appeared and he found a female in the Hawthorn (below). We took turns to take pictures of both these individuals and that opportunity was relatively brief again like two days earlier. Cloud is prone to bank up on the Chilterns escarpment here just as much as at Aston Rowant NNR in Oxon.

It seemed like the wait for another blue sky interval could be quite long as three more observers arrived. If anything did then show itself there would be the inevitable scrum, so having already gained enough material for this post I decided this journal’s Duke of Burgundy content had evolved enough for the new season and went on my way. It has been a very slow start to 2021 through a cold April with just small numbers of butterflies recorded so far. The early season specialities of which I saw all four at this site look set to not occur in numbers until mid-May.

The images herein of Dukes on Hawthorn blossom are especially pleasing, being the first I have gained in such a setting. Over the years I have managed as agreeable studies of this delightful little butterfly that will allow close approaches given careful, lone fieldwork. This celebration (below) presents the best of them:

The Rn’S Duke of Burgundy Gallery

For new visitors to this blog who might have been directed via a specific species search, the different posts presented herein on British Butterflies are regularly referred to. The following may also be of interest:

Marsh Fritillary et al @ Cotley Hill, Wilts – 721 views

Marsh Fritillary et al @ Battlesbury Hill, Wilts – 533 views

Large Heath @ Whixall Moss, Shropshire – 445 views

High Brown Fritillary @ Aish Tor & Heddon Valley, Devon – 370 views

Purple Emperor et al @ Bernwood Forest, Bucks – 337 views

Heath Fritillary @ East Blean Wood, Kent – 239 views

Pearl-bordered Fritillary @ Rewell Wood, Sussex – 231 views

Duke of Burgundy at Noar and Butser Hills Sussex – 192 views

Pearl-bordered Fritillary re-visit @ Rewell Wood, Sussex – 174 views

Large Blue @ Daneway Banks, Glos – 155 views

Pearl-bordered Fritillary in the New Forest, Hants – 136 views

Pearl & Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries @ Wyre Forest, Worcs – 135 views

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary @ Bentley Wood, Hants – 135 views

Wood White @ Bucknell Wood, Northants – 118 views

Marsh Fritillary @ Strawberry Banks, Glos – 112 views

A complete Sand Lizard experience at Higher Hyde Heath, Dorset – 20th Apr

This was something I intended to do a year ago. The first sunny days of April are said to offer the best opportunity for observing Sand Lizards as they emerge from hibernation and turn their minds to propagating the species. An early item on my national wildlife agenda for 2020, re-scheduled to 2021 was therefore to experience the scarcest British lizard within its classic stronghold of the Dorset heaths.

The Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve of Higher Hyde Heath (BH20 7NY – SY854899), around three miles south of Bere Regis from the A31 (see here) is reputedly one of the most reliable English sites for Sand Lizard. And that is in no small measure due to a quite particular piece of habitat management. Such small needles in huge haystacks as these might better be encountered when basking on rock outcrops. Three years ago I was briefly successful after much time and effort on a hilltop tor on the Surrey heaths (see here). At today’s location the desired outcome has long enjoyed a helping hand.

In Great Britain this lizard occurs naturally only in lowland heaths and sand dunes of Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey as well as some coastal dune systems in Merseyside and North Wales. The protected species is regarded as threatened due mainly to habitat fragmentation and destruction through commercial development and wild fires. This is nowhere more prevalent than on the Dorset heaths where my day’s quest is now largely confined to managed nature reserves. As mature sunny habitats are required containing open undisturbed sand in which to lay eggs, they can have quite limited distribution even within the protected areas.

Male Sand Lizard in green breeding colouration

Arriving on site at around 10am I found the car park off Puddletown Road full of police vehicles and heavily armed officers toting automatic weaponry who were about to begin a firearms training exercise. With the Army also driving tanks along the road outside the atmosphere was a little unsettling as I set about finding the cited lizard habitat, and that took time. From the reserve entrance a visitor trail skirts a landscaped gravel pit, before a left turn leads back towards the road and a former Hanson building aggregates yard. The piles of old broken roof tiles I was searching for lay along that path and just outside the yard.

Looking around I quickly noticed possibly four Sand Lizard active within one of those piles but that soon ceased. It was now 10:30 and so past the optimal observation time as they bask to warm up with the day. Three years ago I was advised there was less likelihood of success through the hottest part of the day, and so it proved again over the ensuing two hours. But there was an exception. The lady in the right hand lead picture (top) was dozing gently in the morning sunshine, showing no objection to my gradual approach. She let me get so close that I took another picture with my phone that prompted some WhatsApps and drew responses.

Most of the other lizards seen briefly in the morning today were also females that will lay their eggs in late May or early June to hatch in late August and September. Both genders are robust and stocky in appearance, growing up to 20cm in length of which the tail accounts for half. They have a rounded head that is larger in males than females, short legs and two strong pale stripes running the length of the body. Between those “dorsal lateral” stripes along the centre of the back and on the flanks is usually a complexly variable brown camouflage pattern with “ocelli” (eyed markings), dark blobs with enclosed pale centres that signify life stages.

At around 2pm I drove back to Bere Regis for a sandwich break and then returned. The priority now was to acquire images of males in their April and May breeding colouration of striking bright green flanks and mottled brown back. I also wanted to assess whether the reptiles would become more active again as the afternoon began to cool down, and in the event was amply rewarded. The wildlife experience shortly to commence was off the top of the scale and I was the only observer present on site throughout.

Fairly soon a green-toned male (pictured above) showed itself in one tile pile before walking out and into adjacent ground cover, foraging and flicking it’s tongue all the while. Then I noticed a female basking in the neighbouring pile who remained still for a long time, seemingly unconcerned by my attention. After 4pm possibly two different males emerged from the same pile and my camera went into overdrive. These last three individuals offered simply amazing value over the next 60 minutes.

I have been in this situation many times, more usually with butterflies and odonata, of enjoying total communion with wildlife that becomes fully accepting of my presence and unconcerned by it as I linger. This is only possible when alone and I would not have gained the pictures in this post had anyone else been present, never mind a group of jostling camera toters.

Up until now I had kept a careful distance, expecting these reptiles to be wary and skittish. But in some of the images as I moved closer they are looking straight at me and not bothered in the slightest. As they seemingly grew more and more tolerant of me I threw caution to the wind. But stumbling on the periphery of the pile, casting shadows on the lizards or even removing twigs from around them – each things about which I would expect to be roundly barracked had other people been present – were all met with the same indifference by my willing subjects. Yes it most certainly is possible for a lone, careful and experienced fieldsman to mingle freely with wildlife and gain acceptable records without causing illegal disturbance.

Performing the ground level contortions required for these results wasn’t easy as the previous day my left hip had gone into spasm. But I needed to hit the road and armed with a can of Deep Heat spray felt no inclination to miss out on a warm weather opportunity. I fully expected to hardly be able to move at all when it came to writing up this piece, but actually feel alright physically not to mention elated by this whole reptilian experience.

I must have observed around a dozen Sand Lizards on this occasion. Having spent three days in 2018 tracking down just two individuals, the difference here was certainly the focal point offered by the basking habitat. More normally in dry, heathland situations these largely ground dwellers keep to older dense heather stands in which they remain very inconspicuous.

The Dorset heath and other southern English “Wealdon” populations are actually separate sub-species but very difficult to tell apart in the field. Indeed the numerous re-introductions of Dorset stock into Surrey makes it effectively impossible to distinguish between the two. Re-introductions have also taken place in other areas nationally.

My planned 2020 wildlife agenda is finally up and running and in the coming season it may be difficult to better what was a simply superb episode today.

White-throated Sparrow at Barcombe Cross and a Little Bunting near Horsham, Sussex – 11th Apr

For my first post-lockdown 3.0 twitch and indeed just my second anywhere since early October I secured a very welcome life list addition. A male White-throated Sparrow, first sighted at Barcombe Cross (TQ417158) on 3rd February, was a bird I bookmarked to experience if still present once Covid travel restrictions were eased. After being reported again early on Friday 9th it has attracted a lot of attention, including my own.

The previous day another north American vagrant, a Northern Mockingbird that had spent the lockdown period in south Devon also relocated to Sussex. Being a British tick and beyond my preferred range I hadn’t rushed to see it at the earliest opportunity, and clearly wasn’t yet back into get up and go mode when news of the nearer location broke. I decided to sleep on things and go on Friday 9th if it was still at Pulborough, but in the morning it had moved on. That negative was immediately followed by the first news in a while of the Sparrow, and this one being a lifer I got up and went.

White-throated Sparrow © and courtesy of Ewan Urquhart

White-throated Sparrow is a common and widespread passerine within its Nearctic range but a very rare vagrant to the British Isles. The species breeds across central Canada and New England and winters in the southern and eastern United States. They typically forage on the ground under or near low dense vegetation such as today’s location, eating insects and seeds, and are particularly attracted to bird feeders.

Arriving in the village around 11:30am I secured what must have been the last parking space anywhere and the reason soon became clear. At the twitch site in a sunken copse between some playing fields and allotments there was quite a gathering of birders, many of whom must have gone to Sussex for the Mockingbird then opted for plan B. Amongst them was Ewan who had travelled separately with another colleague, but our quest was not co-operating.

We remained on site for around two hours and the prospect of seeing the bird with so many people tramping around its patch seemed poor, and so we left in the early afternoon. Shortly afterwards the WT Sparrow appeared again, coincidentally with the number of suitors having dwindled somewhat. Pictures appeared online of it perched in Blackthorn blossom (see here) and when I played it’s song on Xeno Canto (here) that was so distinctive I decided to go back early on Sunday. I contacted Ewan, offering to drive if he wished to join me and the re-twitch was agreed.

This time we arrived just after 7:00am and the local scenario was just the same as two days previously. Once again we found the last available parking space anywhere in the High Street then walked out to join just as many fellow birders at the top of a slope overlooking the copse. The difference now was a seed-adorned picnic table at the foot of the slope to which the Sparrow had been attracted through the intervening day. A contrived situation yes, but also the best means to avoid a repeat dip since we were dealing with a bird of normally skulking habits that was ranging through very dense habitat.

 © Ewan (and left hand pictures below)

It seemed merely a matter of time until mission would be accomplished since the White-throated Sparrow by now knew very well where the food source was. It duly appeared after around 30 minutes on the decking below the table (pictured above), then returned to view three more times including on the table top before we moved on at around 9:15am. In between those showings it would disappear into the cover of the copse from where it could be heard singing intermittently.

This bird’s routine must now be well established of coming to seed at the table which is ideally placed by the thicket edge at the foot of what is a natural amphitheatre. So expect moss-covered logs and other photographer’s props to adorn the table top from now on if a daily circus at the site intensifies. The greater challenge will be capturing the WTS pictorially perched and singing within the copse but I will not be going back. It feels enough to have come and gone here when I did.

My own best effort for the day is the right hand picture above. Having converted this record satisfyingly at Barcombe we moved on to visit a well-established Little Bunting at Warnham Local Nature Reserve (RH12 2RA – TQ167323) near Horsham. This was an excellent opportunity to observe the intricate plumage of an adult male at close quarters. But I also felt in another artificial situation given the vast amount of laid on food that keeps the bird at what is an educational and family fun facility rather than a truly wild location. My first ever Little Bunting in Cardiff in February 2015 (see here) was experienced in similar circumstances coming to seed in front of a hide at a LNR feeding station. Today’s bird was my fifth personal record, the three intervening ones also being at English sites.

Today’s Little Bunting (my own picture)

It was good to get out a bit further again on these two days and this double twitch was a step in the likely adjustment process back to more normal life. That will be aided by my now having a new and better vehicle, and for 2021 I intend to pursue a not too ambitious national wildlife agenda through to autumn whilst also maintaining this journal’s secondary botanical bias. I feel no inclination yet to resume international travel at whatever the earliest opportunity might be. Onward then.

Spring 2021 Aroids at King’s Copse Park BG – 3: Arums concinnatum and hygrophylum perform on schedule: 11 – 28th Apr

For some time I have been awaiting the pong in my lounge that would signify the next item being cultivated here had bloomed. Arum concinnatum is one of two more mid-spring flowering eastern Mediterranean Arum species to now add to this mini-series as a so far rather cold spring progresses.

A concinnatum, is one of the largest of its 26-strong genus, being capable of reaching almost a metre in height when fully established and mature. The inflorescence may measure between 15 and 40cm drooping early at the apex. The much shorter, most usually yellow-toned spadix is stout and one-third to half the length of the white or pale greenish yellow spathe that may also be purple-edged. After flowering the fruiting spike reaches 10 – 15cm.

Our first Arum concinnatum to bloom

Pictures I have retrieved online suggest much tonal variation between individual blooms, and as with the closely related A italicum and other Arums a number of leaf forms are known in cultivation. Our own stock was acquired in the autumn of 2019. Two of those three tubers multiplied readily in pots in their first season but did not flower. Indeed the specimen featured in this post is the first to do so and hence was an eagerly awaited event here.

The inflorescence began to open early in the afternoon of 12th and first impressions once again were that differences from the standard model were subtle. But the thick yellow spadix (pictured below) readily distinguishes this particular Arum from the previous two featured in this mini-series to date. As the bloom developed the rich and varied toning became highly attractive – the “Rainbow Warrior” perhaps, or an “Aroid with Attitude”.

One difference from A italicum and the English Cuckoo Pint (see here) A maculatum is that A concinnatum is by repute a bit of a stinker in the early stages of blooming. So once the bloom opened the plant was stored under cover outside in anticipation of it’s pollinator attracting odour. Concinnatum is one of the more highly thermogenic Arums, the process by which plants increase their internal floral temperature above that of the surrounding air to produce the dung-like smell and bring in flies. By the frosty morning of 13th the fully open flower had become a thing of true beauty (above right) with only a very mild scent, then it began to wilt through the ensuing day. So this Arum has a similar shelf life to italicum and Cuckoo Pints.

When planted in the ground the tubers are said to make very robust growths. The large clumps become deep-seated, fully hardy in British conditions and strongly perennial. Like most Arums they are dormant through the summer and the foliage appears in autumn. Most pictures I have seen online are like those herein of blooms above decaying foliage, suggesting that this plant flowers late in it’s growth cycle.

A concinnatum is native to the Aegean region, Cyprus and coastal areas of south-west Turkey; and is especially common and widespread on the island of Crete. In the wild it typically occurs around field and roadside margins, along water courses and in olive groves up to elevations of 1000 metres. The name is derived from the word concinnus in Greek philosophy, meaning neat, elegant and symmetrical. We have seven more of these Arums in stock at KCP BG.

The above blooming event was followed by Arum hygrophilum producing a single inflorescence on 20th in its third season here. Also known as “Water” and “Streambank Arum”, this one is native to the Middle East from Syria to Jordan, and also occurs in Cyprus, Crete, Libya and Morocco. Threatened on the IUCN Red List, it has a liking for growing beside smaller water courses and in very moist ground, hence the colloquial names.

Planted in the ground, the plant has formed a rather weak clump compared to it’s more robust relatives of the previous two posts, and the foliage tends to suffer in the strong cold winds of late winter. But this Arum is said to be capable of producing a large clump over time.

This fourth scentless bloom in hygrophylum’s time with us (pictured above) exhibits the typical narrow “waisted” form. The spathe is creamish green with a distinctive maroon margin and small maroon spadix. Some collectors consider this to be the most attractive inflorescence of the entire genus and I have certainly found it to be one of the more durable. This time it lasted for eight days until 28th.

Spring 2021 Aroids at King’s Copse Park BG – 2: Arum euxinum intrigues through tonal progression – 11th Mar

This rarity originating from the Black Sea coast of northern Turkey is the second of four Arums sourced here last autumn to bloom early in the year. Like the one in the previous post Arum euxinum was brought indoors to protect the plant from February’s local cold snap, and has followed A apulum in performing two months ahead of schedule.

In the wild this scarcest of items occurs in mountainous regions and normally blooms in May. Like all Aroids acquired here our specimen comes from cultivated stock and was not removed from the natural state. Upon unfolding, the odourless, pinched bloom (above right) appeared quite similar to the early-flowering middle eastern Arum hygrophylum that is also in our collection and was the first to bloom in each of the 2019 and 2020 seasons. But this new Arum is somewhat taller and much more robust. The plain, dark green foliage is very attractive and the entire plant a pleasing shape (above left).

The overall effect of a small bloom framed by high shapely leaves made this an interesting plant to follow through its flowering process. I was initially a little underwhelmed for a second time since as with A apulum the supplier’s image (below centre) had led me to expect a particular tone and shape for the inflorescence. But all other A euxinum pictures I sourced online suggested something like the outcome pictured above right. The left hand picture (below) was taken early in the first morning and the right hand one is our A hygrophylum a year ago for comparison.

Whether or not the colouration would evolve with age remained to be seen, and the learning curve continued. Through day one the increasingly firm and waxy spathe of this addition to our collection did acquire more of the shape of the supplier’s picture (above centre). Then from day two more of the anticipated delicate purple toning seemed to intensify in tandem with the allurement A euxinum came to offer.

The left hand picture below is from day two and the right hand one day three. By then I could fully concur with the supplier’s description of the inflorescence as “very pale green stained purple at the edges, top and base, with an interior of pale cream or white marked with rich purple towards the tip”. Later on day three the inflorescence deformed (below right) becoming more purple all the while. This had become perhaps the most subtly intriguing aroid ever cultivated here.

Wilting began on day five so like A hygrophylum this is one of the longer flowering of the genus that we have acquired here so far. For the full range of Arums and other Aroids at KCP BG consult this journal’s Rare Plants tab.

Spring 2021 Aroids at King’s Copse Park BG – 1: Rare Arum apulum blooms two months early – 22nd Feb

This uber-scarce Italian endemic is the first Aroid to perform for the 2021 season here at KCP BG. It was not expected to bloom until April but reacted to being brought indoors to be cared for through February’s late winter cold snap in a quite obliging way.

Arum apulum

In the wild this shade loving plant occurs only across a limited area of south-eastern Italy’s central Apulia region, around the towns of Bari and Taranto. There habitat encroachment by commercial development has contributed to A apulum acquiring critically endangered status. Our own was acquired as a cultivated tuber that was not removed from the natural state.

Arum is a genus occurring from western through central Europe and across central Asia, as well as in North Africa. The blooms of 26 accepted species vary in colour from pale green through yellow, rusty red, deep purple and black. All are preceded by green leaves of various forms in the autumn, and the plants over-winter in that state being cold resistant. This one’s foliage has a dark glossy tone and is unspotted. The spathe is described as plum-coloured inside, toning to paler violet at the very centre, around a deep purple-red spadix; as shown in the supplier’s own picture (below right).

So having selected this addition to our Aroid collection for that attractive colouration this result is disappointing as the two-day bloom (above left) actually resembled a rather firmer Cuckoo Pint (see here). Having researched and sourced pictures for the entire Arum genus (see checklist below) in preparing this piece, a lot of them are indeed similar. But published pictorial records display some tonal variation, and I anticipate a learning curve is involved here.

Ahead of producing its bloom, our A apulum proved to be the most compact and robust Mediterranean Arum of four sourced here last autumn. The species rarely reaches more than 30cm in height. Those qualities are said to make it one of the most suitable Arums for container cultivation, but the growing medium should not be allowed to freeze through which can kill the plant. The pollinator attracting odour is reputedly more manageable for indoor cultivation than others of the genus, and our specimen bore that out smelling only slightly for its first evening in bloom.

For the full range of Arums and other Aroids at KCP BG consult this journal’s Rare Plants tab.

Complete checklist of the genus Arum

In addition to these 26 accepted species, there are a number of synonyms and unresolved items that differ according to various authorities. But as far as I can ascertain, this (below) is the general picture. Asterisks denote species currently being cultivated at KCP BG.

  1. apulum *
    Endemic to central Apulia in SE Italy and related to A nigrum from the Balkans. Blooms in April.
  2. balansanum
    Native to Turkey.
  3. besserianum
    Native to S Poland and the Ukraine.
  4. concinnatum *
    Native to the southern Peloponnese of Greece, most Aegean islands and SW coasts of Turkey. One of the largest Arums, capable of reaching a metre in height. Exhibits various leaf forms. Blooms (foul smelling) in mid-spring. Also known as: byzantinum or nickelii.
  5. creticum *
    Native to the mountains of Crete, Greece and a few places in SW Turkey.
    Blooms (scented) in April / May.
  6. cylindraceum
    Widespread from southern Sweden to Crete and from Portugal to Turkey. Also known as alpinum and lucanum.
  7. cyrenaicum *
    Rarity from SW Crete and NE Libya. Blooms in late spring / early summer.
  8. discoridis *
    Occurs widely across eastern Mediterranean region, with different forms:
    var cyprium
    var philistaeum
    var syriacum – central southern Turkey and NW Syria.
  9. euxinum *
    Rarity from mountains around the Black Sea coast of northern Turkey. Blooms (scentless) in May.
  10. gratum
    Native to NW Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. Blooms scented) May – June and rarely into July.
  11. hainesii
    Native to eastern Iraq. Blooms in May.
  12. hygrophilum *
    Occurs in NE Morocco, E Cyprus, SW Syria and W Jordan. Blooms (scentless) in late winter or early spring.
  13. idaeum
    Rare endemic to the highest Cretan mountains.
  14. italicum *
    Widespread in woodland and hedgerows throughout Europe, N Africa and Asia Minor. Exhibits various leaf forms:
    ssp albispathum
    ssp canariense
  15. jacquemonti
    Occurs from NE Iran through Central Asian region to W China. Blooms April – May.
  16. korolkowii
    Occurs in N Iran, Afghanistan and through central Asia to NW China.
  17. lucanum
    S Italian rarity occurring in high elevation habitats above 1000 metres.
  18. maculatum *
    Common and widespread in woodland and hedgerows across much of Europe. The English Cuckoo Pint (see here).
  19. megobrebi
    Recently described species from mountains between Turkey and Georgia. Blooms in late spring.
  20. nigrum
    Native to the Balkans, blooming in May – June.
  21. orientale
    Occurs from Austria and Poland through eastern central Europe to NE Turkey, the Crimea and W Caucasus. Blooms May – June. Also known as alpinariae and elongatum.
  22. palaestinum
    Occurs in Israel, W Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
  23. pictum
    Occurs in rocky habitats of the Tyrhennian and Balearic islands, and is the only autumn flowering (foul smelling) member of the genus.
  24. purpureospathum
    Endemic to Crete.
  25. rupicola (or conophalloides)
    Occurs from eastern Aegean islands to Israel and Iran. Blooms from April to late June, and into July in cultivation.
  26. sintenisii *
    Native to northern Cyprus. Blooms (scented) in spring.

A Great Bustard in south Oxon at Letcombe Regis – 8th Dec

All this week a Great Bustard originating from the re-introduction project on Salisbury Plain, Wilts has been drawing observers to the village of Letcombe Regis (OX12 9JG – SU386869) near Wantage in south Oxfordshire. This first winter male is the most recent of several individuals to stray from the same scheme to my home county over the past 11 years and is thought to have been in the wider south Oxon downland area for some months.

I last experienced what is the world’s heaviest flying bird locally near Oddington, in the Otmoor basin to the north-east of Oxford in April 2010. So given the ease with which the latest was being recorded pictorially I visited on Tuesday afternoon (8th) where upon my arrival at the most frequent viewing location a number of people were walking back along a metalled farmland path to the east of the village.

Great Bustard at Letcombe Regis

After around 300 metres there it was and what a handsome sight (pictured above), grazing about half way across a rough fallow field. In time it walked to within 25 metres of me, pausing at intervals between feeding and looking all around itself, an uplifting opportunity to observe a large species in prime condition. Though known for being wary in the truly wild state, this one must have been both fully aware of and unconcerned by its audience so long as sudden or intrusive movements were avoided, and I indeed wondered if it was only too pleased to oblige.

Talking to passing dog walkers here suggested the presence of this “escaped” bird is arousing some interest locally. So, not having published anything in this journal for more than five weeks I have researched how it came to be there. What follows does not present anything that will not be known already to seasoned bird enthusiasts, but I hope it may be informative to anyone who having shared this experience might have web-searched the topic to learn more.

Wild Great Bustard populations occur across the Eurasian land mass from the Iberian peninsula to China. Those are both migratory in the east and resident or dispersive elsewhere, while overall distribution is highly fragmented. They are gregarious grazing birds but also very wary by nature. The total population, variously estimated at between 44,000 and 57,000, has undergone a long-term decline over the past 200 years that has been arrested more recently by conservation action in different countries. As a result the European population has increased over the last 20 years and pan-Eurasian figures have stabilised.

In Great Britain the species, that in former times ranged over southern chalk downland and the East Anglian Brecks, was hunted to extinction by the early 1830s. The “Salisbury Plain release project” is operated by the Great Bustard Group, a registered charity working to re-establish and promote the species nationally. A now 100 strong population of free flying adult birds on rented, MoD military training land is said to be the largest introduced one anywhere. A major part of the project’s funding comes from pre-arranged and supervised public visits to the otherwise inaccessible site.

An initial 10 year trial re-introduction began in 2004 using eggs and chicks rescued from agricultural operations in the Trans-Volga region of southern Russia. There the ground nesting Bustards’ breeding season coincides with large-scale cereal cultivation. Sitting females are said to be “reluctant to fly” from approaching farm machinery and hence difficult to spot in time despite their size, so destruction of nests is widespread in Europe’s second highest breeding population of around 8000 birds.

But this Russian stock from what is a Bustard summering ground was ultimately deemed to have rather too strong “migratory tendencies”, presumably meaning the birds are prone to scarpering and / or perishing in the process. Perhaps that’s true of charitable re-introduction programmes in general, more recently the White-tailed Eagles in the Isle of Wight, one of which also deemed to spend time in Oxfordshire where many more “kosher” scarcities seemingly fear to touch down.

So from 2013 the emphasis turned to sourcing stock from the world’s largest resident Great Bustard concentration of 29 – 35k breeding birds in Spain. Studies had revealed this was closer genetically to the extinct British population and also Europe’s least prone to wander, which after all must be an important consideration for a wildlife visitor attraction. There had in any case been long standing concerns over the impact on the Russian donor population, and regulatory issues surrounding importing and releasing birds from there had been problematic.

This, as presented here is a great simplification of the various factors that are explained in detail on the GBG web site. Progress in achieving the project’s key objective of establishing a self-sustaining population has been slow, with a recurring mix of successes and setbacks. Though breeding took place every year between 2007 and 2013 none of the juveniles reached adulthood due to the substantial death rate arising from their dispersal. I have not been able to locate more recent data on breeding performance, but hand reared birds from imported eggs that have reached maturity at the project site now number around 100.

Natural mortality in the wild is in any case more than 80% in the first year. As ground nesting birds with a reluctance to fly they are vulnerable to predation when feeding, nesting and roosting. Many eggs and chicks are taken by both mammalian and avian predators, though young birds grow very quickly and adults are more than capable of defending themselves. Those that survive their first year typically live on for between 15 and 20 more.

Great Bustard drove in Portugal, 2014

My personal experience of Great Bustards in between the two Oxon ones was all of a resident wild population in the Baixo Alentego region of southern Portugal in 2013 / 14 (pictured above). There it was possible to drive around the steppe grassland for hours on end without seeing any, then all of a sudden come across grazing “droves” as their social flocks are termed in the middle distance. I enjoyed a number of self-found encounters but was never able to observe them at such close range as this week’s bird. Doing so now, whatever it’s “plasticity” in birding parlance, was a most enjoyable event.

A celebration of the Magpie Inkcap, plus The Sickener and other autumnal English fungi: 25 – 30th Oct

Over successive days this week I have taken the opportunity to track and record the fruiting cycle of an uncommon English mushroom, the enigmatic and tantalisingly attractive Magpie Inkcap (Coprinopsis picacaea), in Beech woodland in the Oxon Chilterns.

This began when choosing somewhere to go on Sunday (25th), a sunny first day of the detested dark season, I opted for a location near Nettlebed where Firecrests (the bird) might be found. After wandering around for a bit I met an enthusiast who was photographing something in the leaf litter with quite sophisticated paraphernalia. Guessing that must be fungi I engaged with him and he pointed out first some red Sickener mushrooms and then Magpie Inkcap (pictured below) growing from beneath a fallen log.

My researches now suggest it is quite unusual to find such a group since fruit of the latter fungus most usually occur singly or are at least well spaced. Having been introduced to this interest myself recently I soon forgot about the initial purpose giver for being there, and why not? The insect season is over for another year and the national birding action, though exceptional continues to occur mostly in the remotest outposts of the British Isles, way beyond both my preferred distance range and means. To put things another way I was in an apt frame of mind to be receptive to some late autumn fungi.

I had first come across Magpie Inkcap in another nearby Beech wood two years ago (pictured below). This thing of dark and delicate beauty occurs infrequently in much of the British Isles, but is found throughout continental Europe most usually in areas with alkaline soil and especially Beech woods, as well as in parts of North America; not to mention in the Chilterns.

2018 Magpie Inkcap in Padnell’s Wood, Oxon

Monday (26th) was the only forecast sunny day of the week ahead and so I returned to the same place. Exploring a little further I became amazed and captivated in equal measure by the sheer quantity and variety of colourful, alluring and photogenic fungi all around the forest floor. Things soon felt similar to being back in Portugal or the south of France seeking out and taking pictures of insects. The Inkcap group of the previous day had evolved into the large bell shapes (pictured below) and my curiosity was suitably piqued.

Reading up on things when I got home, I learned the poisonous Magpie Inkcap fruit bodies evolve through a sequence of shapes – egg to gherkin, then opening up to bell-like – through their short lived emergence. The patterning of white or silvery grey breaks into separate patches to reveal the glossy dark brown background as the reproductive cycle of spore dispersal progresses. The stalk is white, hollow and not very stable, slightly tapered towards the top and covered with scales. Eventually, at around day four by my observations the brim of the cap rolls up and dissolves, then the cycle is complete and the stalks collapse. 

Over the six days covered by this post I observed that sequence in three different specimens near by that initial group at Highmoor Common Wood (SU704856). This is presented in the mixed sequence above, captured wearing waterproofs and with the aid of a garden kneeler as I performed contortions in the leaf litter on the damp forest floor. At one point a passer by just had to call out: “Are you all right?” and yes thank you I was.

The following individual sequences show the daily progress of two of the Magpie Inkcap I tracked. At least in this study period, which was punctuated by heavy showers and spells of prolonged rain, there appeared to be a four day fruiting cycle that possibly shortened as the wet conditions persisted. I have used simplified language in discussing all this. For a more scientific treatment see here.

The second sequence (above) illustrates perfectly the four part cycle observed in each specimen, through egg to gherkin then into bell shape before the fruit begins to dissolve and collapse. But this further example #4 (below) was perhaps the finest of them all. One after another through six days I witnessed these emerging through the leaf littler from the underground network of threads that forms the main structure of this group of fungi, to put on the superb show recorded here. I felt glad indeed to have experienced something truly new and different in nature as winter commences.

On Wednesday (28th) I also checked out another woodland, Icknieldbank Plantation (SU668915) on the Chiltern Ridgeway below Swyncombe Down, finding another cluster. The only fruit here not to have gone over was a partially scale free specimen (pictured below) that I revisited the following day but did not track through the full cycle.

In my limited experience of fungi, the Magpie Inkcap of this post is definitely my favourite to date. But the Highmoor Common site was populated by an array of other highly attractive, weird and wonderful items. Prominent amongst those was Russula emetica, or colloquially The Sickener (pictured below) since it might do exactly what is said on the tin if eaten.

Amongst the prettier of woodland fungi, I understand these are common and widespread throughout the British Isles and mainland Europe; being one of more than 100 red-capped Russula species known worldwide. As the name implies, if consumed raw or inadequately cooked the red and white mushroom can cause nausea, vomiting and various other ill effects. Nonetheless it has apparently been eaten widely in Russia and eastern European countries in the past. But from what I read I might have preferred not to be amongst those who worked out the best way to prepare such a food.

As mentioned earlier the forest floor in the part of Highmoor Common Wood I visited played host to an astonishing array of fungi, some of which are presented in the sequence above. I don’t know what all these are called but they rival the Mediterranean Aroids for spring 2021 blooming currently growing under glass at KCP BG for strangeness and allurement. And what can I say about names such as Amethyst Deceiver (top left), Saffron Milkcap or Burgundydrop Bonnet, that sound more like psychedelic 1960s US west coast band names than something biological? This has been a very welcome diversion and project through the first week of winter, and something I will definitely take more interest in come the autumn of 2021.

Some musings on Helicodiceros muscivorus, the “Dead Horse Arum” – 16th Oct

As of today Kings Copse Park Botanical Gardens (KCP BG) is the proud custodian of a good-sized Helicodiceros muscivorus tuber. This seriously weird Aroid is a must have for collectors, involving as it does scope for imagination above the median and a reputation for producing amongst the world’s top 10 foulest smelling flowers. If planted in autumn tubers make foliage through the winter months before blooming in spring. Then the foliage wilts and the plant goes into semi-dormancy until the cycle begins again.

Not surprisingly yours truly wanted one too upon seeing pictures when I first started collecting Aroids in the spring of 2018. So on finding the plant offered for sale a few months later by Adventurous Plants at what seemed a very low price of £4.50 I took the plunge. Though described as being a few years from flowering size that tuber was puny and did not put on any bulk at all in its first two seasons, but I nonetheless resolved to make cultivating and bringing it to bloom a life’s ambition.

Helicodiceros muscivorus – all outsourced images herein are © rights of owner reserved

All that changed earlier this month when on resolving to join the wait list at RarePlants.co.uk I found rather more substantial H muscivorus actually available for sale, this time for £21.50. Imagine the thrill when on snapping one up the wait list was immediately re-instated and the plant again became listed as out of stock. To put things another way I must have got the last un-reserved one. A number of other suppliers maintain similar waiting lists. Obtaining one is not easy as they are such a sought after item.

This is the only plant of the Helicodiceros genus, known colloquially as the “Dead Horse Arum” and also “Pig Butt Arum” or “Ass Plant” on the other side of the Atlantic. Those anal American associations no doubt arise from the way it looks as much as the infamous smell. The foliage is a pale matt-green and in my view the remarkable inflorescence, perhaps depending on the angle from which it is viewed, has a quite beguiling suggestiveness some way beyond animal rear ends: large, flesh coloured and covered in hairs.

The above 19th century illustration possibly conveys that observation more than published pictures. My own supplier prefers a rather more polite resemblance to an Aardvark’s ear “in shades of flesh-pink and jade-green blotched all over with purple and emerald”. Take your pick. “Dragon’s Mouth” is another, less well used common name.

In the wild this Aroid grows only on rocky, coastal cliff tops in the Tyrrhenian and Balearic Islands of the Mediterranean (pictured below). But responsible suppliers such as I have sourced mine from grow their own from cultivated stock, and judging by the number of pictures on-line there are plenty of Helicos in circulation both in Europe and the USA.

This is one of a rare group of plants with the ability to raise their own temperature above that of the surrounding air through thermogenesis. This simulates the warmth given off by the biological functions involved in decomposition, while emitting a strong putrid odour of rotting meat to lure pollinating flies into the inflorescence. The spathe waits for a warm and sunny day before unrolling so the smell spreads far and wide, but blooming is short lived since the pollination process lasts for just two days.

The flesh-toned bloom’s resemblance to a natural animal orifice also assists in pollination as blow flies are drawn right into the floral chamber where they become trapped and in trying to escape transfer pollen between the male and female flowers. On the first day only the female flowers are receptive, peaking at around midday in tandem with the odour. The pollinators remain trapped until the following day when the male flowers become fertile. Then the plant loosens its constriction allowing the flies, well dusted with pollen, to escape only to be trapped again in another plant, ensuring cross-pollination.

But it is not only insects that assist in the propagation of H muscivorus. In the Balearics this most curious plant has developed a specialised relationship with an endemic reptile. Liford’s Wall Lizard (Podarcis lilfordi) is known to be attracted to the odour of rotting meat and also for exploring any potential source of its small invertebrate, plant matter and carrion diet.

Once drawn by the Dead Horse Arum’s stench they enjoy basking on the warm spathes (above left) while taking advantage of the abundance of flies. And attracted by the amplified buzz of trapped flies from within they will actually enter the floral chamber (above right) to catch them. In doing so this lizard has learned to also eat the plant’s berries (pictured below), and hence it has become a major seed disperser. Studies indicate that seeds which pass through the reptile’s digestive system are twice as likely to germinate.

Helicodiceros muscivorus fruit

My article earlier this year on the English Cuckoo Pint (see here) has been well referred to in this journal. So I have also searched for anecdotes and folklore concerning their exotic Mediterranean cousin of this post, but without success. Likewise I have uncovered no Helico medicinal or culinary uses. But the “Dead Horse Arum” appears to have been quite a focus for scientific study, particularly concerning mimicry in plants to attract pollinators, which is true of many Aroids. And in all the published material it is difficult to get away from THAT smell.

Anyway I now have one, the most costly and perhaps challenging Aroid acquired here to date. My new acquisition is supplied as being two years from flowering size (FS2). I shall cherish and nurture this latest addition to my currently 29 species strong collection indoors through the coming winter and beyond until such time as it HAS to go outside.

A day on the Sussex coast, featuring Red-throated Diver and a lesson concerning Purple Sandpipers – 12th Oct

The re-found wanderlust that had seized me in recent days didn’t end with the events of the previous post, as after Ewan called on Sunday to enquire whether I fancied going birding I found myself heading off again for the third time in five days. The options offered were the Hants Wilson’s Phalarope or a Radde’s Warbler in Sussex. As I had already done the first we agreed on the latter of those that might have been a second ever record for both of us. But the excursion’s outcome was eventually something quite different (pictured below).

Red-throated Diver (1w) at Pagham Lagoon

Mid-Monday morning saw us arrive at Seaford Head (TV499979), where from the public parking area we walked out to a scrubby area in the centre of a golf course. There we found five other birders some of whom had been in place since dawn without re-finding the Radde’s. As in Cambs five days before, another typical Warbler twitch was in progress involving scanning a large area of habitat in the hope of glimpsing a small skulking bird.

It made sense to stick around for a while having come all the way here. There had been a spate of sightings around England of this Siberian breeding drift migrant through the week just passed, but as we waited and checked news from elsewhere it became plain those birds still present on Sunday had mostly moved on. After an hour we gave up on things here too, most of our fellow birders by then having also gone on their way.

Seaford Head is an impressive sight from distance (pictured above left). I was glad we didn’t need to go near the cliff edge, since vertigo has affected me at other less lofty coastal locations often enough in the past. I also wondered exactly what the rules might be when golf balls are driven over the edge. To the east, the Seven Sisters (above right) stretched away towards the distant Beachy Head along this section of Sussex coastline. Both outsourced pictures are © rights of owner reserved.

The question now was what to do next. Ewan lived in Sussex for some years in the past and has detailed knowledge and long experience of the county’s prime birding locations. I was interested to encounter again the Purple Sandpipers that roost at high tide, and which I observed previously in February 2017, on the east pier of nearby Newhaven’s port area (TQ451000). And though it is early in the PS season and not knowing the present state of the tide we opted to go there and take a look.

Newhaven east pier © and courtesy of Robin Webster

As we approached I commented the tide looked in but my colleague explained that at high tide the water level is much nearer the top of the rather unusual structure (pictured above, top as we found it). We still walked out to the end of the pier looking down towards the sea level piling all the while, but found only Turnstones. We had now drawn blank twice, so where to next? I was not keen to go to Pennington again but likewise appreciate it is unwise to try to dissuade my companion from doing anything he sets his mind on, and he was driving today.

Fortunately Ewan now found on the Sussex grapevine a Red-throated Diver at Pagham Lagoon to the west near Bognor Regis, so we set off for there. This is not of course an especially scarce sighting on the south coast in winter, though most are viewed some way offshore. But I myself had seen well only two previously, and opportunities to observe one on an inland water body are quite unusual, so I felt pleased to have this chance now.

Though I have been to neighbouring Pagham Harbour on numerous occasions, I was unaware of Pagham Lagoon (SZ 883969) until this visit. On parking in Lagoon Road we were at once approached a little anxiously by a local resident, who when she realised we were birders soon warmed to our presence. This lady explained that like many places in the current Covid climate the neighbourhood and its nature reserve is experiencing pressure from general public that arrives in numbers to engage in variously intrusive activities.

Red-throated Diver (1w) at Pagham Lagoon

We then, with our newly found host’s blessing, walked out to and around the lagoon and soon found the first winter Red-throated Diver (pictured above) quite close in to the shore. For the next hour we watched the bird moving around the water before us, diving all the while, and at times it would do a disappearing act for quite long intervals. My colleague being more experienced with the species now explained the diagnostics of spotted upperparts, a reddish patch on the throat and the upturned lower mandible of the bill.

I could see this bird was quite distinct in its appearance from the other two wintering British Diver species I have observed as closely in the past, and am pleased to have now taken pictures of a kind (see here) of all three at inland locations. I was surprised to find upon checking that there are only two previous RTD in my life lists, but dare say more have been pointed out to me some distance out to sea that I didn’t bother to include in my records.

It was now 15:00 pm and the weather was deteriorating. So my day’s driver felt no inclination to brave a wet and windy Pennington Marsh, and instead we repaired to a nearby bakery for sustenance before heading home. It had been a decent enough outing for me despite having connected with just one bird target out of the three attempted.