A visit to Donna Nook Grey Seal colony, Lincs for my first Pomarine Skua – 29th Nov

When Wednesday’s BirdGuides review of the week told of this bird having become resident within an Atlantic Grey Seal colony on the north Lincs coast it seemed like an unmissable opportunity to connect with the only British Skua I had not observed previously. Settled individuals on land do not occur too often, so though 180 miles from home is further than my preferred driving distance I at once resolved to go. Like my first Little Auk in Oslo earlier this month, making the trip would be greatly preferable to trying to sea watch fly-bys somewhere.

Personal records of the three other Skua species had all come locally from Oxford’s Farmoor Reservoir: Great in October 2017 (see here), Arctic (Nov 2013) and Long-tailed (Sep 1995). But it would be very unusual for a “Pom” to turn up at such an inland location, and thus lingered a rather glaring omission from my national and life lists. Earlier this autumn another land-bound individual was found early in the day at Langstone Harbour in Sussex, but when I arrived there it had flown off not to be seen again.

pomarine skua.1901 donna nook

Today’s Pomarine Skua (adult)

The weather was due to change for the better on Friday and so at around 9:30am I arrived at Donna Nook NNR in cold and clear conditions. One of the car park volunteers said the bird was still present, and on enquiring of a departing birder I was pointed towards a spot where the presence of green clad optics carriers indicated where my quest must be. And there, sitting out on the salt marsh alternately dozing and preening, was my first ever Pomarine Skua – things this time were as simple as that.

Numbers of these seabirds are seen on migration around British coasts in both spring, when I understand a particular wind direction is needed to encounter them, and autumn. This one has possibly decided that the all day, as much as it likes buffet offered here by the plentiful placentae that litter such a large breeding seal colony is preferable to moving on. But rather worryingly it is also said to have an injured leg and so may just have been left behind.

Before long the Pom took to the air then landed besides a placenta a few metres within the viewing area boundary fence, a brute of a bird. This was a picture opportunity such as all the birders present craved, and it set about tearing at its meal with typical Skua-like relish. A lady standing next to me said if she photo-shopped out the after birth she would then have a nice picture. I have since seen the same view expressed on another Oxon blog and must confess to not seeing what the sensitivity is here.

DSC_0173

Were I a photographer these are definitely the “shots” I would want. The food source is after all why the bird was here offering such exceptional views of itself. I am also not either a doctor or biologist and so open to correction, but were we not all once followed into the world by one of these perfectly natural items that nourished and allowed us to breathe in the womb? No … there’s nothing wrong with a nice bit of placenta, as this Pom clearly agrees.

Having gained such acceptable studies of this latest life list addition, I next turned my attention to its hosts. The seals were possibly the most awe inspiring wildlife spectacle involving large animals I have enjoyed since experiencing Florida’s Alligators in January 2017. An information board today announced a recent count of 469 bulls and 1629 cows on site, while 1554 pups have been born so far in the current season.

Donna Nook NNR is one of four Atlantic Grey Seal colonies on the English east coast, the others being Blakeney and Horsey in Norfolk, and the Farne Islands. The Lincs Wildlife Trust administered site covers around 10 km of coastline and consists of dunes, slacks and inter-tidal areas. Deposition of material from the River Humber has resulted in mud flats offshore, and the advancing dunes have trapped areas of salt marsh behind them. Every November and December large numbers of seal cows come ashore to give birth, before being mated again by the waiting bulls.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The first pups are born in early November, with numbers peaking around the time of my visit. How rapidly these grow was all too apparent today, and after 18 days the young seals are weaned and the cows return to sea. After moulting into their first adult coat the juveniles follow and by January the beach is empty again. Lesser numbers of the smaller Common Seal also breed at Donna Nook.

The uniformly dark-toned bulls are impressive beasts indeed, up to 2.2 metres in length and weighing up to 300 kg. Here and there I observed them halfheartedly sparring or attempting to mate, but mostly they just slumbered their time away. Some bore the kind of battle scars I have grimaced at in many a wildlife documentary. There seemed to be a concentration of very large bulls out on the tide-line. Cows are pale with darker patches, growing to 1.8 metres long and weighing up to 150kg, and mostly give birth to a single pup each season.

It was of course the pups (pictured above) that stole the show. Like many of the adults they seemed to prefer lying on their backs in variously comical poses, and would roll around, smile and chuckle just like human babies. Their “cute factor” is understandably what brings large numbers of visitors to this NNR, necessitating a one-way system through lanes out from the nearest village of North Somercotes and back. Parking on site is £4 / vehicle and must be a very welcome source for funding reserve management.

Around midday I returned to my car for a sandwich and to retrieve money for the donations box. Many more general public were now arriving and I was amused by the perfectly white pumps heading in the other direction into a muddy area behind the sea wall that had been flooded just a day earlier. A few ladies were attired straight from the high street or possibly somewhere more exclusive, and two fellow multi-layered welly wearers I joked with said they had seen a man dressed in running shorts in the very chill wind.

Returning to the viewing area I sought out the Pomarine Skua again and soon relocated it. The light had improved somewhat and it was now that the lead image in this post and those immediately above were gained. Then at around 1 pm I headed for home, completing the four-hour return journey without even a loo stop or batting an eyelid. Maybe I should go beyond range more often, and this had certainly been an uplifting day out.

A mini-celebration of Snow Bunting from Walberswick, Suffolk – 20th Nov

Today I gained my best ever experience and pictures of one of the regular wintering passerines that occur around the East Anglian coast. Whilst staying with friends in Suffolk for a couple of days, my birding time out at this site was to try a little late for what by now was a long staying Eastern Yellow Wagtail. That bird wasn’t seen but an attractive flock of Snow Bunting coming and going continuously during my 4½ hours on site was a pleasing diversion.

snow bunting.1907 winter male walberswick

Winter male Snow Bunting

The 20-something Buntings were particularly attracted to a patch of grass on the shingle beach (pictured below) where seed must have been put down for them by birders twitching the EYW on previous days. Some of my pictures indeed show them eating what doesn’t look like a natural food source.

snow bunting.1923 walberswick

These birds tolerated a very close approach and I was able to get within feet of them at times without causing them to scatter. I hope I have identified  the various individuals correctly as to gender and age (below), but if not am open to correction.

Last winter I had twice observed a Snow Bunting flock in very windy conditions on the north Norfolk coast at Holkham Bay (see here). Due to the closeness of today’s encounter I enjoyed it that bit more. Other past personal records were from Reculver in Kent (Nov 2014), Cley in Norfolk (Oct 2014), locally at Farmoor Reservoir  (Feb 2012), Walberswick again (Feb 1986); and twice as a teenager in the family home back garden in eastern Greater London – yes really!

snow bunting.1922 walberswick

Today’s Snow Bunting flock at Walberswick

Where the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was concerned, I agree with the day’s only post from the site that it was not seen. But others amongst the observers present kept calling it confidently from the briefest of glimpses, something that not being a proper birder myself I am always dubious about. Some trusted Oxon birding colleagues had been here before me so I knew exactly what to look for (see here), and also came armed with a printed picture. It is mostly only possible to make subjective judgements about how knowledgeable people I meet in the field are, but some of the things being said here just did not tally. And when the bird being called eventually showed itself clearly mid-afternoon it was a first winter regular Yellow Wagtail (pictured below). Neither bird was reported on the following day (21st).

I am not greatly enthused by new splits that might only be distinguishable on call or by DNA analysis of faecal samples. But these are “tickable” and so in my current low state of national birding motivation this one seemed worth a look. The Eastern Yellow Wagtail had been present at Walberswick Corporation Marshes on the Suffolk coast since 28th October, and was confirmed as such from a sound recording on 9th November.

I expect there will be more opportunities since, as familiarity with the new species grows, proper birders are likely to identify others. That will have to wait, but here and now the wintering Snow Buntings at this site had made for a worthwhile visit. I nonetheless returned home thinking it may have to be something a bit special to tempt me out again nationally this winter.

A short visit to Oslo to experience a Pine Grosbeak irruption – 6 & 7th Nov

When I read about this on BirdGuides it was something I just had to do. Late October had seen the largest south-westward movement of Pine Grosbeak since 1976. This had already eclipsed the irruption of 2012 when one bird reached Shetland, and numbers were expected to multiply further in southern Scandinavia through early winter (see here). With 60-something regularly occurring species still required for my pan-European bird list, a spring trip to Sweden is on my next-up agenda. But the iconic far-northern Finches are not on the target list for the tour I am considering, so this at once seemed my best chance of recording them.

There is some anticipation amongst British birders presently as to whether PG will arrive on these shores again in the near future. But after such a dull autumn within my range at home I felt that getting to southern Norway from London Stansted airport would be rather easier and more affordable than reaching such far flung locations as offered the British Isles’ hardcore birding interest through October. So thus it was that on Wednesday (6th) Ewan and myself stepped off a 9:30am Ryanair at Oslo’s Gardermoen Airport to meet our guide Simon Rix then go in search of PG and some other rather special regional birds.

DSC_0489

Pine Grosbeak (adult male)

Simon cited two hill-top locations on the northern edge of suburban Oslo at which he had observed groups of Pine Grosbeak in recent days. At the first, Grefsenkollen he had been interviewed at first light on national radio, such is the interest that thousands of these birds moving through Norway each day is generating. When we arrived there a number of his local birding colleagues were staking out the site, but no “Grozzers” had been seen again since 8am. So after a brief look around ourselves we moved on.

Now we went to the area around Holmenkollen ski jump, an up-market residential district that commands panoramic views over the city and Oslo Fjord. It was a cold, clear and crisp early winter’s day and we drove around checking the stands of berry bearing mountain ash or Rowan (sp) trees that grow here. These provide a ready food source for the taiga breeding avian visitors in what is an exceptional berry year, and the birds are likely to start high up then work their way down to lower areas of the city as the fruit is stripped.

Before too long our quest was located in good light, a flock of seven then 17 more flew over. The first group contained just one red-toned adult male, whilst females and first winter birds are difficult to tell apart. These are Redwing-sized and often extend their necks downward into elongated postures when feeding, before stripping the berries of their skins and digesting the pulp within. In doing so their acrobatic jizz is reminiscent of Waxwings, but my favourite trait is when they shimmy sideways on their twig and branch perches to re-position themselves. What absolutely stunning beauties they are … words such as captivate, enthral and allure, or derivations thereof, barely do them justice!

These birds alternated between feeding on the Rowan berries and the buds of Spruce trees, moving regularly between the two food sources. When in the berry trees the PG were quite fearless of human presence, allowing us to approach very closely. But they were much more sensitive to the threat from above and with Sparrowhawk active at the site would scatter at intervals. At one point a Pygmy Owl even flew through fast, though only Simon noticed it.

We stayed here taking pictures for around two hours. Rather noisy machines were busily creating snow cover for cross country ski tracks just below us, causing a constant fine spray to drift through proceedings. This served to interfere with camera settings and lowered the air temperature that would naturally have been a couple of degrees below zero. Eventually something spooked the Grosbeaks and they all flew off, but after a brief drive around checking other locations we returned to find a new flock of a further 10 birds. Now the quality of picture on offer took a turn for the better, including most of those that appear above and below.

Pine Grosbeak’s breeding range is in the mature, undisturbed taiga forests of northern Fennoscandia and Russia. There in contrast to their bold behaviour when feeding in winter they are unobtrusive and retiring. This present irruption is somewhat earlier than is typical and unusually high numbers have also penetrated Denmark. But they are not known for making long sea crossings, so multiple arrivals in Great Britain would be truly exceptional.

guiding IMG_0120 copy

Myself and Ewan (right) at Holmenkollen, courtesy of Simon Rix

In the early afternoon we relocated to Forneba, another exclusive residential district on the shore of Oslo Fjord, to seek out Little Auk. Recent weeks have seen numbers of them moving down eastern British coasts, as is usual in any autumn when birds from huge Arctic breeding colonies migrate to their north Atlantic wintering grounds. Some southward bound Auks stray into Oslo Fjord especially after squalls at sea. So as with the main target, being guided to this second lifer for the trip in Norway seemed like a safer option than trying to guess a good sea watching point then hoping they pass by at home.

As things turned out it was myself who called the single individual we found here (below left), which proceeded to offer exceptional views as it made long dives close in along the shoreline. This experience was greatly preferable to trying to sea watch one in England, a type of birding that has never appealed to me given the distance at which passing birds are mostly seen. We also observed three Guillemot (below right) at Forneba, which upon checking I find was my first sighting anywhere since 1991; but I haven’t been looking.

We ended the daylight hours by trying for a Great Grey Owl that had been reported along a forested road near the airport. But now our luck on what had been a superb day in Oslo ran out, then we did not find the long shot again on the morning and late afternoon of 7th. It could have been a lifer for both Ewan and myself, but not this time.

Overnight we stayed at the excellent Thon Hotel Gardermoen four miles from the airport, that itself is a 40-minute drive from Oslo. Here an adequate evening meal and superb breakfast were both included in the room rate, being real value in a country I concluded is prohibitively expensive due to its very high economic level. For that reason I feel disinclined to bird in Norway again, other than on one or two day trips such as this.

oslo.1907 holmenkollen snowscape

Holmenkollen on day two

Thursday (7th) fell a little flat by comparison with our superlative first day. In the morning we visited the forest park of Lindenkollen from where Simon had recently published video of a Hazel Grouse on his blog (see here). I particularly wanted to see this species as it was the only trip target not gained on my April 2017 tour of Estonia. Our guide re-located the bird and heard it calling several times but it just would not show itself, possibly because it was watching the three of us and so was very wary. This was a repeat of my experience in Estonia with the guide knowing a bird was present nearby that I didn’t see.

Whilst in that forest we also observed three Nutcracker and parties of Parrot Crossbill and Willow Tit (record shots above). But we all wanted some more Pine Grosbeak action and so returned to Holmenkollen in the afternoon. Now the weather had deteriorated and light conditions were poor. The snow machines had also succeeded in covering the area with a light dusting. And once again we came across another PG flock of 18 birds that this time contained three adult males.

We thus estimated having seen 34 of the main trip target at this site over the two days. The latest contingent proceeded to entertain us just like the previous day’s birds. At one point a similar number of Waxwing flew in and the two species fed communally in the same Rowan trees, which was quite a novel experience.

DSC_0535

Pine Grosbeaks and Waxwings

Ultimately it was disappointing to have converted just two of the four trip targets, but the Pine Grosbeaks of our main intent were absolutely superb value. They have some competition to be my birds of the year – including Allen’s Gallinule and Dwarf Bittern in Fuerteventura, the Cape Rhir Bald Ibis flock again in Morocco, and everything I saw on June’s Wildwings tour of Turkey – but I think these Scandinavian stunners probably make it. Very important is the trail blazing aspect of this visit to “Groslo” since myself and Ewan are the first British birders to undertake it. So all in all it was a highly worthwhile and unforgettable exercise. Cue a fade out …

DSC_0501

For Simon Rix’s own account of these two days see here and for Ewan’s see here.

American Black Tern at Longham Lakes, Dorset – 8th Oct

This in birding parlance is what is known as an “insurance tick”, recording a sub-species that could be split in the future. Going for it today aptly demonstrated how difficult it has been to locate new birds within my preferred range this autumn. But with the Siberian drift migrants I need all occurring way too far north for my liking in the present Atlantic weather pattern, a 93-mile excursion to the outskirts of Bournemouth offered the best alternative for a day out.

american black tern,1901_01 longham lakes

Today’s American Black Tern

American Black Tern Ssp surinamensis is said to be distinguishable from its European counterpart Chlidonias niger in all plumages. For an informative guide to separating the two races see here. I arrived on site late morning, parking at the top of Green Lane (SZ 06551 98272) where there is no restriction, then walking around the northern of two lakes and south to where several observers had my quest in view on the second one.

The former reservoir of Longham Lakes is managed as a recreational facility by Bournemouth Water Leisure, primarily for angling but also for walking, and is a well known birding site in the area. I had visited twice before, to see a Hoopoe (Dec 2010) and my only White-rumped Sandpiper (Dec 2012). Today I was expecting to watch something quite distantly and left my camera in the car. But the ABT was actually very co-operative, making several close passes to the group I had joined. So I made the departure of taking some video on my phone instead, but this free blog plan does not support video files.

american black tern,1903_01 longham lakes

American Black Tern

Some of those around me commented on the level of energy this juvenile was putting into the amount of food it was finding. It had been here for three days and followed the same circuit over and again, mainly around the southern end of the lake but venturing up towards us at intervals. I found the jizz to be especially pleasing and so felt glad to have made the effort to experience this quite different Nearctic form of a familiar passage Tern.

After an hour I decided to retrieve my camera and attempt some flight studies, then on my return the bird naturally enough stopped playing ball. For the next hour it kept to the southern end of the lake before eventually making two more near fly pasts. As a mid-level birder who takes pictures I feel content enough with the records then gained (below and above). But I had noticed how some field companions with far more complex and expensive equipment than my own seemed dissatisfied with their own results. For the RBA gallery of this bird see here.

american black tern,1902_01 longham lakes

American Black Tern

american black tern,1904_01 longham lakes

As the detested dark season looms again I feel a little apprehensive over the brittle sense of motivation that wildlife observation brings. Whilst I admire patch watchers and local birders for remaining content to record the same things ad infinitum, for me the activity becomes pointless when done for its own sake. Punishing as it is, there must be at least something new and different in the mix, or evolved ways of going about things. This today was a thoroughly worthwhile excursion that succeeded in producing the desired warm inner glow.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler at Farlington Marshes, Hants: my 350th British bird + a Wryneck at Church Norton, Sussex – 16th Sep

This personal birding landmark was reached courtesy of the autumn’s first twitchable new passerine migrant within my preferred 150-mile range. The warbler in question was initially reported in the early afternoon of Saturday 14th, and being of national mega status and the first ever record for Hampshire drew large crowds over the weekend. But as it was a British tick for me and not a lifer I decided to wait and see whether it stayed until today.

When an early sighting came at 7:25am it was a huge relief to be hitting the road again after a dull opening to my personal autumn birding season in recent weeks. The weekend had aptly demonstrated the paucity of local birding in my home county with a required lifer Aquatic Warbler (briefly), Bluethroat (difficultly) and a number of Wrynecks all reported in the familiar (to me) area of southern Hants and Sussex featured in this post.

farlington marshes.1901

So it was that at 10:40am I arrived at Farlington Marshes Hants and IoW Wildlife Trust nature reserve (pictured above) in the north-west corner of the Langstone Harbour complex (SU 685045). The site is now rather more developed than when I used to visit fairly regularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a metalled access road and two car parks, both of which were full. I joined around 50 or more birders who were staking out classic migrant landfall habitat in meadows at the reserve’s northern end.

It was at once apparent this would be an as classic warbler twitch, involving staring at banks of dense vegetation for long periods in the hope of brief glimpses of a skulking bird. As these RBA gallery pictures (here) show, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler is a strikingly pale looking Hippolais, especially on the underside, totally lacking in green tones, brownish-grey above and with greyish-white beneath. Lively in jizz and prone to keeping in tree cover, the species exhibits relatively plain wings, a bland face, pale supercilium and long yellow bill. It is very rare in Great Britain, with just 21 accepted previous records mostly on the northern isles, Scillies and eastern coasts.

thumb

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler

Over my next two hours on site here, various movements and glimpses were detected but there was no consensus amongst the gathered birders as to a positive ID. RBA posted a “showing well” sighting at 11:30am but nobody I then enquired of knew anything about it. I was keeping in touch throughout with Adam who had seen the bird on Sunday, and he now prompted RBA to consult the reporter who said he had actually meant 10:30 just before my arrival. That was the second time in the morning that a posting was quoted as “erroneous”.

It did seem a few birders considered they had seen the EOW at that time, but others felt they could easily have been mistaken. Shortly before 1pm I was joined by Ewan who had set off on the spur of the moment after an appointment at home. On realising that our quarry was being far more difficult to locate than a day earlier, we decided to move along the coast eastward to Church Norton near Bognor Regis to try for a Wryneck, and then return later.

Ewan said he knew the exact location for the second bird, the only one still present in the area from a day earlier, which was a part of the Pagham Harbour complex I was not familiar with. When we reached the “Severals”, an area of pools just to the harbour’s south-west (SZ 873950), six other birders were already scanning the location. Fairly soon one of them called that he had located the Wryneck in a bush close by.

We gained a good first view of this cryptically plumaged, regular autumn migrant on the ground, before walking around to the far end of the path concerned to try for a better one. The Wryneck then moved high into the same bush again and perched for a while surveying its surroundings (pictured above, left). Ironically the people we left probably had the best views at this time, amongst whom one lady got some rather better looking images on her phone.

Eventually this bird flew back towards the harbour, landing in some Gorse, and when they could not re-find it the other birders all left. But Ewan suggested we search for it again and we gained further views of the Wryneck in more open places. We had been joined by a local birder who had looked for it on each of the previous two days, and he was now especially pleased to see his quest. This success in relocating a personal fourth record at what is a regular passage site for the species was all due to my vastly experienced companion’s own field craft.

While we were at Church Norton there were more postings on RBA of the Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, accompanied by the birding notation “tho elusive”. Returning to Farlington Marshes we resolved to see out the local rush hour on-site while trying for that quest again. The earlier crowd had all moved on and up to 20 different birders now surrounded a particular thicket where presumably the bird had last been seen. As dusk drew in there were at length some positive if very fleeting observations.

EOW

Today’s bird a day earlier © and courtesy of Adam Hartley

I saw just enough to tick this bird, previously experienced in Greece and Turkey, for Blighty but at this point the sentiment from gaining my 350th British record was very flat. It was in there somewhere and kept being glimpsed near the top of the thicket. Would I get a better view as conditions continued to dim and became drizzly? It was difficult to know whether to stay in one place or walk around the other side as animation here or there on the part of some observers suggested the bird might be in view.

I did a circuit to find the EOW had popped it’s head out low down at the spot I had departed, making the diagnostic tongue clicking call, and my frustration grew. But finally in the failing light at around 18:45 I fixed my binoculars on a pale looking warbler that emerged in the top of some Elder and showed itself very well side on. A particular behavioural trait of this bird is to dip its tail downward when feeding, and having been noted earlier by some people around me was again apparent now.

“That’s it,” said Ewan to one side, and the sense of satisfaction that welled within me was altogether different. Not only had mission been truly accomplished but I could make a proper story of it for this journal too. “Well done. You’ve worked hard for that,” came Adam’s reply to my celebratory WhatsApp as I headed for home.

DSC_0008

Footnote: A day later (17th), having been tasked for a while with locating a first Wryneck for another Oxon birding friend, Sally we returned to the Church Norton site. In bright, sunny conditions and in company with several other birders we watched the bird (above) on and off for a couple of hours. Over at Farlington the Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was said to have showed well for around 90 minutes, confirming that myself and Ewan had chosen a difficult day on which to experience that bird. The EOW was as showy a day later (18th) when Ewan re-visited (see here), and continued to be reported until 22nd though it’s actual departure date was cited as “unclear”.

Scotch Argus butterflies at Smardale Gill NNR, Cumbria but not Arnside Knott – 25th Aug

This bank holiday weekend offered a suitably fine weather window to experience one of the three remaining British butterflies I had not observed previously. Having been on stand-by all through August after Ewan declared his intention to make the long drive north if conditions were right, the go ahead now came. So after a 3am start at home I met him at his house in west Oxfordshire two hours later and off we set.

Scotch Argus (pictured below) occurs at just two sites in England, both of them in Cumbria, but is much more common further north where it is known as the “Scottish Meadow Brown”. This is one of the last butterflies to emerge in late July each year, flying throughout August though rarely into September, and so usually requires a separate trip from other northern specialities to encounter. The issue as always with insects if a wasted journey is to be avoided is sufficient sunshine for them to be active, and this butterfly is a true sun lover.

We arrived at the second site, Smardale Gill NNR (NY740083) in the late morning. This very beautiful reserve in the upper Eden valley, administered by Cumbria Wildlife Trust (see here) follows the course of a former railway line for a mile and a half (2.6 km) along a steep hillside of ancient woodland above the intriguingly named Scandal Beck. After a while the track-side habitat becomes very wild flower rich with masses of Knapweed and Scabious that simply teemed with butterflies, mostly late summer, second brood Vanessids.

In amongst that colourful array – Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Comma and especially huge numbers of Peacock Butterfly – were the smaller, brown item of our quest that were most numerous in one hot spot around 100 metres in length. The first one we located (below) prompted a celebratory high five but it soon became apparent there were many more here. We estimated there were over 100 Scotch Argus flying today. Females of the species are known to be sedentary, not venturing further than such a distance, which could explain this concentration we came across.

Being well into their flight season a lot of the butterflies we observed today were quite faded and / or worn, but amongst all these some fresher individuals stood out. They are roughly the size of a Ringlet but with a rather weak, jerky rolling flight and a tendency to settle low down in long grass. When nectaring on flower heads they stayed constantly on the move, and so were not easy to take acceptable pictures of. This was the first serious work out for a used Nikkor telephoto lens with which I recently had to replace my as obsolete previous one, and the results are OK given the bright and glarey conditions.

Earlier in their adult life cycle Scotch Argus are a much richer chocolate brown, and like Ringlet can appear almost black when most fresh. The dusky upper wings exhibit rust brown patches adorned with black spots with intense white centres. Hence the common name of “Argus” after a giant in Greek mythology that possessed 100 eyes (per Thomas and Lewington). The under-wing ground colour is grey and deep brown, with a prominent paler band similar to that seen in Meadow Brown.

The food plant for the Cumbrian colonies is Blue Moor Grass that dominates the scrubby limestone sites these butterflies occupy. The widespread Scottish populations, that replace the Meadow Brown in higher areas, utilise a variety of habitats including damp grassland, bogs and woodland edges where the larvae feed on Purple Moor Grass. These are usually the commonest butterfly of late summer where they occur.

For an insect that inhabits some of Britain’s wettest regions, seeing Scotch Argus is dependent extraordinarily on sunlight, since they vanish deep into long grass cover as soon as any cloud appears to as quickly re-emerge in numbers when the sun comes out again. Males fly much more than females in an endless search for mates, and it was noticeable today how they would challenge and chase off the many, much larger Peacocks at this site.

Smardale Nature Reserve follows the course of the former South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway that from 1861 to 1962 transported coke for the iron and steel industry across the Pennines from Darlington to the West Cumberland area. This section is crossed overhead by the Smardale Viaduct, one of 17 along the 72-mile Settle to Carlisle main line, one of northern England’s most scenic railway routes. Further along the reserve path the as magnificent structure of the Smardale Gill Viaduct is reached, a truly uplifting, even awe inspiring location.

smardale gill viaduct.1901

Smardale Gill Viaduct

Since 1990 this impressive and dramatic structure, 30 metres high on 14 stone arches, has been owned and maintained by the most excellent Northern Viaduct Trust (see here). The story of this and more nearby industrial railway relics’ rescue from demolition, and funded restoration to become public recreational amenities, is to say the least heart warming. Walking guides to the entire complex can be downloaded from the above link.

The track bed across the viaduct’s top is nominally closed due to “safety concerns” over the very robust looking hand rails, but there is nothing to prevent walkers from continuing. Notices on the valley side further warn of “danger from falling masonry”, of which there seemed little risk. But I suppose someone is always likely to hurt themselves and then wish to sue the so well intentioned owner. We found a second cluster of Scotch Argus activity on these grassy slopes (pictured above).

smardale gill viaduct.1904

Me at Smardale Gill Viaduct

Our day in Cumbria had begun at 9:30 am with a visit to the other, coastal site Arnside Knott (SD455775). We searched the top of this hill that is said to be best for Scotch Argus in August, but the uneasy feeling from when we had failed to find High Brown Fritillary here in July 2018 quickly set in. Ewan had subsequently seen three Scotch Argus at this place on a brief visit of his own while driving south from Scotland a year ago. But today we found almost nothing of any note, except for one faded Northern Brown Argus and a Wall Brown.

This location is still cited as a classic one for both HBF and SA. But earlier this year a regular visitor I met in the field affirmed the former are now in decline there. A recent scientific paper (see here) corroborates that despite managed re-colonisation between 2004 and 2016, overall abundance of HBF in the Morecambe Bay area continued to decline with further extinctions, due in part to less host plant (Violet) for caterpillars to feed upon in a cooler micro-climate.

Today a volunteer at Smardale Gill said 2019 has been a very poor year for Scotch Argus too at the first site. There must be habitat management reasons why numbers of both former specialities have fallen so much, and the evidence is that Arnside Knott is no longer worth bothering with. By contrast our visit to Smardale Gill NNR was simply superb.

2019 Southern Emerald damselfly at Beaconsfield, Bucks: an update – 5th Aug

Not having seen or heard any reports of Southern Emerald from this site in the current season I checked things out today and found their situation to be intact. When this colony was discovered in 2018 it was only the third known population in the British Isles (see here); the other, longer established ones being in Kent and the Isle of Wight.

This site (SU 96052 88958) to the south of Beaconsfield and beside the M40 motorway is accessible only on foot along public rights of way, and there are no safe parking places on nearby roads. The path I followed skirts a large landfill site before reaching a small woodland where it becomes less distinct. I had caught up en route with a weather front that passed through Oxford earlier, and upon my arrival conditions were quite overcast. But when the sun came out I began to notice Emerald damselflies that upon close inspection were indeed my days’s target (pictured below).

The most obvious feature by which Southern Emerald may be distinguished from other related damselflies is their two-tone cream and brown pterostigma (wing tags). In around an hour on-site here I located nine individuals including a tandem pair. The regenerating habitat was wild flower rich, and I dare say it supports many more of these nationally very scarce insects had I searched for longer and more thoroughly.

A year ago I was hoping they might expand their range from this location and maybe even reach Oxfordshire, but whether that has happened or not is unclear. Another observer I met today told me reports are indeed getting out on-line again, so we will have to wait and see.