Green Hairstreak on the Chilterns escarpment: the first precious jewels of spring 2019 – 22nd Apr

Despite my oft-stated predilection for the new and different, one thing I always do each spring is seek out that most subtle, delicate and ever charming little butterfly, the Green Hairstreak. This is because for me the first sightings of any new season are a heart gladdening and soul quenching experience the like of which is difficult to match in the insect world.

We are from the future not the past. We are not static, we evolve” – Robert Plant, 1995

The singer’s sentiment above, expressed when I saw Page and Plant at the NEC Arena in 1995, is something I have identified with quite closely since. And it certainly equates with my year on year approach to observing wildlife as reported in this journal. Easter at home provided what were lauded as record breaking temperatures for the holiday weekend. So two fair weather days were the cue to set out again on Easter Monday and re-find if not re-define one of my most favourite of butterflies that were beginning to be reported.

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Green Hairstreak at Linky Down, Oxon

My choice of location as usual was Aston Rowant NNR on the Chilterns escarpment. The reserve is split in two by the M40 motorway, and I visited the northern side first, known as Beacon Hill that has been the more reliable GH location in recent years. There in the margin between the chalk hillside and the wooded slope of the “sunken way” trail I located about six butterflies, and a mild buzz from the satisfaction of a new season’s communion coursed through me as in every April. But that habitat is low lying and faces into the sun, so composing acceptable, properly lit and contrasted pictures would be difficult.

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Hence I moved across to Linky Down, on the reserve’s southern section that is possibly my favourite site of all for the species. Here Hawthorn hedges and scrub are re-generating after being cut severely by English nature in recent year’s as part of its management plan. The sun would be behind me now and I hoped to encounter Green Hairstreak posing higher up. That is exactly what happened as I walked downhill and came across a specimen perched on soon to open Hawthorn blossom at eye level. All the images in this post were captured at this spot, and probably match my better past results.

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After a first picture session, during which the butterfly kept stock still for periods and allowed a close approach with my macro lens, I rambled on along the path. Four more GH were flying lower down, after I had stopped to talk to a birder who had located a female Ring Ouzel on the slopes below. The site is a well-known staging post for those migrant upland thrushes, and it was my second record of the bird there this spring. Seeing so many Hairstreaks was reassuring as they have been much more difficult to find at this once classic site since the habitat was cut.

Returning to the aforementioned Hawthorn on the way back, after stopping to watch the “Rouzel” for a while, a second Green Hairstreak was now present and competing for the space with my original subject. Hence the butterflies were both more restless and flighty so gaining comparable images proved difficult to achieve. This (below) was the only one worth retaining from the second session. So after spending more time there I headed home at around 4pm feeling largely satisfied with my first home outing of the new butterfly season.

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I am of course not a photographer and possess only obsolete, entry level equipment that I cannot get my head around the technicality of. But the picture collection additions acquired today are nonetheless pleasing enough in their way, if a little “soft focus” and continued improvement is always the aim. New birds to see in Britain are more and more a diminishing return, and March was the first month without a post in this journal since I started compiling it. So the new insect season is very welcome and in the months ahead I intend to do as much work as evolved treatment of past material might allow. Watch this space.

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Gruner’s Orange Tip, Eastern Wood White and more early spring butterflies in the Rodopi Mountains of northern Greece – 13 & 14th Apr

After three days based at Alexandroupoli near the border between Greece and Turkey the tour re-located westward to seek out more butterfly specialities of the region. The Rodopi are a long mountain range across north-east Greece that forms the land border with Bulgaria. The fragmented peaks and deep gorges of the higher western section supports an especially rich flora and fauna with numerous endemic plants, due to a mixture of central European and Mediterranean elements.

From our base at a village, Volakas in the western Rodopi we attempted to explore various sites over the final two days. I had been attracted to this tour by the opportunity to add a number of early flying species to my life list that I reasoned might be more tricky to observe later in the season. Those included Southern, Mountain and Krueper’s Small Whites, Gruner’s Orange Tip, Eastern Greenish Blacktip, Small Bath White and Powdered Brimstone; that I would rely on the expert leadership to identify.

Of those targets Gruner’s Orange Tip was the only butterfly located due to continued wet weather, and the fourth trip lifer. After my success in finding Moroccan Orange Tip and getting pictures of Greenish Blacktip in February (see here), experiencing another regional member of the genus was high on my wish list. Gruner’s is on the wing from March to May in Greece, the southern Balkans, Turkey and eastward as far as Iran.

By comparison with the regular Orange Tip seen in Great Britain, Gruner’s (pictured above) is smaller with lemon-yellow suffusion in its upper side and greener-toned wing tips. In tone and colouring it thus appears perhaps mid way between the regular and bright yellow Moroccan and Provence Orange Tips I had observed previously. This item was flying in good numbers at Potami on the Despatis River below Mount Falakro.

Missing out on the other trip targets can only be described as disappointing. Our transfer day (12th) during which a two hour stop was planned at Nestos Gorge, that could have yielded the different Small Whites, was washed out in spectacular fashion. Then on the final day (14th), when we visited Mount Orvilos, cloud and rain followed wherever we tried to reach brighter skies, setting in as soon as and every time the group got out from the minibuses. By then the relentlessness of the weather pattern that dogged this trip was frustrating me so much that I just wanted to get out of there and on the plane back home.

The tour’s second window of opportunity had occurred on Saturday (13th) when numbers of butterflies were encountered in prolonged sunshine at the Potami site. Wood White was recorded several times through the week and now there was the opportunity to compare the regular and Eastern species. In the top row pictures below the all brown antennae tips and white patch on the unh wing are diagnostic of Eastern Wood White. This was a clearer identification for me than at nearby Mount Vrondou in May 2017.

Three blues of the region were also active at Potami. I was able to get pictures of female Eastern Baton Blue (below, left) for the first time, a species I had experienced once before in southern Greece last July. This tiny east-European blue flies in two broods from April to June, then in July and August. I also captured my first open-winged images of Green-underside Blue here (bottom row below, left), after another had posed nicely on some Asphodel (bottom row, right) earlier in the week. I had observed the common and very widespread species once before too, in les Cévennes in May 2016.

The third of these Euro-blues at Potami was the attractively patterned Chequered Blue, another species that I first observed in les Cévennes towards the western end of its range. This butterfly (below), that occurs through much of south-eastern Europe, displays marked regional variation and is on the wing earlier in this area of Greece than elsewhere. I also found Short-tailed Blue for the first time at one stop on 14th, but did not get a publishable picture.

Two Fritillaries produced half decent images at different sites. I had gone into this trip still needing an acceptable top-side study of the pan-European ranging though English vagrant Queen of Spain Fritillary. The picture (below right) is possibly as close as I have come yet. The two under-side images from a site, Granitis earlier on 13th are quite pleasing if allowance is made for the butterfly’s rather contrived re-positioning.

Another fairly widespread European fritillary I had recorded just once before in les Cévennes is Weaver’s Fritillary. Also at Granitis I gained under-side studies for the first time, that are rather attractive though likewise contrived. This triple brooded species is also known as the Violet Fritillary due to the purplish hue of the unh wings that the pictures (below) show quite well. They fly from April to September.

I would not recommend this tour except for seeing False Apollo, simply because the weather during that ultra-rarity’s flight period appears to be so unpredictable. Gaining my other trip targets was always going to be a gamble, as is booking travel to observe butterflies in advance anywhere; and most of what I missed may also be seen later in the season. I feel I am due some respite now after untypical conditions during or leading up to my trips to Sardinia and southern Greece last summer also impacted adversely upon what could be seen in those places, and the same was true in les Cévennes in 2016.

The trip just described had tip-top leadership, very knowledgeable participants and a good group dynamic; but for me that all counts for little when the conditions were so unforgivingly foul for much of the time. The bottom line was that after just two wet days this year in Greece prior to our arrival we had sunshine for parts of just two days in the field. That is butterflying of course, and I am well used to the grey stuff following me from my home just the short distance to the Chilterns escarpment. Translate that into seven days in a far flung corner of hopefully sunny southern Europe and I consider this experience was moderate value for the £1500 spent, purely due to the weather of course and in no way a reflection upon the tour operator.

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The tour group outside our hotel in Volakas: from left Mel Mason (Malvern), Tony Moore, Liz Mason, Dave Potter (Worthing), Nick Ballard at rear (Hull), Bernard Watts (Norwich), Mel Lloyd (Weymouth), Liz Lloyd, Helen Suslowicz (Solihull), Aidan Whitfield (Bedford), myself (Oxford), Emma Whitfield, Martin Warren (leader) and Michael de Courcy Williams (guide)

The full species count for this-two centre tour, with life-list additions in bold, is: Swallowtail (P m gorganus), Scarce Swallowtail, (Eastern Festoon), Southern FestoonFalse Apollo, Large White, Small White, Green-veined White, (Eastern Bath White), Eastern Dappled White, Orange Tip, Gruner’s Orange Tip, Clouded Yellow, Brimstone, Wood White, Eastern Wood White, Green Hairstreak, Small Copper, Grecian Copper, Sooty Copper, Short-tailed Blue, Green-underside Blue, Chequered Blue, Eastern Baton Blue, Brown Argus, Camberwell Beauty, Peacock Butterfly, Large Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral, Map Butterfly, Painted Lady, Queen of Spain Fritillary, Weaver’s Fritillary, Small Heath, Speckled Wood (P a aegeria), Wall Brown, Grizzled Skipper, (Oberthür’s Grizzled Skipper), Mallow Skipper, Dingy Skipper – total 40

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

False Apollo, Southern Festoon and other early spring butterflies in north-eastern Greece: 9 – 11th Apr

False Apollo is one of Europe’s rarest butterflies, occurring very locally just in the far north-east of Greece, some Aegean islands and possibly parts of southern Bulgaria. They are single brooded and on the wing only in March and April, very early in the season so this rather special item is unlikely to be observed without particular intent. Hence I joined a 12-strong group tour run by Greenwings, that operator’s first of the 2019 season.

This expedition was led by former Butterfly Conservation CEO Dr Martin Warren, with local guiding by the eminent Alexandroupolis-based conservationist Dr Michael de Courcy Williams. But no matter how excellent such direction might be butterflies will still only come out when the sun shines, and therein lies the story of this post.

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Male False Apollo

False Apollo’s stronghold in the region we visited lies in the Evros Hills near the border with Turkey and to the north of Alexandroupolis. Here many upland streams occur, along which  biologically important but little studied Oak and Oriental Plane woodland has developed that support a diverse flora and fauna. On our first visit on 10th conditions remained steadfastly overcast and no Apollos were found. But we did locate a number of roosting Southern Festoon, another regional speciality that was a very welcome and attractive lifer for me. With this trip’s sightings I have now observed all three European members of that colourful genus, the others being Eastern and Spanish Festoons.

Southern Festoon occurs widely but locally across south-eastern Europe, as well as throughout Italy and in some Alpine regions, flying from late March to July. The cold and damp conditions of this tour meant the beautiful and boldly patterned butterflies were quite easy to capture pictorially, especially since my colleagues were adept at “wrangling” the near torpid specimens into photogenic positions then “gardening” around them to remove unwanted clutter.

Besides a few roosting Coppers not much else was seen on day one, other than at a lower location where the sun came out briefly. In the evening our leaders thanked the group for our forbearance and good humour, and everyone was prepared to accept one largely written off day to begin with. The various weather apps in our possession all predicted better things to come in the days ahead. But despite a brighter start on 11th at our coastal base conditions were unchanged when we arrived back on site.

On our leaving the tour minibuses this time two of the Festoons were on exactly the same perches where we had left them the previous day, indicating there could have been no sunny intervals during our absence. If anything it was now even colder here and walking around it was plain we would draw blank with the Apollos again.

Before leaving I took an opportunity to do some close up macro work with one of the Festoons (below, left), and was at once joined by more group members. Having done justice to the under-wings I next learned another field technique of warming up torpid butterflies by cupping them in the hands then breathing on them. Thus treated the Festoon obliged by opening its wings flat and another sequence of up close images was gained (below, right).

If any reader disapproves of all this I can only say it appears to be common practice amongst such highly knowledgeable company as I was in, much like netting and jarring on previous wildlife tours I had joined. Everywhere else we went on day two cloud and rain set in as soon as we reached any hitherto sunny looking spot, and by evening the group was understandably feeling a little more glum.

When day three (12th) dawned in just the same dull and drizzly way chins were mostly resting on the breakfast table. But an ex-naval man amongst us pointed out a weather front coming in off the sea with whiter cloud behind it, saying that was a good sign. Indeed it was and fairer weather followed us up into the hills. Good numbers of various butterflies were then on the wing and by mid-morning False Apollo were being located. At this time of day they are likely to be basking in any sunshine by settling on dirt, low plants or occasionally rocks.

The record shot (above, left) was my first view of a translucent fore-winged male, that was then coaxed into a more open position (above, right) before flying off. Next a much darker-toned female was located also down in the grass, before being encouraged to mount a stone where she finished warming up with the day. After the group had all taken their pictures I again went in point blank with my macro, gaining some acceptable images and a lot more burred ones as is usual (for me) with such a lens.

Mission having been accomplished the group then began to split up and go their various ways. I too wandered off alone and soon came across another male False Apollo that this time I had to myself for a while. The images below came from this third encounter, complete with those amazing see-through wings. This quality increases with age as butterflies lose wing scaling, more so in males than females, and in older specimens the fore-wings can be near completely transparent.

The situation, it’s scenery and butterfly life were all a transformation upon the previous two days. This is what I pay the money to do: wander around remote locations that nobody except wildlife enthusiasts go to; enjoying and taking pictures of the infinitely intricate, inspiring and captivating treasure trove that butterflies are (when the sun shines). The mood of the group was of course similarly uplifted and we remained on site until late in the afternoon.

The unfettered Southern Festoon were now flying freely and striking up more conventional and natural, if somewhat grassy poses (pictured below). To me this species appeared smaller than the other two European Festoons, and there was some agreement within the group over this. A few participants also found one or two of the larger, paler Eastern Festoon which I have seen once before but need better pictures of; but that will still have to wait.

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Southern Festoon (above and below)

Good numbers of Sooty and Grecian Copper were also on the wing here and I was able to boost my picture collection with better top-side studies of male Sooty and some under-wing treatments of both genders. I had previously observed male Sooty in the Cévennes, France (May 2016) and females in southern Greece (July 2018) where I also recorded Grecian for the first time. The very widespread Sooty is multi-brooded from April to October across much of Europe except for the Iberian peninsula and fenno-Scandia. The vivid orange Grecian is limited to the country of it’s name and the southern Balkans, with two broods flying in April and May, then July and August.

Another frequent flyer in sunlight was Eastern Dappled White, a common species of south-eastern Europe and Italy, and the third trip lifer. Had I searched carefully enough here or possessed a net and jar these locations might also have yielded the similar Eastern and Small Bath White. I previously recorded the first of those in southern Greece last summer, while the latter was on my trip wish list here; but nobody seemed very interested in this genus and so it was possibly rather overlooked.

Lastly the default butterfly for this trip was Painted Lady. 2019 is tipped as an irruption year similar to the mass migration of this species a decade ago. In Fuerteventura in January (see here) I was struck by the huge numbers that in places appeared to make the ground shimmer, as was a colleague from my southern Greece tour who was on Gran Canaria at the same time. On the day of our arrival in Alexandroupolis, despite at times torrential rain many hundreds of these very hardy butterflies were coming in off the sea and roosting on the structure of our hotel. Wherever we went in the next three days there was a constant procession of powerfully flying Painted Lady all moving relentlessly northward. The evidence seems to be that another great migration is in progress so look out in Blighty this summer, here they come.

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Migrating Painted Lady

Returning to the little known though greatly prized False Apollo, these are seriously beautiful insects indeed, quite unlike any other European butterfly I have experienced. Their rarity was perhaps put into context for me by one of the most experienced tour participants, who had recorded all but six of the known European species prior to this trip. So that is now five, what an achievement! Further populations occur to the east in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon; and there are a number of sub-species across that range. To protect the fragile Greek population from the attentions of collectors I have not disclosed any location detail herein, by agreement with the tour operator.

Early season Maghreb butterflies around the Kasbah in Agadir, Morocco: 10 – 15th Feb

As is my custom I began this trip with a walking day, out to the Kasbah hill and back. After climbing to the top with birds mostly in mind, then walking back down again I explored a gully that runs alongside a road around the hill’s western side. This struck me at once as likely good butterfly habitat, being sheltered with wild flowers in places, and it did not disappoint. I returned here for a couple of hours on three of the next four afternoons, recording 15 common species of the region including two lifers and a north-west African sub-species.

Near the top of any loose agenda I might have had for this trip was obtaining publishable pictures of Greenish Blacktip. This is a common and widespread butterfly of hot, dry, rocky places that occurs across north Africa, through the Middle East and as far as the Indian sub-continent. I had observed them during both my early year visits to Fuerteventura, but only gained pictures previously of worn individuals.

It now took all four of those above mentioned sessions to gain the open-winged picture in the above sequence (bottom, right). Interestingly this butterfly is nectaring on the same plant as the GBT captured by one of my Swedish field colleagues in Costa Calma last month (see here). Like our closely related Orange Tip at home this is a restless and fast flying species that only settles fleetingly, often on delicate, swaying perches; and they constantly relocate. But with perseverance I was able to gain some half-decent underside studies and so was largely satisfied with the outcome.

I was as pleased to find good numbers of bright yellow-toned Moroccan Orange Tip (pictured below) flying here. That welcome lifer frequents edges of cultivation, flowery places, woodland edges and scrub land as early as February in Morocco south of the Atlas Mountains but not until March further north. There are two sub-species, this one Anthocharis bella of the Maghreb region; and A b euphenoides that ranges through the Iberian peninsula into the far south of France. I had previously recorded the latter in Provence in May 2016 (see here).

All four of the species referred to so far are equally difficult to capture pictorially but now each is represented in this journal’s butterfly gallery. The African Grass Blue here were mostly well worn compared to those I observed in Fuerteventura, but the picture (below, top left) is quite pleasing. Since I am presently suffering from wear and tear in my left leg, performing the on hands and knees contortions that are required to gain acceptable pictures of such tiny butterflies was quite difficult.

I also hoped to locate African Babel Blue (above, bottom left) this week, that unbeknown to me at the time was on the wing in Costa Calma during my January visit there; but I was not successful. By way of partial compensation I did record the Maghreb sub-species of Common Blue (f celina), for which the clearest diagnostic appeared to be the broken black inner margin to the upper-side hind-wing (pictured above, right).

The week’s second lifer in the Agadir location was False Mallow Skipper (pictured below) that in the Maghreb region replaces the common and widespread Mallow Skipper of central and southern Europe. The two species are virtually impossible to tell apart in the field, being largely another male genitalia matter. FMS also ranges into the Iberian peninsula and a few Greek islands but the overlap between the two species is not fully understood. Bits job or not this was a further welcome addition of a tricky species to my life list.

Amongst more familiar butterflies Clouded Yellow (below left), Small Copper (below right), Wall Brown and Painted Lady were all well represented at this site; with smaller numbers of Cleopatra and southern Speckled Wood. Bath White (middle row, below) were looking nice and fresh, while the Small White here (bottom row) were of the pale toned first brood form.

Something a little more unusual was Spotted Fritillary (Melitaea didyma) of which a few were on the wing here at what must be the very beginning of their flight season. There are several forms of this species across its entire range and I believe those I encountered here were M d occidentalis that occurs in north-west Africa, the southern Iberian peninsula, the Balkans and Greece. I had only gained acceptable underside images of this butterfly previously, so the open-winged studies in this collage (below) were very welcome.

Through a rather hassle-prone week in Morocco I was never more content than when returning at the end of each day to this gully below the Kasbah, to prospect for butterfly pictures with nobody to bother me. That is the great benefit of an interest in insects, since wherever I might be in the world any piece of waste ground can be full of life and hence stimulating and motivating. There were also good numbers of slim, medium-sized, yellow toned dragonflies here that I suspect were immature Epaulet Skimmer, but they at no time settled. Elsewhere it was clearly the Odonata close season.

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The roadside gully below Agadir’s Kasbah described in this post

The butterfly list for this trip (with lifers in bold) at this site and elsewhere was: Small White, Bath White, Greenish Blacktip, Moroccan Orange Tip, Clouded Yellow, Cleopatra, Small Copper, African Grass Blue, Lang’s Short-tailed Blue, Common Blue (f celina) , Plain Tiger, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Spotted Fritillary, Speckled Wood (P a Aegeria), Wall Brown, False Mallow Skipper – 17

A re-appointment with the Tamri / Cape Rhir Northern Bald Ibis flock in Morocco – 11th Feb

Since my first visit to Atlantic Morocco in December 2015 I have regarded a then close-up encounter with these much sought birds as possibly my best ever self-found birding moment (see here). Now following an uncannily similar experience last week (10 – 16th) I wonder if such occurrences are in fact not so unusual there. At any rate, during this repeat tripette lightning certainly chose to strike twice in more or less the same place.

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Northern Bald Ibis

The Parc National de Tamri lies 60 km north of Agadir, and just south of the coastal town of the same name. One of the region’s two historic Northern Bald Ibis flocks may be found anywhere around the large promontory of Cape Rhir and is also now expanding north of the town. All the wildlife tour operators and their clients come here to see them, and that is where I headed on my first day with a hire car (11th) this time around.

I stopped first at the location where the N1 coast road turns sharply inland towards Tamri (pictured below). Here there is a small parking area from where the Oued Tinkert estuary can be scanned. This bay can hold large concentrations of Gulls, but I could not locate Audouin’s, my favourite Gull this time. But two larger black items flying away high to the north could only have been Bald Ibis. Feeling relieved that the viewpoint was free of hustlers on this occasion, I then drove on to the town itself to take pictures in it’s Souk (market).

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The mouth of the Oued Tinkert at Tamri

Three years ago coming here had been my first experience of driving in Morocco but I had not taken the time then to record ordinary street scenes of daily life. Doing so was something I very much wanted to add to the trip experience this time. Nobody seemed too bothered by a foreigner walking around pointing a camera at them, though I suppose the locals must be used to it. Neither was I pestered as is the norm in Agadir, or indeed Oxford.

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After this I headed back south along the coast road, stopping at a random place and there were the birds, 30-something of them all grazing the land that sloped away from the roadside down to the shoreline. Just as in 2015 I stayed inside the car and the Northern Bald Ibis all walked towards and then past me, the nearest birds feeding just metres from my vehicle. Their purple and green iridescence shimmered as they moved in the bright sunlight while they probed deeply into the soft ground with their long, down-curved bills. It was difficult to believe I had been this lucky not only at the first attempt now but also twice in two visits here.

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Northern Bald Ibis from my hire car window

After a while three birds actually began to walk across the metalled road. A speeding truck sent this lead group into the air, at which many more Ibis went up from the ground away to my right and most of the flock re-settled away to the other side of the road. They were now into the sun so I crossed over myself and got out of the car. A youth then approached noisily along the road towards me, shouting and waving his arms as if he was showing me the birds, and putting up even more. The locals here are all primed to take their chance with any birders they might come across.

When my assailant did eventually ask for money, rather late in the proceedings by Moroccan norms, he didn’t get because I had self-found the NBI flock again, not him. After two such easy connects I must assume these birds are not difficult to locate here, and the youth told me they graze along the N1 road here all day, every day. So if observers move carefully along the coast around Cape Rhir scanning from all likely looking vantage points in turn, these most sought NBI are likely to drop in at one time or another.

When I first came here in Dec 2015, Northern Bald Ibis was still regarded as one of the world’s rarest birds. Since then they have enjoyed something of a renaissance and in 2018 the species was removed from the IUCN critically endangered list, now being classified as endangered. In that year Morocco’s two viable wild colonies (at Tamri and in the Souss-Massa National Park south of Agadir) reached a record number of 780 birds, up from 590 in 2017. Amongst those 147 breeding pairs fledged 170 chicks. At Tamri 66 breeding pairs produced 60 chicks, with a success rate of 30%. For further detail see here.

Studies also indicate that the southern Moroccan population is enjoying a breeding range expansion. In 2017 two new breeding colonies and a third roosting colony were found  between 30 and 35km north of the Tamri stronghold (see here). North-west African (or Maghreb) conservation bodies regard this recent revival as quite exceptional.

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“Who says only our mothers love us?”

I didn’t go on this trip with any well-defined wildlife agenda. The dual purpose was more to see whether re-visiting places can be motivating, and to break up the remaining time before English summer time resumes. That lack of an intensive itinerary allowed me to spend more time on some of the things I had done in Dec 2015, as well as simply experiencing daily life around Agadir, without the pressure of working through a trip wish list. Most of the birds I gained acceptable pictures of were common species of the Maghreb (NW African) region.

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The Kasbah from Agadir Marina

The Kasbah Hill just to the north of Agadir and its environs seemed as good a place as any to watch birds, and many of this post’s remaining pictures were taken there. Since I also devoted some effort to capturing images of tricky little butterflies, birds would also enter the mix at intervals and offer good opportunities. Moussier’s Redstart (below) was a case in point. Several times through the week they would suddenly announce themselves then appear out of nowhere, usually perching quite prominently. This stylish and classy looking item probably remains my favourite Maroc passerine.

Busy and playful, not to mention noisy Common Bulbul were plentiful everywhere. This is a widespread and successful resident breeder across much of Africa, often being encountered in pairs or small groups. The pictures below were taken from my hotel balcony.

Two more frequent urban species are House Bunting and Maghreb Magpie. The former (below, left) behaves very much like Sparrows at home, mopping up the detritus of human activity and getting around people’s feet in pavement cafés for instance. But despite their abundance in Morocco I only came across two around Agadir all week. The latter (below, right) that is characterised by it’s blue ear patches, was split as a species during 2018.

The Southern Grey Shrike (ssp algeriensis) in these pictures (below), one of what looked like a resident pair below the Kasbah, allowed a very close approach. In that location there is a complex road junction with drainage channels running through it, that I have found to be a good spot for local birding during both my Agadir-based trips. The white orbs on the bush in the lower sequence are snails not fruit.

Laughing Dove is my favourite of that genus, since I find their subtly blended tones highly attractive. This smaller, rather slim species would stand out sometimes from the far more plentiful city Collared Doves and Feral Pigeons, as in these pictures (below) also taken at the Shrike location below the Kasbah.

Lastly, Crested Lark is such a commonplace bird wherever I go abroad that I rarely pay much attention to them. But a number of times this week, whilst I was otherwise pre-occupied, they would come so close and present such photogenic opportunities that I did bother to boost my collection with a few more pictures (below) of them.

The answer to whether retro-tripettes can be motivating was “partially”, since for me a specific wildlife agenda is the main factor in avoiding feelings of loneliness or anxiety when travelling solo (in case anyone ever wonders); and the more that is new and different the better I cope. I was in no way expecting to cover the classic and mainly desert species that most usually bring foreign birders to Morocco, since those were all much too distant from my base. Indeed I at no time intended to stray very far from Agadir.

The length of time it takes to get anywhere in this country is a significant issue, and there are various pitfalls for the unwary when driving. Low speed limits, slow moving local vehicles, long stretches of road where overtaking is prohibited and police everywhere all serve to make journeys last far longer than expected. Add to that pot holes, hazardous carriageway margins, punctures and issues I had with local hire company shenanigans, and this could hardly be described as an especially relaxing trip.

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Greater Flamingo along the Souss estuary south of Agadir

If I go to Morocco again it will probably be on an organised group trip with one of the wildlife tour operators, if I can at length face up to the prospect of hours couped up in mini-buses with elderly convenience company over such long distances. But hey, all this beat another cold, dull and largely birdless week at home as winter moved towards its close in Blighty.

A drake Smew delivers at Kemerton Lake NR, Worcs – 27th Jan

I have been in danger of developing a preoccupation with Smew over the last two months. That could be because as new and different birds become a diminishing return as my national list grows, my attention has turned more to uncommon winter staples instead. But this is also a difficult bird to observe closely or get pictures of in my experience, and doing so can require some working at. Hence the several shorter-range outings I have undertaken at intervals to help fill some mid-winter days.

Dapper, white and black drake Smew are by any standards striking and handsome birds. Nothing else resembles them and so to my mind they are one of the most iconic local birds of midwinter. My previous experience has come mainly from different gravel pit complexes around my home county of Oxon, but this winter the species has so far given us a miss. In that absence near to home I have so far travelled to Herts twice, Leics twice and Worcs three times to seek them out; and it took until today to enjoy a truly satisfying encounter.

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Drake Smew (left) and Shoveler at Kemerton Lake NR

This morning a bird was still present 65 miles away near a Worcs village Kemerton, between Cheltenham and Evesham, so I decided on a second attempt there. Smew are prone to moving around several sites over an area, or between different gravel pits in large complexes, and so my first visit here on 21st had been unsuccessful. Needless to say my target returned the following day and remained on most days in the interim. And so around the middle of today (27th) I arrived at Kemerton Lake NR (SO937362), a pleasing and well-kept reserve that is managed by a local conservation trust (see here).

There are hides at the north and south ends of the lake and a permissive path runs around all four sides of the site. I opted for the shorter walk to the southern hide first and soon picked out my quest closer to the northern hide. Once relocated within that facility I spent the next two hours in the Smew’s company while seeking my first ever pictorial records of them.

At first this drake remained faithful to an area away to the hide’s right and close to the shore. This was typical of how I had observed Smew in the past, since in my experience they tend when either feeding or resting to favour lake edges where they might become concealed in marginal vegetation. Today’s bird remained mostly in the open, but since it was diving constantly getting adequate records remained difficult.

After about an hour the Smew had possibly eaten it’s fill and so began to drift across the water’s surface in front of and closer to the hide. Now I was able to obtain some half decent images (above) that will have to suffice for now. By 15:30 pm the bird had moved quite some way from the hide again, and so I decided to head for home before dusk feeling largely satisfied with what had transpired.

Through my two hours here I was joined in the hide by three families, engaging with whom added greatly to an enjoyable ambience. It was a real pleasure to share the space with knowledgeable parents, quietly and lovingly teaching their young children about birds. That was also quite a contrast with the more noisy and obtrusive experience that is now the norm on RSPB reserves, for instance.

My aforementioned interest in these taiga-breeding visitors had begun before Christmas at Cheshunt GPs in Herts. This large complex is an annual wintering ground for the species, and was where I saw my first ever Smew in Feb 1985 when I lived in that area. On my first recent visit I located a drake after much searching that fairly soon dived not to appear again. Going back a few days later I was unsuccessful, since when most reports have come from one of the biggest pits where viewing could be distant.

One of this winter’s best Smew sites has been Eyebrook Reservoir in Leics, where 15 or more individuals have been sighted on some days. I visited there over the Christmas period locating a largish group, but though that was a good experience at a superb site for wildlife, my views were always distant. Moving on that day to Rutland Water I encountered three “red heads”, the immature or female form of Smew at closer quarters. I returned to Eyebrook on my way home from Holkham NNR on 28th Dec but the Smew were not in sight on that occasion.

A possible closer encounter suggested itself around that time, when two drakes were photographed on a private fishing lake at Holt, Worcs from an adjacent right of way. When I tried there and at nearby Grimley GPs on New Year’s Eve, I met local birders who recounted how the Smew in question had frequented various places in their county over the previous several weeks. But of the birds themselves that day there was no sign.

Given this propensity for moving around between sites, I suspect the Kemerton bird is one of those two drakes. And so all this has reached a satisfactory conclusion. Perhaps I have now paid sufficient attention to Smew for the time being, but still hope for one or more in God’s own county (Oxon) before winter’s end.

Hume’s Leaf Warbler nailed in Newhaven, Sussex; then those Holkham Shorelarks – 15 & 17th Jan

I feel on a roll now. After two days taken up largely by writing, picture editing and housework following my Fuerteventura trip, I was ready for the road again by Tuesday (15th). The excess energy and inner tension that arise from a preference to stay active had built up again upon my return. To relieve it there was a choice of going for a tricky little lifer, Hume’s in East Sussex or trying again for the Norfolk Shorelarks. I opted for the former since they were nearer (115 cf 150 miles) and the latter were likely to stick around for longer.

Hume’s Leaf Warbler (also known as Hume’s Yellow-browed Warbler – pictured above, left) is one of three autumn drift migrant Warblers that still occur in Britain into mid-winter. The others are the closely related Yellow-browed and Dusky, both of which are on my British and hence Westpal and life lists. I had previously dipped Hume’s twice in Dorset exactly seven years ago, an experience that entailed staring at a dense bank of vegetation for hours for no reward.

That served to put me off going for another one until now, and so Hume’s lingered amongst three other regular drift migrants – Greenish and Marsh Warblers, and Olive-backed Pipit – that I still need and really ought to have gained by now. I anticipated today might be a necessary chore, involving getting through the most perennially traffic choked section of the M25 motorway (between the M40 and A3), then another unforgiving stake-out on site. But in the event I cannot recall the south-western M25 being so un-congested, and the connect was surprisingly simple as well.

A fortunate feeling grew further when upon my arrival on the northern edge of the port of Newhaven, around nine miles east of Brighton, a parking space awaited rather invitingly in the access road to the Hume’s site (TQ 44299 02192). There I did my credentials for becoming a proper birder typical harm by polishing off a particularly delicious pasty from Pease Pottage services on the A23, rather than running for the target. Thus sated, I then “sauntered” as is my wont into Riverside Park, a former landfill site and the location quoted on RBA.

Those directions said opposite a waste incinerator (that is actually on the far side of the river) and as I approached two other birders were walking away unsuccessfully. They advised me to listen for a call not unlike Pied Wagtail. Setting up my chair I next saw off an as tasty M&S Wensleydale and carrot chutney sandwich (more food!) before at last starting to go about things more seriously.

The young tree scrub habitat here on the re-generating landfill site looked excellent for warblers, but though less dense than that previous Dorset location there was also a lot of it in which the Hume’s might be skulking. Two more birders had now arrived and we all began to search in different places. Ever incorrigible, I moved my chair to a clearing from which I could scan a good area of habitat, Googled the bird to check on it’s diagnostics, then sat and waited. That seemed preferable to walking around and risking the bird flying off ahead as I went. Five hours in that forest park in Costa Calma had clearly had some influence on my mind set.

Blue Tit, Robin and Chaffinch all moved through, before after maybe 20 minutes I indeed heard a call such as had been described to me. A small and very different passerine, the Hume’s Leaf Warbler had landed in the top of the nearest clump of saplings, rather like in the outsourced picture below. Oh that I could always enjoy such luck, but on this occasion at least my laid back approach had paid dividends. It was now 13:25pm.

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Hume’s Leaf Warbler © rights of owner reserved

Over the next 40 minutes the Hume’s came and went several more times, always announcing itself with a pronounced dsu-weet call. In this period more birders also congregated here and all got to see the Warbler well. I understand that vocalisation is the easiest way to identify Hume’s, since for non-expert observers such as myself the plumage closely resembles Yellow-browed (whilst being generally drabber). The species breeds in central Asia and the most extensive wintering area is the Indian sub-continent. Yellow-browed, from which Hume’s was separated by the BOURC in 1997, has a more northerly Siberian breeding range.

At 14:15pm it began to rain and most of the birders dispersed. Mindful of avoiding rush-hour traffic on the dreaded south-western M25 I now headed home, feeling immensely relieved at having laid this long-avoided and difficult lifer to rest. This day had been a hugely satisfying experience at the opposite end of the birding scale to those boring and frustrating 2012 sojourns in Dorset. Apparently I had made a wise choice of location as there have been six previous occurrences of HLW along the 18 mile stretch of coastline from Brighton eastward to Beachy Head since and including the first accepted British record in 1966.

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For a very informative guide to migrant leaf Warblers in Great Britain see here. And for a detailed, scientific paper on separating Hume’s and Yellow-browed in the field see here.

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Two days later on Thursday  (17th) I made a third attempt at the Holkham NNR Shorelarks on the north Norfolk coast, since missing them twice previously this winter still rather rankled. Given my current run of good form it seemed now might be the time to belatedly nail those too. Since my abandoned visit on 28th December (see here) a 20+ Shorelark flock, and up to 50+ Snow Buntings that I observed then, have been recorded regularly on RBA. Like the Buntings, the main attraction of the Larks for me was the comparatively large numbers involved, since I had only come across single figure groups in the past.

When I arrived at Lady Anne’s Drive just after 9.00 am a bitterly cold gale was blowing along the coast, which I suppose I should have anticipated. But I was wearing just about enough layers and so strode out defiantly to the roped off area at approx TF895455. There several other birders were already watching the Shorelark flock, so the connect was immediate this time and my luck was holding. At first the birds were too far away to get pictures of but then they moved quite close in … which was when I found my camera battery was flat. Oh dear! Cue a sinking feeling.

Back at the car park, having watched the Shorelarks for a while, I retrieved my camera charger and the on-site cafeteria proprietor very kindly rescued the situation while I warmed up again with a coffee and local pasty. Meanwhile a Lapland Bunting was discovered out at the sharp end, presumably amongst the Snow Bunting flock. On my walking out for the second time, the conditions had if anything deteriorated further with light snow flurries in the mix. But the Shorelarks were still present so today’s result despite my earlier faux pas was definitely meant.

Again the flock was mobile around the roped-off area, then once more they moved closer. Given the circumstances any sort of records would suffice, and the images (above, top row) purport to be no more than that. Local birders arriving now were naturally far more concerned with locating the Lapland Bunting. I neither picked it out nor came across anyone else who had seen it since that original report, but I did speak to the finders. The today 30+ Snow Bunting flock (above, bottom row) was active throughout.

My carelessness with the camera battery had at least ensured I spent all of my four hours parking time on site, but by the end of it I was glad to head back home. I think I might have had my fill of Holkham for this winter season, but I am taking the “arduous journey” to north Norfolk in my stride now, and those aforementioned Greenish Warbler and Buff-bellied Pipit perhaps seem a little more reachable.