A British Hula Hoopoe at Hilmarton, Wilts – 7th Nov

This was an agreeable twitchette to follow on from my longer excursion of the previous two days. For some weeks I had been on alert to locate a Hoopoe within reasonable range for my Oxon birding colleague Sally Hula, who had not seen this rather exotic bird before. While I was in Norfolk one was reported on RBA from the Wiltshire village of Hilmarton, between Lyneham and Calne, and so upon my return it was game on.

As we drove south-west from Oxford along the A420 quite heavy rain prevailed. Arriving at Witcomb Farm (SU025756) to the north of Hilmarton, where our quest had been sighted a day earlier, we found two other birders sheltering in their cars as the elements eased up. My companion first went to speak to those locals to find out what they knew, then we came upon a new image online that prompted further enquiry. This time Sally kept on walking up the road with the other birders, and so I too followed.

There, when I caught up with them, was the splendid sight of the Hoopoe feeding at the end of a driveway (above) on the far side of the premises from where we had parked. A lodger at the farm alerted the others, saying he had watched it in the rear garden on each of the last few mornings. Eventually the bird moved out of view behind the buildings and I went back to our vehicle to retrieve my camera.

Upon my return Sally re-found the Hoopoe feeding along the roadside verge a little ahead of us and we beckoned over the other birders who were searching further away. Inevitably the next passing car sent the bird out of view again, but I myself then relocated it back in the original spot. Things looked like nobody was at home in the farmhouse, so I moved closer between a horse paddock and a hedge along the driveway, which did not seem too much like trespassing.

This is a bird I have observed twice before in England: at Frensham, Surrey (Jan 1989) and Longham Lakes near Bournemouth (Dec 2010). Though encountering many more on my travels through southern Europe in this decade, I had only ever gained one half decent picture. Now I was as pleased to get the better images in this post as Sally was thrilled to have gained her lifer.

After the other local birders went on their way we were joined by two more of Oxon’s finest, Keith and Shirley Clack. But the property owner also returned home at this point and so we all needed to be a little more circumspect. The Hoopoe had meanwhile gone missing again, and with the next glowering rain band approaching Sally and I departed. Heading home rain fell steadily again the whole way, but we had enjoyed the perfect weather window at the farm in which to enjoy a special visiting bird.

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Sally (left), Shirley and Clackers at Witcomb Farm

Hoopoe is a scarce rather than rare bird in the British Isles, and hopefully another one that might become more frequent with climate change. In Oxfordshire I still need it for my county list but whilst annual, sightings have invariably been reported after the event in recent years and from private locations. So now I have observed this bird in a neighbouring county just like Spotted Crake, Pallid Harrier and Pectoral Sandpiper earlier in the autumn just passed. All four of those might no doubt come eventually to he who waits.

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King Eider at Sheringham, Norfolk – 5th Nov

This was an opportunity I thought over for a while but that ultimately needed to be taken. Not too many King Eider stray far south of Aberdeenshire where several, mostly drakes regularly winter, but for the previous seven days an immature male had settled offshore from the Norfolk seaside town of Sheringham. Twice in the last two years I had travelled to the Dyfi estuary in west Wales to try for a female that is reported there sporadically, without success.

Both places are a little beyond my usual range, but King Eider is a difficult bird to catch up with other than in Aberdeenshire; hence my willingness to push out the boundaries. Northern Norway, where it is possible to hire a floating hide expensively to get out amongst them, is of course even further. The Norfolk bird, that is described as a second winter drake, would not be as good as seeing the rather magnificent adults further afield, but also more distinctive than the drab Ceredigeon duck.

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King Eider (male and female) © rights of owner reserved

King Eider (pictured above) is a common breeder in Arctic regions of Europe, north America and Asia, and mostly remains at high latitudes throughout the year. Adult males are as unmistakable as they are handsome, though females are not too dissimilar to the slightly larger Common Eider. This species is very rare in England, but I understand they are prone to over-wintering where they do occur south of the Arctic, so maybe this one might mature on-site.

Upon rising on Monday morning (5th) I decided to put things to the B&B test. If I could find reasonably priced overnight accommodation I would go to Sheringham. So when a last minute single room for £38 in nearby Cromer beckoned my mind was made up. The travelling distance was not actually as far as anticipated and I arrived on Sheringham’s seafront at 1:30pm.

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Sheringham’s western promenade from where the King Eider was being viewed

Most sightings on RBA had been from the lifeboat station that I now ascertained was at the far end of the rather nondescript promenade (pictured above) just to the west of the town. When I got there several other birders were already watching the King Eider out on the sea, and once I too located this much sought lifer things were as easy as that. There would now be a certain amount of time to fill so I stayed and watched my quest for some time.

In around 90 minutes on-site the KE didn’t come closer inshore, remaining at roughly the same distance bobbing in and out of view on the waves and diving in overcast light. There were hence the proverbial two chances of getting a picture, slim and none. These images (below) rather push “showing how the bird was seen” out to the limit, but were all I was likely to get. For the RBA gallery of this bird see here but this (here) on Bird Guides is better.

At just after 3pm I decided to explore the locality, and allowing for the season found “Norfolk’s premier seaside town” as Sheringham proclaims itself to be a dullish and faded sort of place from a former age, with an overall impression of rather too much ugly, weather-stained concrete. Necessary as those sea defences are, the place was hardly picturesque. Then, my parking time having run out, I moved on the few miles to Cromer and my B&B.

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With this experience, I have now observed all three of Europe’s regularly occurring Eiders, the others being Steller’s Eider in Estonia (April 2017) and Common Eider a number of times in England. It would perhaps have seemed churlish to head straight home on Tuesday (6th) with the north Norfolk coast at my disposal, and so overnight I checked out what else was about. Amongst the various records on RBA, several Shorelark at Holkham Gap and Twite at Thornham Harbour stood out. And since these are both prime birding locations I reasoned those classic Norfolk wintering species might not be too difficult to find.

Hence, having raided a petrol station store of its end of day mark downs, I forewent a full English breakfast and set off fairly early west along the A149 coastal road. Arriving at 8:30am in the Holkham NNR car park at the end of Lady Anne’s Drive I fed the rapacious pay and display machine then walked east into the coastal habitat between Wells Wood and the sea (TF895455). Here there is what is described as a regular wintering site for Shorelark and Snow Bunting.

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Coastal Shorelark habitat at Holkham NNR

The previous day this had been cordoned off to discourage photographers and other people with cameras, presumably from chasing the birds around. The area in question is now an enclosure complete with notices appealing to visitors to give the birds space and keep a respectful distance. Everywhere now in birding there is that field underclass of people with little actual knowledge of wildlife, and far more technology than field craft, though all encouraged by conservation charities in their insatiable desire for new members. I say that because seasoned wildlife enthusiasts, whom the same organisations now prefer to disregard, do not generally do what was being described in the notices.

Unfortunately the disturbance created by the measures taken for these birds protection appeared to have caused them to relocate, at least temporarily and of either Shorelark or Snow Bunting there was no sign. As at Sheringham I felt constrained here by the amount of parking time I had purchased and so stayed for around 90 minutes again. I would have preferred the option to obtain a day permit. Back at the car park the seasonal Geese (pictured below) in the fields alongside made this visit worthwhile, especially the Pink-footed Geese that I always enjoy experiencing on any winter visit to north Norfolk.

Then, filing the place with the enclosure away in my mind for future reference, I moved on to Thornham and another NNR, Holme Dunes (pictured below). There I came across a large flock of Twite feeding on the salt marsh at what is also a regular site for that winter Finch. Having filled the morning in this way I now felt better value for making the overnight stay.

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Part of Holme Dunes NNR looking towards Thornham

As weather conditions became more threatening I headed for home early to avoid rush hour traffic around Peterborough and Northampton. I left feeling it’s a pity Norfolk is up to four hours from home, since it always looks like there is lots to do there but on day visits such as this one I somehow never get enough time to do things justice.

Autumn butterflies and other wildlife in western Crete. Plain Tiger, Cretan Grayling, Cretan Wall Lizard, Red-throated Pipit and much more: 22nd – 27th Oct

I wasn’t expecting too much from a week long change of season break in Crete. The plan was more to experience another large Mediterranean island I had wanted to visit for some time, rather than to pursue an intensive wildlife agenda. Where butterflies were concerned there are two endemics, Cretan Argus and Cretan Grayling, the second of which ought still to be flying. Better pictures for my collection of Lang’s Short-tailed Blue and Cardinal would be very welcome. And then there are Plain Tiger.

The last-named is perhaps one of the world’s most widely distributed butterflies. Various sub-species occur throughout Africa and much of tropical Asia, as well as the southern Pacific region and Australia. In Europe it is found in the Canary Islands and sporadically around some coastal Mediterranean regions, including Crete from May to October. I had come across the species just once before in Morocco (Nov 2015) but did not get a picture.

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Plain Tiger at Georgioúpoli … what a blurry beauty!

It took until the close of my trip’s final day to make this self-find. Visiting the seaside town of Georgioúpoli on the north coast I found it to be a nicely laid back and picturesque place, at least at this time of year, with an ambience of pavement tavernas and boaty promenades. I had read that the Almiros estuary along the western edge of the town was a good wildlife area, and so after buying presents in the main square headed out there.

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As I strolled along taking landscape pictures (above) a first Plain Tiger flew over my head and kept going. Then I found a small colony and the serious beauty of this striking, continuously brooded insect did not disappoint. It is a member of the Danaidae order of large tropical butterflies which also includes another wide ranging migrant, Milkweed or Monarch and the colouring is similar. Those are the only two members of that family that occur in Europe.

In my on-site excitement I failed to notice how worn some of the butterflies were. The image below was earmarked for inclusion in my premium gallery (see here) until after viewing it on my desktop computer back at home I noticed the condition of the lower individual. But that does not stop Plain Tiger being my top insect sighting of the trip.

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The west is the not so commercialised and more natural end of Crete, with far less intensive development for mass market tourism. It is also where the wildlife tour operators go in both spring and autumn, but at this time of year their itineraries are botanical in bias. Crete is renowned for a mass flowering of bulbous plants after the first autumn rains, and is also a top grade hiking destination, both of which attract visitors more interested in the natural world than a beach holiday.

For my base I chose the excellent Galini Sea View hotel in Stalos, along the coastal tourist strip to the west of the regional capital Chania. What I most seek from a room is a good view, but I didn’t anticipate getting the one on the web page (below, left). I chose this hotel because it is on a hill and from Google Earth I could see there was undeveloped land nearby in which to search for butterflies and other insects. Oh, and it also offered an affordable all inclusive package.

Hence on day one (22nd) I set out on foot simply to explore the surrounding area (above, right), as I like to do at the start of a trip. With my particular motivation any piece of waste ground wherever I might be is potentially productive and interesting, and my choice of location this time proved to be a wise one. As that sunny morning warmed up I recorded 15 mostly multi-brooded and hence common Mediterranean species, but these included two that were either new to me or previously un-pictured.

This whole locality on the hillsides above Stalos was teeming with butterflies. Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow (pictured above) were everywhere, and I cannot recall having ever found so many Swallowtail in one place. The last-named offered some pleasingly creative picture opportunities (below). Lantana, the red flower is sold as a hanging basket plant at home. When I come across it abroad I always recall a South African in an English garden centre saying it is an invasive weed where he comes from. There is certainly plenty of it in this part of Crete, and always worth checking for butterflies. Click on any image to enlarge.

I was especially pleased to find a Southern Comma here. I had observed this butterfly for the first time in Delphi, southern Greece last June (see here), but only secured underwing pictures. The female in these new images (below) is certainly very different from the Commas we are familiar with in Great Britain. This species occurs across the northern Mediterranean region, from the south of France, through Italy, the Balkans, mainland Greece and into Turkey.

Geranium Bronze (below) is an introduced species I had read of many times but not come across in the field until now. This attractive little South African number is attributed with having arrived in the Mediterranean as eggs or larvae via the horticultural trade in Pelargonium plants. First reported in 1990 in Mallorca, it has since expanded its range quite vigorously and is regarded as a pest species, at least by people who cultivate ornamental Pelargoniums.

I only located one of the above, but Mediterranean Skipper (below) were quite abundant. This drab brown Skipper is fairly localised, ranging sporadically across Mediterranean coastal regions from May through to late autumn. I had noticed them before in Cyprus (Nov 2011) but not obtained any pictures worth keeping. That situation was put right on this trip.

I particularly wished to get better pictures of Lang’s Short-tailed Blue here in Crete. That diminutive and hyperactive little butterfly is very difficult to capture well, being constantly on the move and disinclined to perch openly. But here I achieved that aim when the sun went in temporarily and the individual in the image (below, left) kept stock still for quite some time. In these crops this common and widespread southern European blue may look larger than life size, actually being not much bigger than a Small Blue.

Other common species on the wing here were Wall Brown, Speckled Wood, Common Blue, Brown Argus, Small Copper, Large and Small White, and frequent Red Admiral. In the absence of an agenda to track down new must-finds, I found myself taking time, untypically to pay attention to some of these and perhaps picture them against new and different plants.

Initially I hoped the paler toned Argus (above, right) might be a Cretan. But on reading things up that endemic is confined to certain mountain locations and flies in high summer. So I think this particular butterfly is most likely a rather faded female Brown Argus.

Perhaps a case in point where stopping to bother with very commonplace butterflies is concerned were the myriad Small White here. Normally they are difficult to do justice to in bright sunshine. But on this occasion a pleasing light meant I added some good images to my collection. So here (below) is a mini-celebration of the humble Small White, proof perhaps that there is no such thing as a mundane butterfly.

By early afternoon conditions had become overcast. So I walked the seafront, quickly realising that most of the area had closed down for the winter already. In the evening I found out my hotel was following suit at the end of my stay. It was a slightly surreal experience being in such a large establishment with so few guests, but also reminiscent of the memorable three weeks spent in Tavira, southern Portugal in January 2014. The weather stayed unsuited to insects through to Friday (25th) which dawned clear and bright. Then, having hired a car in the interim I headed to Levka Ori, the White Mountains of Crete.

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Northward vista on the mountain road above Fournés

As I wound onward and upward in my vehicle the same yellow-flowered shrub that dominated the hillsides above Stalos now lined the roadside verges. Once again I found time to devote to commonplace, late-brooded species if only because nothing else was available. Wall Brown is another butterfly not normally given to keeping still for the camera, but here in the cool light of morning they were far more docile than usual. Sure enough as the day warmed up, and after these images (below) were captured they became more flighty and difficult again.

Above the cultivation altitude the landscape changed dramatically, becoming now stony and scrubby. I stopped at such a roadside spot that looked good for Cretan Grayling and a short search duly produced one. The differences from regular Grayling (Hipparchia semele) are only slight (the proportions of the male genitalia aside!), but this endemic (Hipparchia cretica) is the sole Grayling to occur in Crete so I could be confident of the ID. The pictured individual (below) was the only one of the prime trip target I encountered all week.

The as ever cryptically patterned, endemic Cretan Grayling (above and below)

cretan grayling.1804 levka oriIn this rocky habitat I also began to encounter lizards, without which no Mediterranean trip report would be complete. The endemic Cretan Wall Lizard was separated as a species in 2008. This is a medium-sized lacertid reaching 20cm in length, though like all of that extensive genus there can be much variation in size and colouration. It is the only lizard to occur in Crete, being distributed throughout the west at altitudes up to 2000m.

Following these sightings I continued up to the Omalos plateau that is said to be one of the more likely places in Crete where Lammergeier might be observed. I wasn’t lucky and there were very few butterflies up there either, the land being heavily grazed. In the afternoon I drove on to the idyllic village of Soúgia on the south coast, stopping where I thought there could be good butterfly habitat, but things were much more disappointing in that respect than the spectacular scenery (below). It is approximately 50 miles distance from the north to south coasts of western Crete.

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Southward vista on the descent from Omalos to Soúgia

On the morning of my final day in Crete (27th) I paid a second visit to Lake Ayia, an ageing and partially overgrown man-made reservoir some 5km north of my base. Earlier in the week I had noted good dragonfly habitat here, and with sunshine now prevailing I came to see what might be about. There were a lot of Migrant Hawker, with a few Lesser Emperor mixed in that as ever did not settle, and some Red-veined Darter.

The only dragons to co-operate for the camera were some Violet Dropwing (above) that posed close to the barrage wall and hence not so directly into sunlight as the larger species. I had thereby observed this attractive, northward expanding African species in Portugal, Morocco, Sardinia and now Crete. A Common Bluetail at Lake Ayia (above, top right) was the only damselfly of the week.

Along the barrage-top path I came across a flowering shrub that was attracting Lang’s Short-tailed Blue and larger Long-tailed Blue (pictured below) butterflies, both of which are common and widespread in southern Europe. The same plant was being pollinated by several Carpenter Bee. I seem to find these big, buzzing, blue-toned beauties wherever I go in the Mediterranean and will admit to having a bit of a soft spot for them. They get their name from a habit of boring into wooden structures and hence might not be so well thought of locally.

In the afternoon I moved on to Lake Kournas (below) some 30 miles to the east and just north of Georgioúpoli where this narrative began. Kournas is the only natural fresh water lake in the whole of Crete and also a popular playground with local people and holiday makers alike. So I drove past all the tavernas and paddle boat concessions to park at what looked like the quieter end of the site. This place must heave in high season.

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Lake Kournas

First I walked a track behind the lakeside tree-line, where more common butterflies (pictured above) were active and a female Red-veined Darter sat up nicely. Then I spent some time along the stony edge to the beach in the top landscape, away from all the boats where good and roughly equal numbers of Red-veined Darter and Violet Dropwing were busying themselves. Here I got into my element, just taking pictures with no special agenda. The over-mature male in the sequence below, a different colour form was actually seen on the hillside above Stalos earlier in the week.

Lastly, there must be a trillion trillions of Grasshoppers in Crete. Wherever I trod in the wild these attractive and fascinating insects would fly in all directions from my footfall, often displaying a flash of one or another bright colour as they went. I am possibly becoming a little more adept at noticing where they land now than the predators that strategy is designed to confuse, and as is my wont on a Mediterranean trip found time to take a selection of pictures.

Once again I couldn’t help but notice how the different individuals in the sequence above invariably seem to match the backdrop. And so I wondered once more if these creatures are changelings that can actually alter their tones to blend in with the habitat wherever they might be. I remain open to advice from any reader who might be able to offer it.

The butterfly list for this trip (with lifers in Bold) was: Swallowtail, Large White, Small White, Clouded Yellow, Cleopatra, Small Copper, Long-tailed Blue, Geranium Bronze, Lang’s Short-tailed Blue, Brown Argus, Common Blue, Plain Tiger, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Southern Comma, Cretan Grayling, Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood (P a Aegeria), Wall Brown, Mediterranean Skipper – 20


Red-throated Pipit and Bearded Reedling near Chania – 25th Oct

Birds were not a high priority on this trip since there was little likelihood of seeing anything new unless I was fortunate enough to encounter a Lammergeier in the mountains. By all accounts that mythical raptor is just as scarce in Crete as in Corsica and Sardinia and it eluded me again as in those other islands. So my wait to experience one must go on.

The one full day I devoted to birding was Thursday (25th), starting at Lake Ayia that my pre-trip researches indicated is Crete’s best location. If that is so then I can only say it reflects why Crete is not a prime destination for dedicated birders. There were some highlights however that morning, as first a pair of Booted Eagle came in and out; then my third Lesser Spotted Eagle drifted over or so I was informed afterwards by another birder. That knowledgeable German gentleman who had been visiting Crete for 30 years confirmed that Lake Ayia in his view is somewhat past it’s prime.

He also told me of a site on the western edge of Chania (pictured above) where there were currently small flocks of Red-throated Pipit and Bearded Reedling, the latter being a very scarce bird in Crete. So that was where I went on to in the afternoon. One rather refreshing aspect of visiting Crete was the ease of parking for free and so it was again here. I crossed a bridge onto some undeveloped land across a small river and fairly quickly came upon several Pipits feeding busily on the ground.

I had self-found Red-throated Pipit once before in Cyprus (Nov 2011), an unmistakeable adult complete with red throat, and so needed to re-assure myself I had indeed located the birds I had been directed to on this second occasion. But having checked the grainy digiscoped images (below) against RBA’s gallery of winter plumaged birds seen in Great Britain, I am confident of the ID though still open to correction.

RTP is a tundra breeder that winters in Africa and locally in the Middle East. The Helm guide to confusion species describes this bird as colder and less buff than Meadow Pipit and much more heavily streaked. The lateral throat-stripe ends in a thick blotch on the neck-sides, joining heavy broad breast striping. The upperparts are strongly striped and the wings also strongly marked. I do hope I have got this ID right.

After a while on-site, and since there were no other birders present, I started moving around and getting closer to the Pipits to try for better pictures in the poor light, but without success. There were also Crested and Short-toed Lark here, and White and Yellow Wagtail. Then the Bearded Reedling flock flew over my head, pinging as they went, to land in vegetation by the river exactly where the German birder had advised me to look. My images are no better than those of the Pipits but still show what I saw.

This dual sighting was the birding highlight of the week. In the White Mountains the following day I twice saw Griffon Vulture overhead, but in general I majored on insects for this trip since my various southern European posts in this journal receive a good level of consultation from web searchers, and I am not really a proper birder after all. So I have now added another large Mediterranean island to my life’s experience. But six days was enough merely to scratch the surface in this so wild and scenic principality of Greece, and hence I may return.

Living the Dream: Rustic Bunting at Wanstead Flats, East London – 18th Oct

This was very welcome. While mulling over how to fill my day this morning, another ideal short distance twitch announced itself from the listings on RBA. A much sought autumn migrant, Rustic Bunting had been found in East London late on the previous day and was being watched again as I thought things over.

Autumn is said to have come alive this week with a number of outstanding vagrants turning up around the British Isles. The top draws were a first ever White-rumped Swift in East Yorkshire, only a second Gray Catbird in Cornwall, and a seventh Two-barred Greenish Warbler in Norfolk. But I have had very meaningful past experiences of the first two abroad and felt no inclination to perform feats of endurance just to see either in this country. The third is always difficult and was once again proving elusive in the unforgiving dip-trap that is Holkham Pines, at the end of a tedious drive to the north Norfolk coast.

Today’s Rustic Bunting was a different matter entirely, being a Siberian breeding drift migrant I had been tracking for some time, waiting for a suitable opportunity. If seen it would be my second new Bunting in Britain this autumn, and most importantly it was well within preferred range at just over 80 miles. Wanstead is in the suburbs of East London where I grew up, so would evoke its share of early life associations. And the fast motorway drive via the M40, M25 and M11 would be an opportunity to give a proper work out to September’s new Slash and Myles album on my in-car CD player – remember those? Just before 10am a further sighting was posted, and off I set.

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2016 Rustic Bunting at Kilnsea, East Yorks © and courtesy of Andrew Last

Rustic Bunting is an annual vagrant that has declined in this century from around 20 British records a year in the 1990s to far fewer now. This was one of several scarce drift migrants that clustered in Yorkshire in the outstanding autumn of 2016, and was seen (pictured above) by a number of Oxon birders. Since then I have been waiting for nearer occurrences of more annual autumn species to go after. Amongst them, available Olive-backed Pipit and Greenish Warbler have remained too difficult for my liking. But now patience has been rewarded again for he who waited with the appearance of this RB in such an unexpected urban location. Wanstead of course has a very well-known patch watcher and blogger (see here) who is not entirely unconnected with some of the better records that come from there.

I arrived on-site just after midday, feeling suitably uplifted by all those aforementioned new riffs and solos en route. Remembering the way from the end of the M11, I found much of Wanstead to be relatively unchanged and still a genteel, leafy suburb of mainly large mature houses. But I cannot recall the last time I visited the Flats. Using a car park by Centre Road I could see a lot of birders nearby, but they all seemed to be moving around and looking in different directions suggesting the bird was not currently on view.

I appreciated at once why birds should be attracted to Wanstead Flats (TQ409865) being a large open area of original habitat amongst the urban sprawl of East London. Moving around and listening to various conversations, the people I met sounded very knowledgeable, having between them been at many of this autumn’s major national twitches. A few had just got back from Corvo in the Azores and I learned one of those was none other than Bird Guides editor Dominic Mitchell, to whom I subsequently kept quite close thinking this might increase my chances of seeing the bird. I heard all about our quest’s movements through the morning and how it had fed on the ground for 40 minutes on Sunflower seed spread by the gathered birders before becoming more mobile. That food supply was now being consumed rapidly by a flock of Corvids and other birds.

It was hence a matter of watching and waiting for a shout to go up. I was joined first by fellow Oxon birder Steve Jennings then, inevitably Adam for whom also this bird would be a lifer. After about an hour the Rustic Bunting was called anew, and all the scattered birders hurried to a particular spot. I first glimpsed my lifer flying on from there to the baited location where it proceeded to perch prominently giving everyone present excellent views. The habitat here is recovering from a recent scrub fire, and so the bird stood out nicely as it moved between various still charred perches.

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Rustic Bunting © rights of owner reserved

This bird certainly looked quite different from other brown Buntings – Reed, Little and Lapland – I had seen before, but I had not read up on the plumage (above) before departure. Having done so now I will not go into too great detail. But as I watched the rather peaked head pattern, with a broad, creamy buff supercilium and dark ear coverts stood out well. There is a generally more contrasting pattern overall than the common and widespread Reed Bunting, with darker upperparts and a whiter ground colour to the underparts. Since I did not get pictures I will not claim to have noticed more than that. For the RBA gallery of today’s bird (1w) see here.

When the RB flew again most of the gathering were pleased with having enjoyed such good views and began to disperse. I too moved on first to visit my grandparents’ grave (above left) in a nearby burial ground, then Wanstead Public Library where I had worked as a school leaver. After buying a sandwich and sitting to eat it in Wanstead High Street I once again felt that not too much has changed in all these years, if the giant trenches and tunnels of the modern road infrastructure are ignored.

This had been a most excellent excursion. I gained a much desired bird lifer, the day was filled pretty much to perfection, and the new disc was up to standard; the last of those being perhaps the most certain outcome of all. To make sure I played “Living the Dream” again on the way back to Oxford and home, then the best bits over and over.

Lastly, here (above) are some of the gorgeous Gray Catbirds across the car park from that dingy motel room in Homestead, Florida last January. To have jostled and competed with a field full of grumpy birders all desperate for a glimpse of just one of these at Lands End would simply have detracted from and demeaned this recollection. My only White-rumped Swift zipped past and onward in southern Portugal in May 2014, but hey I self-found it and that was a better view than most of British twitching’s finest got in Blighty earlier this week. Maybe waiting patiently to live the dream, on my own terms or especially within range, can be motivating after all.

Pectoral Sandpiper at NT The Vyne Water Meadows, Hants – 7th Oct

2018 has produced a plentiful autumn passage for Pectoral Sandpiper with more than 30 records in some weeks throughout the British Isles. This is perhaps the most frequently recorded Nearctic wader at this time of year, but has not featured before in this journal. One bird that caught my eye, due to its closeness to home, has been present at a National Trust estate, The Vyne just north-east of Basingstoke since 23rd September.

When first reported I feared this would be a difficult location to access since it looked like private land adjacent to the NT house and park. But subsequent posts on RBA mentioned a bird hide, which sounded promising. When the “Pec Sand” was still there a very wet day ago I resolved to go and explore the site this fine and sunny morning. So at 9am I parked by an entrance to the estate (SU 62476 57256) in Morgaston Wood near a village Sherborne St John.

The directions on RBA had been typically vague, merely saying walk through the woods. So I followed the only public right of way that was marked on the historical anachronism I prefer to take on any twitch (often to the mild amusement of other birders), an OS map print-out from Streetmap.co.uk. This route skirted the edge of the woodland but at a point from which it continued over open country there was no way across to the water meadows.

I then enquired of a jogger who said the entire wood is part of the NT estate and hence open access land through which a number of visitor trails run. My mind was thus set at rest over any potential trespass on my part and I followed one such path eastward through the wood. It led to a downward board walk at the foot of which was the bird hide. And before that rather well appointed facility stretched the said Vyne Water Meadows (pictured below).

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The Vyne Water Meadows: there’s a Pec Sand out there somewhere

For the next hour, looking into the light, I scanned the patchwork of glistening mud and sunlit water. I was the only person in the hide, hence finding this bird for myself held much appeal. There were a small flock of Lapwing, scattered Moorhen here and there, a few Gulls and two Grey Heron; but my quest was nowhere visible. Then at 10:25 suddenly, fairly close inshore to the left of the central small Willow in the picture was a small and bright looking buff and white wader: the Pectoral Sandpiper.

This was my third career record and I will admit the other two were more a name that I needed rather than a bird I knew much about. But this time I had read up thoroughly on the species a day earlier, and knew exactly what to look for and how to identify this Nearctic vagrant. Pec Sand is a medium-sized wader slightly larger than Dunlin, with a rather elongated, pear shaped stature and long primary projection. The legs are yellowish, while the bill is slightly de-curved.

Other diagnostics in passage juveniles are a weak split supercilium, a white V on the mantle edges; and the neat, finely streaked “pectoral” breast band that ends sharply against the white belly. The bird I was observing was too distant for much of this to be clear, but at all times the bright white underparts and clearly demarked border between the breast band and belly stood out. To continue quoting my sources, juveniles that make up the vast majority of autumnal vagrants are generally more finely patterned than adult summer birds, and the crown and upper parts are fringed chestnut, white and buff. Since the post-breeding moult takes place in the wintering grounds, adult winter plumage is rarely seen in western Europe.

These archive pictures (below), taken by Adam in Cornwall in the autumn of 2011, show the plumage detail described. My thanks are due to him for kindly allowing me to use them here.

I watched the Vyne bird for around 30 minutes. When amongst other waders such as Dunlin, Pec Sand feeds just like them in an active and mobile fashion. But solitary birds are often slow, furtive and inconspicuous, creeping around on flexed legs with the head down and a constant, rapid, vertical picking action. My bird remained alone for most of the time but would also wander amongst the Lapwing that were completely tolerant of it’s presence.

This is a very long distance migrant. The breeding range spans the far-northern Arctic tundra, being spread across Siberia and North America. The greater part of the population winters in South America, largely via a migratory route over the west Atlantic, though a small number of Siberian breeders head to Australia and New Zealand. Adults begin their southward dispersal in June, to be followed by juveniles from early August. Strong westerly winds in September and October bring juveniles regularly to western Europe.

Today’s bird seems settled at the site, and why shouldn’t it be given the habitat? Getting pictures of it was pretty much out of the question, given the distance and I was also looking into the sun. Indeed no pictures of this particular individual have appeared on RBA so far. For their gallery of Pec Sand at other British sites this autumn see here.

The exercise desribed here has been a good education on the species and I would now expect to identify Pectoral Sandpiper at once should I see more of them in the future. My previous experiences were at Keyhaven, Hants (Aug 1997); and Eton Wick, Berks (Sep 2012).

Pallid Harrier at Therfield Heath, Herts – 29th Sep

Since I was spending part of last week in Suffolk that presented an opportunity to go after my second British Pallid Harrier at a site on the journey to and from there. So at 8:30 yesterday morning I arrived at a car park by a sports centre (TL 34769 40459) just outside the town of Royston and set off south for half a mile or so along the Icknield Way trail. I knew exactly where to go having drawn blank here earlier in the week on my way over to Bury St Edmunds, where I was decorating a friend’s house.

On that day (25th) I had walked from another car park near the junction of the A505 and the old road into Royston. There I met a photographer from St Albans who had some kind of GPS app on his phone and a reference for the location where the bird had last been reported. That involved walking uphill and skirting a golf course and was at least twice as far. But this place, Therfield Heath was quite scenic for the Herts / Cambridgshire border and it was a lovely, cool and sunny autumn day.

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Pallid Harrier (outsourced) © RSPB

The Harrier, a juvenile female had arrived in the area a week earlier on 18th to be reported daily in various locations between the heath and the upmarket village of the same name about two miles to the south. Green-clad optics carriers and their cars were not welcome at that end of the trail, hence my decision to walk from Royston. We met two birders coming back the other way who said our quest had been showing well in a field just over the brow of the hill. When we got there it had been viewed about 30 minutes previously.

This spot (TL 34817 39440) was a very dry and stunted corn field, a testimony perhaps to the hot summer just gone, where some of the better pictures on RBA (see here) must have been taken. The five other birders we joined there said the Harrier came into the field close by Greys Farm as part of its circuit, and was last seen flying south across the arable land that sloped away to Therfield village. The landscape here rather reminded me of the South Oxon Downs.

I stayed for almost two hours from about 12:15 to just after 2pm before going on my way, but the bird did not reappear. It was reported again about an hour after I left. At the second attempt I was much better prepared and somewhat more fortunate. This time I was the only birder there and shortly after arriving decided to scan over the fields to the south from a gap in the hedge further along the Icknield Way. From there I picked out a large brown bird flying north, before going out of view behind the treeline away to the west.

This looked promising so I headed back to the corn field. Soon the Pallid Harrier flew from around the trees in the picture below, then low across rough vegetation just north of where I was standing. The diagnostic three primaries and boa were none too clear to see in the glary light, but just before vanishing over a hedge to keep on heading north-east she banked to reveal underwing plumage. I took that as sufficient to clinch the ID, but in any case this raptor was behaving in a very un-Buzzard or Kite and decidedly Harrier-like manner.

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Yes I know, there’s something missing in this one!

It was 9:10 am. Dashing across the trail to view the next field I once again saw a large brown shape disappearing over the skyline. So what does one do? Try to chase the bird around, that in this case would involve a lot of foot slogging, or wait and see if she came around again. Not surprisingly I chose the latter option since any sighting further afield would be distant and this corn field might provide the best back drop against which to attempt pictures should the Harrier return. Once more I stayed on site for two hours and once again she did not show.

In all that time I didn’t meet one other birder, but county listers would probably all have seen this Harrier by now, and with no reports having gone out on Friday (28th) people were perhaps less likely to come from further afield. But I had now observed my second Pallid Harrier in Great Britain and third all told.

In recent years Pallid Harrier has become a more regular autumn vagrant in this country as some juveniles disperse from Scandinavia, though their core European breeding grounds are in Russia and the Ukraine. They winter in sub-Saharan Africa, India and south-eastern Asia. A medium-sized raptor of open country, it is found on steppes and grasslands but also in semi-deserts, marshes and agricultural areas. My previous one was on the north Norfolk coast in November (see here) and December (here) 2015, when it took three attempts to get decent views of that bird.

The Therfield individual was one of four Pallid Harriers in East Anglia over the last two weeks, the others being another long staying juvenile female at Welney WWT, Norfolk; and two at Ouse Washes RSPB on 17 & 18th. English records have also come from Cheshire, Lancashire and Devon during September. Apologies for the absence of pictures but this one moved too quickly, I wasn’t ready and she didn’t come back. Perhaps those things all add up to being a lady’s prerogative. Should the opportunity arise I may go again to try for images, but this bird appears to be becoming more and more elusive.

The Aroid year at King’s Copse Park 2018

Oxon birders look away now. When I “retired” from county birding, or more accurately county year listing, at the end of 2017 something had to fill the void. The obvious choice was to make a proper job of getting my wildlife garden at home back in order after seven seasons of relative neglect. There simply had not been time for both past-times, and various invasive plants (not to mention weeds) had become rather too prolific. Also I resolved to build new collections of some of my favourite plants, namely Aroids, Eucomis (Pineapple Lily) and Abutilons.

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Arisaema ciliatum

In just the same way that I love all dragonflies and reptiles, as frequently stated in this journal, I am irretrievably fascinated by the languid, subtle and alluring beauty of Aroids. It all began when upon my arrival at the turn of the century in the “shanty town”, as my beloved park home estate is known in nearby green belt villages, I found wild Arum lilies growing around the margins of my plot. These spring flowering Arum maculatum (pictured below) are a common and widespread woodland plant across much of Europe. There are a host of colloquial names including Lords and Ladies, Adam and Eve, Devils and Angels, Cows and Bulls, Friar’s Cowl, Jack in the Pulpit and Soldiers Diddies. Some of these are inspired by a perceived likeness to male and female genitalia, but the one I prefer is “Cuckoo Pint”.

Next I sourced two varieties of Arum Italicum (pictured below) from a small nursery near Wantage. These are pretty much the Mediterranean equivalent of our own Cuckoo Pints and over the last 15 years have colonised, or perhaps invaded my garden quite successfully. They have twin advantages that bold and shiny, arrow-shaped leaves appear in autumn and resist all attention from frost throughout the winter. Then the subtle creamy blooms turn into equally striking spikes of brightly coloured fruits through the summer, after the foliage withers. So this is a truly eye-catching plant in all its stages. Unfortunately I didn’t think to capture the fruiting display in the season just past.

My decision to start collecting more exotic Aroids was prompted by coming across a Dragon Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris) growing wild in Greek Macedonia in May 2017 (below, left). I had seen pictures before in plant books and actual plants once at a past Rare Plant Fair, and now I just had to find some of my own. I have just acquired three good sized tubers (below right) for autumn planting from Anglia Bulbs of Colchester and consider these to be excellent value for £10.50. Good stock should only be available at this time of year.

This Aroid is native to the eastern Mediterranean but is said to be relatively easy to cultivate in Britain, being fully hardy. If all goes well the tubers should send up robust shoots in February and March that grow quickly forming stems to around 3-4 ft tall from which the foliage emerges. The deep magenta inflorescence begins to appear in mid-spring and grows up to 2 ft long. Like various exotic Aroids this is foul smelling when it first blooms, but only for a couple of days. I can’t wait!

To build my collection I searched the web for Aroid suppliers back in the spring of this year, and discovered the excellent Adventurous Plants that offers a wide range of exotics for purchase. From that source I acquired tubers of five more species, then added three more from nurseries attending the 8th April Rare Plant Fair at Quenington, Glos. Getting good stock of these plants is all highly seasonal, and so involves keeping an eye on what the various growers have for sale at different times.

The upcoming five Aroids all performed spectacularly at my park home through this past summer of more limited county birding. They were each selected for being easy to grow and hence suitable for beginners. Most prefer a well-drained situation in light shade. I acquired a trough in which to plant them and see how they went, and they certainly did not disappoint.

Arisaema is a diverse genus of Aroids containing more than 250 species. The largest concentration occurs in China and Japan, with other species native to other parts of southern Asia as well as eastern and central Africa, Mexico and eastern North America. Asiatic species are frequently called Cobra Lilies, while western species often share the colloquial name “Jack in the Pulpit”. I have had success with three varieties so far, all of which were fascinating things of exceptional beauty.

Arisaema ciliatum (2 tubers from Adventurous Plants – pictured above) is said to be one of the easiest to grow. Native to China where it occurs up to 2500 metres, it is hardy and under ideal conditions can multiply readily. The brown and green striped inflorescence is held high up within the foliage. AP describes this Aroid as a truly wonderful garden plant and I would have to agree wholeheartedly.

Arisaema tortuosum (2 tubers from Shady Plants of Painswick, Glos – pictured above) is the tallest of the genus. The “Whipcord Lily” is native to the Himalayan region but is said to be very cold tolerant in Britain if given the right conditions. It usually breaks the surface in late spring or early summer. I started them in my trough where they grew very quickly and bloomed for a long time. Then I replanted them in the garden and hope they will over-winter successfully. When tubers mature the whipcord inflorescence can reach 2 metres in height.

Arisaema ringens (1 tuber from Edulis of Ashampstead, Berks – pictured above) is fully hardy and early flowering, emerging in March and April. Native to Japan, it is capable of making large tubers and clumps in time. The distinctive helmet-shaped spathe has a tightly re-curved hood that folds down over the mouth so it is difficult to see inside, and it lasts for some time before withering away. Each tuber produces two trifoliate, glossy green leaves.

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Pinellia tripartitum

Pinellia tripartitum (2 tubers from Adventurous Plants – pictured above) has been a highly reliable performer. I added them later in the summer and both have continued to produce blooms ever since. An easy to grow woodland Aroid from east Asia (China, Korea and Japan), it is vigorous and quick growing and soon produces a good-sized clump from self-dividing tubers. Fully hardy, it has delicate looking pale green spathes with long elegant spadices.

Lastly there was Arisarum proboscideum, the “Mouse Plant” that I also sourced from Shady Plants at the Rare Plant Fair. It is a spring flowering Aroid I had wanted to grow for some time, even before beginning this collection. The rhizomes produce dense clumps of heart or arrow-shaped leaves and clustered, tiny flowers wrapped in a dark, purple-brown, hooded spathe with a long narrow tip like a mouse’s tail. These curious blooms give the plant its name since they are said to resemble a mouse going to ground. I have high hopes this stock will multiply readily just as my Arum italicum did all those years ago, to be replanted in subtle and shady locations around my plot.

For 2019 I have acquired some heavyweights of the Aroid world to boost this expanding experience. Last spring I also sourced two Sauromatum venosum “Indian Giant” tubers from Adventurous Plants that did not bloom in their first season but doubled in size. This is a very big, smelly Aroid and the tubers can grow to weigh several kilos when fully mature. Like the aforementioned Dragon Arum the spectacular plant produces a pungent aroma of rotting meat and excrement with which to impress the neighbours. Perhaps that might not be noticed too much here, given the state of the shanty town’s drains and the common practice among “Parkies” of throwing the slops outside (or so it is said locally). Once again I cannot wait for these plants to mature.

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Sauromatum venosum © rights of owner reserved

The spring of 2018 was too wet for heavy gardening and the summer too hot. But ideal weather conditions in late summer and early autumn have seen me finally complete the desired re-organisation. My “wildlife garden” is now not so wild looking but I still prefer pollinator-friendly if less invasive plants; and my plot remains an oasis of bees and wasps, butterflies, moths, crickets, frogs and other wildlife in an ever expanding desert of slabs and gravel. And I can only re-iterate how much I love and am totally fascinated by all dragonflies, reptiles and Aroids. Birds and butterflies are OK too.