Barred Warbler at Dunstable – 27th Sep

I needed to go somewhere today after two weeks without any meaningful birding action. So although I found some welcome motivation for gardening in the morning,  I  checked RBA at intervals. At around 1pm there was a third report of Barred Warbler in Bedfordshire. This bird is not a lifer, as I self-found one in Cyprus in April 2012, but if seen it would be number 299 on my British list. Moreover the species is mostly recorded on autumn passage on the east coast beyond my preferred range, whilst Dunstable is just over 40 miles from Oxford. This was just the short excursion that I fancied to restore my well-being after a hectic working week.

The last time I visited Dunstable was to have my Opticron scope repaired. Today I quickly recalled just how tortuous the non-motorway route from Oxford is. Things weren’t helped by having to divert around a road accident. But on arrival at Blow’s Downs my pessimism was quickly dispelled. There were several parked cars at this SSSI’s entrance and one occupant who said the bird was showing well, pointing towards a group of birders on the hillside.

This Beds, Cambs and Northants Wildlife Trusts reserve is an area of unimproved chalk grassland with managed Hawthorn scrub. Within minutes of my joining the other observers, the bird emerged from cover. I remember thinking in Cyprus that the species resembled a small Wryneck, and the first impression of today’s juvenile was how large and pale it is for a Warbler. Those characteristics were re-affirmed each time this bird relocated on the hillside.

Eventually it settled into a large expanse of the type of cover that scarce Warblers always seem to favour. The picture below is the best I could do for a record shot with my camera at that range. So what will my British 300th be? A modest total I know, but I have never been birding anywhere in Scotland or the Scillies and can only afford shorter distance twitches.

Barred Warbler

Barred Warbler

A cautionary tale re my liking for Scarlet Tigers

Followers of the Oxon Wildlife blog may recall I have a colony of Scarlet Tiger moths in my wildlife garden at King’s Copse Park, Garsington that I am more than a little partial to. 2014 was a bumper year for them, with a huge crop of spring larvae being succeeded by literally dozens of adult insects in their flight season. It quite amused me to see the neighbours shutting their windows as these little beauties became most active in the early evenings.

Scarlet Tiger

Scarlet Tiger on Brunnera

I know very little about moths, and until now have only guessed at my Scarlet Tigers’ life cycle. In past years I have noticed small larvae on the exterior walls of my park home more or less throughout the winter months. In spring much fatter ones mature on the food plants of Comfrey (Symphytum caucasicum) and Brunnera that I cultivated as shade-tolerant ground cover before the trees and hedgerow behind my unit were cleared by the landowner in 2013.

Well something has devastated those original food plants during 2014’s dry late summer, and that malaise has spread to most ground cover plants in my garden through early autumn. “Surely there can’t be so many slugs and snails active in such dry weather, and are they eating the moth eggs?” I wondered. But neither did I notice tell-tale munching caterpillars. Just recently I’ve been finding part-grown Scarlet Tiger larvae on my exterior walls again.

On arriving home this evening I saw that one of my prized pot Abutillon’s had succumbed to the above-noted malaise. And there they were: a crop of part-grown Scarlet Tiger larvae going about their chomping business. Whilst being pleased to see them, I was a little disappointed at their choice of alternative food plant. It was too late for this particular Abutillon in its present season. A  scan around the faded autumn garden revealed many more munchers on perennial Geranium, Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis), Geum rivale, Pulmonaria, Centaurea, Tellima, Hollyhock, and the variegated Brunnera that had survived the initial onslaught. Yike! –  though this could save me some work cutting down those various perennials at season’s end.

Chomped Brunnera macrophylla

Chomped Brunnera macrophylla

Cue a web search that turned up an article on the Amateur Entomologists’ Society site. From this it is worth noting that (1) Scarlet Tiger larvae do indeed over-winter but with up to 80 per cent losses; and (2) there have been 43 recorded food plants. I am beginning to fear for my garden in the 2015 season. If there are any moth experts out there who can enlighten me further as to just what I’m letting myself in for, I’ll be pleased to learn more.

Little Stint at Farmoor Reservoir – 14th Sep

After the past two Sundays’ twitches I needed to catch up on local admin today (ie chores), and so didn’t go out until the late afternoon. On arriving at Oxford’s Farmoor Reservoir, a visitor told me: “There’s a Little Stint over there where those photographers are.” Looking through my binoculars I saw the big lenses belonged to Oxonbirders Chiv and Bob, with video support (I assumed) from Badger.

Thinking this bird must be on Farmoor 1, I walked to the end of the causeway but couldn’t see it. Then on my way back I found the Stint feeding happily at the edge of Farmoor 2. As is often the case with juvenile waders on autumn passage here, it allowed a close approach. After practising on a Dunlin in the poor light to get the camera setting right, I managed a nice shot to add to my recent Farmoor gallery (see 31st Aug post). Voila!

Little Stint (juvenile)

Little Stint (juvenile)

Some notable recent butterflies in Oxon and Bucks

There have been a number of unusual, and for local lepidopterists exciting, butterfly sightings in Butterfly Conservation’s Upper Thames Branch (BC UTB) region during the summer of 2014.

Most recently on 3rd September a transect walker at Little Whittenham, Oxon came across a female Brown Hairstreak testing new Blackthorn growth and possibly egg laying. This was some five kilometres south of BC UTB’s most southerly egg find prior to the 2014 season. Brown Hairstreak have also been recorded in their current flight season at some other less frequently reported locations: Headington in north-east Oxford, Gavray Drive Meadows in Bicester, Oxon; and BBOWT’s Leaches Farm nature reserve, Bucks.

Brown Hairstreak on Otmoor

Brown Hairstreak on Otmoor

There were two sightings of Swallowtail between 15th and 21st July at Flackwell Heath, Bucks and Caversfield, Oxon. A Scarce Swallowtail, a very rare migrant to Great Britain, was also reported from Chesham, Bucks on 18th July. These were all suspected to be releases, but the timing of three sightings over one week “leaves room to assume migration is a possibility,” to quote BC UTB. Migrant Swallowtails of the continental European form have been breeding in Sussex since last year (2013), which further suggests a possible northward expansion for the species. It’s worth keeping an eye open in 2015 then!

Lastly, on 26th and 27th July BC UTB’s first Camberwell Beauty since 2006 was photographed in neighbouring gardens in a Chilterns hamlet above Princes Risborough, Bucks. For news of all butterfly sightings in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire – and to report local sightings of your own – please visit the BC UTB sightings page.

Lesser Grey Shrike at Hollesley Marsh – 7th Sep

When I checked RBA on Saturday evening and saw there was a new Lesser Grey Shrike just north of Ipswich, it was an easy decision to go for it. This species was not only on my south Europe wish list (ie birds missed so far) but I had dipped on it a year ago in this same area of Suffolk. On that occasion a long-staying LGS had decided to leave on the day I chose to visit, setting off a run of negative twitching results that persisted for the rest of 2013. Sod’s law owed me a pay-back today!

Hollesley Marsh is a RSPB-managed area of coastal grazing marsh at the southern end of Orford Haven. I arrived at 8am and while tooling up a local birder from Ipswich parked behind me. We walked along the sea wall together to where the Shrike had been performing for an audience on the previous day. Two more birders, who had been there for 50 minutes already, said there was no sign of it. More people soon arrived and I lingered for about an hour. The consensus was that the bird could have relocated to the nearby village of Shingle Street where there had been a past record, so I went for a look around there.

This location struck me as a very good migration fall point. Small birds were buzzing around everywhere and I came across some more locals who were on a Pied Flycatcher. So I got to see the area’s second most interesting visitor of the day. Then someone’s pager went off: the Shrike was back on its patch just up the road.

Returning to my start point I walked quickly out along the sea wall to tick this important lifer. The bird was now atop a bramble bush across a creek from where it had been on Saturday, and several birders were close to it. I then walked around to join them to be greeted by: “You should have stayed where you were, it’s over that side now.” Never mind, I had seen it and from this position the diagnostic features could be identified. After a rest I walked back round to the first spot again and guess what, the bird had returned to its favoured perch.

That was enough chasing: I stayed where I was and waited for it to relocate again. News having gone out on RBA, many more birders were arriving on either side of the creek. The Shrike, a female was now in a good light and the diagnostic features could be seen more clearly still as she hunted from her perch and assembled her larder. When she crossed over again I followed three guys who had seen where she landed, and we edged ever closer taking pictures all the while. I was careful to keep just behind the lead birder, and when he eventually put the bird up (oh yes he did, not me!) I even got a grainy flight shot.

Mission accomplished. Most of the birders on the marsh were working the Suffolk coast, but I had seen what I came for and so headed home. I feel on a roll now, with two much sought lifers in successive weekends. And this bird has not been reported again on 8th or 9th September, so sod’s law has indeed given me a payback.

No plaudits for photography today, but these pictures relate the experience:

Subalpine Warbler at Felixstowe – 31st Aug

Having gone to see and photograph Willow Emerald damselflies at Maldon, Essex (see post below) I was within easy reach of a much-sought bird lifer. Why so important?

Because Subalpine Warbler had eluded me to date in southern Europe and I have figured there’s a much better chance of seeing one on passage in the UK with knowledgeable twitchers for company. An exchange of texts with Oxonbirders Andy Last and Ewan Urquhart confirmed that a female of the species was still present close by the Port of Felixstowe’s customs house. This was just under 50 miles from Maldon, so onwards I drove.

Just upon reaching Felixstowe town centre at around 1pm my text alert jingle sounded in the car. “This’ll be Andy telling me the bird has flown off,” I thought. In the event not such bad news, but it hadn’t been seen for a couple of hours. On arrival in the road that leads past the customs house to Landguard nature reserve, I found  a group of 20 or so mostly local birders patiently watching a dense wall of vegetation. “A typical warbler twitch,” I mused. Memories of dipping on Radde’s and Hume’s Yellow-browed sprang at once to mind.

This was a good friendly twitch though, and I set up my chair and waited. Eventually people began to drift away but after around 100  minutes a shout went up from the customs house gate. The bird had been relocated and proceeded to reward its audience with cracking views. A customs officer appeared to remind everyone that: “This is a secure area and we are on our highest state of alert today, so please don’t go further inside.” Not likely with the bird performing so well right in front of us. He had his bins with him and said it was a lifer for him as well. Nice man.

Mission accomplished, as a text to Andy and Ewan confirmed. So it was on to my sister’s near Colchester for a cuppa and chinwag, then home enjoying the warm glow of a successful double twitch (damselfly and bird). A nice day out.

Female Subalpine Warbler (eastern race)

Female Subalpine Warbler (eastern race)

Willow Emerald Damselfly – 31st Aug

It was good to add an Odonata species to my life list so late in the 2014 season. Maldon in Essex, specifically the area around the confluence of the rivers Chelmer and Blackwater, appears to be a southern outpost for dragonflies and damselflies more widely found in Suffolk and Norfolk. In other words this location is within my preferred range for a day trip.

In June I came here to see my first Scarce Chaser dragons. Today it was Willow Emerald, a seriously beautiful damsel. Yes he likes those, some readers will no doubt be thinking. Both are found along a footpath that follows a waterway Langford Cut that skirts the edge of Maldon golf club. I found just two Willow Emerald here today, which must have been a pair because after searching the site for more I came back to that first spot and they were busy getting it on. Job done the male then perched very still for a long time in dappled shade, and I was able to capture this insect reasonably well with my Tamron 90mm macro lens. The right hand picture shows the diagnostic features clearly of pale brown pterostigma (coloured wing spots) and the appendages at the end of the abdomen (see the Brooks and Lewington field guide for detail).

willow emerald.01 maldon

Willow Emerald

willow emerald.09 mating pair maldon