2014 Dragonfly Highlights (retrospective)

With the end of British summer (or daylight saving) time, it is time to summarise my 2014 Odonata year. This began in Portugal where I spent most of May, adding eight dragonflies and two new damselflies to my life lists. These are all featured in my dragonfly gallery. After returning to blighty the main interest locally was Hairy Dragonfly (or Hairy Hawker) on Otmoor. This species is increasing in numbers at that site where I observed it several times in late May and early June, improving on the previous season’s photographs. Downy Emerald was also reported from Otmoor at this time but I couldn’t PI that species myself.

Hairy (Dragonfly) Hawker (male)

Hairy (Dragonfly) Hawker (male)

I did find Downy Emerald on two June visits to Decoy Heath, near Aldermaston in Berkshire. At this post-landfill regeneration site there are three large pools that the species favours. One of these is surrounded by dense cover, but another afforded a pleasing result (below). I also observed Golden-ringed Dragonfly (or Common Goldenring) at this site for a second season running, but did not find Brilliant Emerald that is said to favour the inaccessible location.

Downy Emerald

Downy Emerald

Going into this season I required three regular species (ie those not classified as vagrant or scarce migrant) for my English dragonfly list. One of those was White-faced Darter (or Small Whiteface), the nearest location for which is Whixall Moss NNR in Shropshire. I first visited here on 10 June, staying overnight in the somewhat idiosyncratic Welsh border town of Wem. The following morning I quickly found and photographed a male specimen before incoming cloud deemed further observation unlikely. Returning on 29 June in just as iffy weather conditions, I watched male and female White-faced Darter in another part of the reserve in company with several other observers. On that day I also witnessed newly-emergent Black Darter in various areas of this raised peat bog.

The highlight of my dragonfly year, possibly even my British wildlife year, came on 22 June when I did a round trip to Essex and Kent to record Scarce (or Blue) Chaser and Norfolk (or Green-eyed) Hawker. First stop was Maldon in Essex from where Scarce Chaser have a stronghold along the River Chelmer as far upstream as Chelmsford. Walking from near Maldon golf club towards the town centre, I quickly started to see the species. Eventually I captured some good images of a pristine mature male (no females cared to oblige), and so moved on to Kent and my second stop.

Scarce Chaser

Scarce Chaser

Green-eyed Hawker, to use the more sensible name has established a small colony at Westbere Marshes, just outside Canterbury. There were a few other dragonfly twitchers on site and the insects were again relatively easy to locate. These are seriously beautiful dragons, the subtle brown tones of their bodies offsetting perfectly their languid pale green eyes. I was very pleased with my photographs here, and that was all three required dragons seen.

Green-eyed (Norfolk) Hawker

Green-eyed (Norfolk) Hawker

I went just once to Hampshire’s New Forest this season on 20 July, re-visiting Ashley Hole one of my favourite sites. The appeal to me lies in being around 2.5 miles from the nearest road, off-piste in the middle of nowhere and an Odonata mecca where I can immerse myself in observing an array of species completely undisturbed. My top target here was Common Hawker, to use the silly BDS name. The standard international name of Moorland Hawker is much more apt since it denotes the habitat in which this not especially common species (at least in southern England) is encountered.

Ashley Hole is a former munitions testing area hoIding several bomb crater pools that the insects favour. I had photographed egg-laying females here in 2013 so the objective this time was to capture a perched male. In the event I watched two male Common Hawker patrolling the same route over and over again without ever settling. I have since read this is exactly what they do, only perching high in trees so photographing one is highly unlikely. I did get very nice shots of Black Darter here in a plentiful location for that species. Small Red Damselfy is another notable resident.

Before learning the above-cited lesson concerning Common Hawker, I made another attempt at satisfactory observation at Westhay Moor NNR, Somerset. I didn’t see any there on 3 August but did encounter Small Red-eyed Damselfy, a new species for me this season. My best ever image of Ruddy Darter was also secured here.

Locally my objective was getting better pictures than in previous seasons of some common species. I spent many an enjoyable afternoon in July and August to that end, either at Radley Lakes to the south or Otmoor to the north of Oxford. Brown Hawker are always tricky, since they invariably see the observer coming before relocating to the far side of the cover in which they were perched, but I did gain some passable results. Late summer Migrant Hawker also provided pleasing photo-opportunities on Otmoor.

Willow Emerald was this season’s second damselfy lifer at Maldon on 31 August (see earlier post). At the time of writing some late-season dragons, notably Common Darter are still active. In my view there is nothing more fascinating in nature than these complex and charismatic insects that encapsulate the very essence of summer.

Siberian Stonechat at Titchfield Haven – 25th Oct

This was an easy spot. As soon as I arrived on site in the early afternoon, several people standing on the ramp to the new Meadow Hide were already on the bird. The immediate impression was of just how pale this recently separated species is, as Oxonbirder Gnome’s picture (below) from earlier in the week shows. The first-winter bird was moving around an area with a lot of straw-coloured vegetation, blending in with it’s background as it perched on one stem or another. Well, might as well add another one after reaching the all-important 300! A pair of regular Stonechat were active nearby for comparison.

Siberian Stonechat (c) Adam Hartley

Siberian Stonechat © Adam Hartley

Titchfield Haven NNR, managed by Hampshire County Council, must be one of my favourite wildlife havens. It has a very pleasing ambience with little of the in-your-face populism that the RSPB’s professional fund raisers impose at their own comparative sites. Yes I appreciate that conservation charities rely in part on donation income and there is not much money in birders. But I just like going to nature reserves to observe wildlife and feel there must be a better way of conducting things than what has become the norm. This reserve achieves that balance and also holds fond memories of a March 2010 visit when I gained four British lifers. Those were Firecrest, Mediterranean and Yellow-legged Gulls, and also Velvet Scoter a little to the north on The Solent. Red-breasted Goose (Jan 2011) and Brown Shrike (Sep 2013) have been further life-list additions in this area of Hampshire.

Turnstone

Turnstone

After seeing the Stonechat I wandered around for a while. It was high-tide and a small flock of Turnstone were roosting in the adjacent Hill Head Harbour. I was able to capture another common wader close-up (above) to add to those taken at Oxford’s Farmoor Reservoir earlier in the autumn. Then I enjoyed a scan around from the Meon Shore Hide (below), where a selection of gulls and waders were either feeding or roosting, before embarking on the 80-mile drive home. This had been a most excellent day.

titchfield haven.04

Red-breasted Flycatcher: my 300th GB bird – 25th Oct

When I saw on Friday evening there was a Red-breasted Flycatcher at Beachy Head in Sussex it was an easy decision to  leave my end of season garden to the Scarlet Tiger larvae for at least another day. Not only was this bird a further passerine migrant to add to my autumn’s tally, but it was also a stonking adult male (see picture). There could be no more fitting candidate to take the landmark position on my British list.

Putting the destination into my satnav I was surprised when the distance was only 126 miles. En route I nevertheless felt like an extra couple of hours’ sleep wouldn’t have gone amiss. Then approaching Beachy Head signs about road closures from 9am because of a local marathon added a sense of anxiety. It was therefore a relief to find about 25 birders already at the stated location at 8:30am (below), staking out a hawthorn thicket right beside a roadside car park. I hurried to join them and got a first view of the bird within 10 minutes. Then two people close by said there was a Robin chasing the flycatcher around.

rbf twitch

Though confident of what I had seen, that piece of dialogue meant a second view would be desirable to remove all doubt. About 30 minutes later the flycatcher began to appear more boldly, moving around the hawthorn bushes and flicking its black and white tail feathers, so that all present saw it clearly. A Robin it most certainly was not, though I did eventually observe the annoying local interloper as well.

At one point a chaplain in a high-vis 4WD stopped to see what was going on. He apparently has a role here spotting potential suicides and stopping them from jumping off the cliffs. Just as well I had seen the bird then! A few birders rushed for the pay and display machines thinking he was a parking attendant. Then two rather loud gentlemen arrived with a stock of twitching stories that anyone willing to listen was welcome to hear. When one of them began to quiz a big lens photographer about mega pixels, my thoughts turned away from getting record shots of my own. And so, mindful of the impending marathon I moved on.

Marshals and spectators were indeed beginning to congregate now but I soon left the race route behind. Sussex and the scenically beautiful South Downs is an area I barely know, so with mission accomplished so early in the day I hoped for a pleasant 70-mile drive west to Titchfield Haven on The Solent, where the day’s second lifer awaited. In the event Saturday morning congestion along the A27 rather took the edge off things, but having realised Sussex is so close by the direct route this is certainly a county I will re-visit in the future.

I made that drive with a great sense of satisfaction at having reached my British 300 birds. Also Red-breasted Flycatcher is a species that most seasoned birders will have and one that I’ve wanted to see for a long time. I suppose the next landmark must be to get my pan-European life-list to 400. That total, which includes the British list, currently stands at 373.

Titchwell and Cley Marshes, Norfolk – 19th Oct

On day two of my Norfolk weekend I started at Titchwell Marsh RSPB reserve. An 8am breakfast and having my tripod repaired at the local In Focus store meant I didn’t get on site until 9:30am. As at Stiffkey a day earlier, glum looking twitchers were heading out, presumably having failed to connect with a Penduline Tit that was reported here on Saturday afternoon. And with their departure the RSPB’s preferred clientele was already arriving in droves.

I phoned Oxonbirder Mark Chivers, with whom I had kept in contact throughout Saturday, to find that he and Andy Last had been on the reserve for some time. After meeting them for a chinwag they went on to Cley hoping to photograph the Grey Phalarope. With no pressing wildlife priorities of my own I opted to remain and enjoy a morning of general bird watching. That of course also means general public, especially on a RSPB reserve.

First stop was the modern Parrinder Hide, built atop the impressive new sea wall that the RSPB has constructed to allay coastal erosion here. Inside my experience was as much of endurance as enjoyment while noisy bless ’ems of all ages came and went. In time I continued along the visitor trail, skirting salt marsh that is under threat from inundation by the sea, before sitting in a sheltered spot on the beach for a while just scanning around. Various common waders, wildfowl and seabirds were all going about their business in these areas, and I stopped to photograph a Chinese Water Deer.

A more relaxed and knowledgeable ambience was to be found back at the Island Hide on the landward side of the new sea wall. This held fond memories of past sightings: my first British Spoonbill, second Black-winged Stilt and Spotted Crake, all on my last Norfolk trip in August 1997. I settled into observing the wildfowl and waders on the freshwater marsh here in a contented frame of mind.

I can never tire of Brent Geese whose gentle ways and soft guttural calls just seem to epitomise winter coastal birding for me. A skein of Pink-footed Geese also flew high across the reserve, a numerous winter visitor to Norfolk and my first sighting of the species since 1987. Then my reverie was broken by a phone call from my fellow Oxonbirders.

The Grey Phalarope hadn’t co-operated with them either, but a roosting Long-eared Owl was drawing crowds in a location adjacent to Cley Marshes. This wasn’t to be missed and so I headed east. It was now early afternoon and the A149 coast road was full of Sunday tourist traffic, all content to proceed at 20mph within the speed limit. Whilst not supposing the Owl would be going anywhere soon, I was nevertheless out of relaxed and into rushing mode but this bird proved to be worth it. I had seen three LEO previously but not this close. And there it just sat majestically (below), turning its head from side to side and shooting deep yellow glances back at its scores of admirers, seemingly unconcerned by all the attention.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl

This location, Walsey Hills also held a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler. I re-found Mark and Andy amongst a group of birders staking out another wall of dense vegetation, the usual scenario for any warbler twitch. But this second Siberian sprite was being as elusive as it’s Saturday counterpart at Holkham. So my companions opted to go to the beach and look for Snow Bunting, while mindful of not going over-tired into the working week I headed home.

So there had been no British 300th this weekend but I had observed several good birds and reacquainted myself with one of Britain’s premier birding areas. The downside was the huge numbers of “birding tourists” that these flagship nature reserves cater for. I myself prefer the company of twitchers to an ambience of members in cosy tea rooms. Had any of the bird lifers still been present the experience would no doubt have involved more of the former and less of the latter. But a good day out is always the top priority while the wildlife targets add a sense of purpose, and this had been an enjoyable trip.

A newcomer’s reconnoitre in north Norfolk – 18th Oct

On Wednesday and Thursday of last week I noticed on RBA just what a concentration of birding gems was to be found in north Norfolk. With two rare Shrikes (Steppe Grey and Isabelline), Warblers and other small passerine migrants, there were five lifers here with which to move past my personal 300 British birds.

I appreciate this is stating the obvious to any experienced and regular visitor to the area, but I am neither of those. In my first phase of birding in the 1980s and 90s I found the arduousness of driving there and back from Oxford in a day could detract from the overall experience. Even reaching the north Norfolk coast from my parental home in Essex usually seemed a long way. But after two weekends of trying to indulge motivation for end of season gardening while all the regular chores still stared back at me, I just needed to get away. And so I decided on a modern day reconnoitre of the birding mecca.

Sod’s law dictated that by Friday evening only the Isabelline Shrike was still present, but undeterred I booked a night in B&B and stuck to my plan. In the event the journey time, with comfort breaks and a detour around a road closure, was four hours. On my arrival at Stiffkey Marsh at 9:30am, birders were already walking away saying the Shrike had not been seen. I gave it an hour there, after which news came in of Yellow-browed Warbler at Campsite Wood close to the car park I had used.

I have seen this species once before, in company with other Oxonbirders at Oxford’s Port Meadow a year ago. But on that occasion for me it was a silhouette moving around in cover, and I couldn’t make out the diagnostic features. Still ticked it of course, chaps! Today, after an initial hour of frustration when other people called the bird but I couldn’t get on it, not one but two Yellow-browed Warbler emerged to put on a superb display. I gained a full appreciation of all the plumage diagnostics, and can only say what beauties these little sprites from Siberia are. I learned that the narrow strip of Campsite Wood is a regular location for scarce migrants, and one birder said he had been working it with notable results for 25 years. There were several YBW in north Norfolk on this day and getting good views had been my second priority after the Shrike.

It was now midday and another birder informed me of an obliging Grey Phalarope along the coast at Cley Marshes. So with one result gained, my thoughts turned to photography and I headed for the beach car park adjacent to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve. On joining the throng of observers there it was apparent this bird too might keep me waiting, and so I moved a short distance along the beach to see a Snow Bunting that other birders were on. I had not appreciated previously the perfect camouflage of this Norfolk speciality against a stony background: it’s in the picture below somewhere. Grey Seal swimming offshore and many of those evocative autumn arrivals Brent Geese added further interest.

I kept an eye on the body language of the group overlooking the Phalarope pool, and headed back when that suggested the bird was showing again. In the event it was difficult to capture good images in the strong wind and glary light, as the Phalarope moved quickly and jerkily in and out of cover. When my car park time expired I headed back to Stiffkey just in case, but the Isabelline Shrike was long gone and with it my recent run of positive twitches. It happens!

A birder told me the centre of attention had switched to Holkham Pines, that I have seen referred to on RBA often. Relocating there I joined twitchers searching for a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler that was said to be in a roving tit flock at what is a prime location for the species. This was clearly a small needle in a huge haystack. I was feeling pretty tired by now and unlike others present didn’t need this bird for my life list, having had cracking views in Berkshire once previously. That happens too! So I contented myself with resting on a bench and waiting for a shout to go up, but it didn’t. And that, excepting a distant Great White Egret on the drive west to my B&B, was the end of day one. Click here for a guide to Holkham NNR.

Whilst at the Cley visitor centre I invested in copies of the Buckingham Press Best Birdwatching Sites: Norfolk, and the AA Walkers Map 21: North Norfolk Coast. The former has a better level of relevant detail than the Helm Where to Watch Birds series, while the latter does the job of two equivalent OS maps. I suggest these are both valuable aids to less experienced visitors to the area.

2014 Butterfly Highlights (retrospective)

This was an unusual butterfly year in that I spent most of May in Portugal. So of those British species that need to be gone out and looked for, several spring specialities – Grizzled and Dingy Skipper, Duke of Burgundy, Small Blue; Pearl-bordered, Small Pearl-bordered and Marsh Fritillary – all went unobserved in 2014.green hairstreak.1401 linkey down

My personal spring favourite Green Hairstreak (right) enjoyed a fairly early start to its flight season in mid-April. As always I looked for them first at Linkey Down, Oxon on the Chilterns escarpment. Unfortunately their habitat here had been cut severely by English Nature for a second successive year, though there did appear to have been a partial migration across the M40 motorway.

I went to Portugal unresearched and with no plan other than to walk the Algarve hills in spring and see what butterflies I came across. In the event I added 16 species to my life list. Most of these are featured in my butterfly gallery and here’s a taster.

We are blessed in Oxford with being within an hour’s drive of more than 40 different butterfly species. My interest at home was re-ignited with the first report of Black Hairstreak from Oxon’s Whitecross Green Wood on 8 June. A day later I was pleased to observe and photograph black hairstreak.1407 whitecross green woodthe species (left) for the first time at that site, in company with local conservationist Becky Woodell. I avoided the Bernwood Forest, Bucks location that had received much attention in 2013, deliberately so as I felt in part responsible for its over-visitation in that season. Thankfully the site, previously known only to Butterfly Conservation (BC) transect walkers, was reported on far less this year and hopefully pressured less.

In my fifth Oxon, Bucks and Berks butterfly season, the main motivation was getting better pictures of certain species. I spent some pleasant late-June and July afternoons in Bernwood Forest improving on previous years’ results for White Admiral and Silver-washed Fritillary. This butterfly site attracts a lot of enthusiasts nationally, especially for Purple Emperor, but is also used heavily by the general public and dog walkers in particular. Fortunately there are innumerable off-the-beaten-track spots where butterfies and other widlife may be observed with relatively little disturbance.

Nationally (ie species not present in Oxon, Bucks and Berks) I went for just two butterflies this year. I had seen fly-past Large Heath once before in 2013 at Cors Caron NNR in South Wales. This year I made two June visits to another major raised peat bog, Whixall Moss NNR in Shropshire, seeing the species both times. My experience of peat bogs is that grey cloud can sit in over the habitat whilst the surrounding area looks sunny. It took a long time for the Large Heath to start flying on 28 June.

The centre of attention for Large Blue has shifted from Somerset’s previously much-publicised Collard Hill to Daneway Banks in Gloucestershire. On visiting the latter on 1 July it was clear that the associated circus had switched sites too. Diners were coming out of the pub and walking up the hillside above to see for themselves, no doubt having quizzed butterfly enthusiasts enjoying a post-sighting pint. I was admittedly as guilty as anyone else of pressuring the habitat, whilst photographing this species  (below) for the first time here.

My local butterfly observation in July majored on Skipper and Hairstreak species. Silver-spotted Skipper made it’s earliest appearance in recent history in 2014. My single 12 July sighting at Oxon’s Aston Rowant NNR (N) was a UK year first. Also in July I photographed the enigmatic Essex Skipper in Burgess Field Nature Park beside Port Meadow in Oxford. This species is notoriously difficult to separate from other brown Skippers in the field, and usually requires getting down on all fours to examine the antennae head on. The right hand picture below is an Essex, whilst the left hand butterfly is a Large Skipper. The antennae look black in both cases but those of the Large Skipper are hooked.

large skipper.1205 york's wood

Essex (right) and Large Skipper

essex skipper.1408 burgess field

I was asked for this clarification a number of times in the field this year and so have repeated it here, having had the lesson myself  from BC chair Dr Jim Asher a couple of seasons ago. In Oxfordshire Adonis Blue has expanded it’s range in recent seasons. I now monitor a colony of the species, in both broods in late May and late July / August, that has become established at Aston Rowant NNR (N) where the M40 motorway cuts through the Chilterns escarpment.

Adonis Blue

Adonis Blue

At Otmoor RSPB reserve on 6 July I captured top-wing pictures of Purple Hairstreak for the first time ever. Observing the species here at macro-lens range was a welcome change from craning the neck to locate tree-top flyers in Bernwood Forest. 20 days later I was the first observer to publish pictures of Brown Hairstreak in their favoured Otmoor location for a second season running. This year most of the reported sightings there were high in Ash trees, giving the habitat beneath some welcome respite from the pummeling it endured in 2013. But I was unable to observe White-letter Hairstreak this season, failing to find the species on three visits to Chazey Heath in south Oxfordshire.

So with autumn setting in, that’s a retrospective on my 2014 butterfly season. It is my intention to record a full English butterfly year, from some of my established favourite sites and hopefully new locations too, on this blog in 2015.