Broad-billed Sandpiper at Goldcliff Lagoons, Gwent – 19th June

It didn’t take long to find some more vagrant wader action. Broad-billed Sandpiper is a lifer I have wanted for some time but there has always been some reason not to go. So when one turned up this weekend well within my preferred twitching range I finally took the opportunity.

This is a Scandinavian tundra breeder that winters in south and south-east Asia, and passage birds are recorded in Britain every year. Throughout a “day of rest” in the garden at home on Saturday I had noted sightings on RBA from Newport Wetlands NNR on the Severn estuary. I wanted to see this BBS was settled because earlier in the year another or possibly the same individual at the site was very mobile and eluded a number of Oxon birders who went for it.

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I decided to go if the BBS was still present on Sunday morning, and when the first report appeared on RBA at 7:30 off I set. The bird was in an area of the reserve known as Goldcliff Lagoons, of which there are three. These are accessed about 500 metres east of the Farmers Arms pub in the village of Goldcliff, along part of the Wales coast path signposted “Redwick 5km”. A number of hides and viewing platforms along this track overlook the lagoons.

I had expected to have to pick another wader out of a large flock as at Titchwell on Friday, but in the event things were surprisingly easy. As soon as I joined a group of birders on one platform the Broad-billed Sandpiper was pointed out to me. It looked very distinctive with a white belly and large double supercilium. Then it moved to join a group of six black-bellied Dunlin for comparison. In this company the BBS resembled a large Stint amongst those Dunlin, being noticeably smaller and paler with a different feeding action.

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I watched the Goldcliff BBS for around 20 minutes then the birds all flew to another of the lagoons. Being unable to relocate them on the next lagoon and feeling I was unlikely to get better views anyway, I decided to turn around and go back home enjoying the warm glow of this much desired tick. The BBS was found again nearer to the coast line in the afternoon.

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Great Knot on Titchwell freshwater marsh © Andrew Last

Meanwhile up in Norfolk the Great Knot (pictured above) was drawing large crowds and by all accounts showing well. The successful latecomers included Badger and Andy with whom I kept in touch throughout the day. On Saturday that bird had been much more mobile, as I had feared today’s quest would also be. But my luck was in for a second time in three days and I have gained two highly desirable scarce waders as life list additions.

Great Knot at Titchwell, Norfolk and Caspian Terns at Gibraltar Point NNR, Lincs – 17th June

Having reached the familiar state again this week of just needing to go somewhere, the arrival of a rare and attractive Asiatic wader in Norfolk provided a suitable reason to hit the road. With my limited June insect agenda for this year looking like being washed out, I slipped back firmly into birding mode with a lifer and two British list additions to go after around eastern England.

Two days ago only the fifth Great Knot for Britain had been found at Titchwell Marsh RSPB reserve on the north Norfolk coast. Despite its name this north-east Siberian breeder is only slightly bigger than regular Knot, but is quite distinctive in summer plumage. Having checked the species out in my Helm world shorebirds guide I decided it was a must see.

After staying overnight with friends in Suffolk I got to Titchwell at 9:30am. The first sighting had been posted on RBA at 6am and the car park was full. Not a good day for the RSPB then with all these green clad, optics wielding invaders likely to frighten those of the charity’s preferred clientele who might have managed to squeeze their way in. The visitor centre was in any case closed so I trod the path that skirts the “home for nature” and its “bug hotels” out to the action on the beach.

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“Something about?”

I felt a little concerned at the number of birders walking back, but on reaching the beach there were still plenty scanning the shoreline (pictured above). Before me was what I had expected, a large flock of feeding Knot and other common waders. I decided the vagrant, though an adult in summer plumage was not a bird to self find and so acted dumb until a knowledgeable and helpful birder put me onto it. The Great Knot stood out clearly at distance due to it’s dark breast and belly spotting when seen head on, but was more difficult to identify when lost amongst the throng. This picture (below) shows the plumage detail and longer bill.

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Great Knot (foreground, centre) © Andrew Last

The opportunity to observe summer plumaged red Knot for the first time was also part of the attraction of coming here. Every so often the waders would take flight and relocate, and so the searching would begin all over again. But with more birds in mind today I couldn’t stay for too long and so left a little reluctantly as the crowd dwindled. The entire flock apparently flew east shortly after I moved on late morning. The Great Knot wasn’t seen through the afternoon before being relocated eventually on Scolt Head Island. So my luck had been in.

I now headed for Lincs Wildlife Trust’s Gibraltar Point NNR, an area of sand dunes, salt marshes and fresh water habitats just south of Skegness that often features on RBA. Here two Caspian Tern were viewable from the hides. Being one of my favourite Algarve birds where there is a small wintering population, adding this Baltic breeder to my British list now appealed. The 77 mile drive around three sides of The Wash was arduous to say the least, with low speed limits along much of the route and a lot of farm traffic. Hence I didn’t arrive on site till 2pm.

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View over Tennyson’s Sands from Harvey’s Hide

The adult Caspian Tern were pointed out as soon as I entered one of the hides. Both birds seemed to favour standing with their backs to the audience, turning their heads from side to side. But these large terns always stand out at distance due to their big red bills, as the above and below left pictures show. The CT is amongst some Avocet at the left hand end of the group (above), giving a good indication as to just how big the visitors are. This was also very apparent when on occasion the birds took to the air (below right).

My late arrival here ruled out going on for the day’s third target, the long staying Great Reed Warbler near St Neot’s in Cambs. So I stayed at Gibraltar Point for a couple of hours, pleased to be out of the car and birding. There was also a Spoonbill at this site, always a good bird to see in England. Then the tedious 3½ hour journey back to Oxford beckoned and I left at 4pm, pleased to have increased my British bird list to a still very modest 319.

Foul Weather Footnotes

The present unsettled weather pattern has been excellent for re-organising and re-planting my wildlife garden a little later in the season than would normally be ideal. This is the time of year when adult Scarlet Tiger moths (pictured below) begin to fly around my park home. And that is one of those events in the wildlife calendar that gladden my heart.

I now feel relieved at having gone to France in mid-May because the June weather there has by all accounts been as unfriendly to butterflies as at home. But if this grey and wet scenario continues, as seems likely I do foresee certain benefits to counter any boredom. One is that the annual bun fight surrounding Black Hairstreak butterflies at those sites where they occur in Oxon and Bucks may hopefully not happen this year.

Then this rare and precious resource could be left to procreate in peace as they will do whatever the weather, and despite what conservation charities might say in fund raising literature. If Black Hairstreak were a bird, secrecy as to their whereabouts would protect sensitive breeding status. Instead it is open season each year on these butterflies and their habitat, and I for one would like to see that situation alter for the better.

The second potential plus point could be nice areas of surface water locally for the late summer bird migration season. There was an exceptional spring wader passage through God’s own county (Oxon) this year, but I missed some of the highlights through being in France. As a result I am at present some way behind the leading county listers in 2016, not that I view things competitively of course. Experiencing such an exceptional bird as Great Knot this week has served to whet my appetite for the return passage both locally and nationally.

More Dragons and Damsels at Bramshill Plantation, Hants – 8 & 10th June

A little to the north of Warren Heath, the subject of my last post, lies another location I wanted to check out for odonata Bramshill Plantation. This extensive forestry area is a SSSI that contains several large though not always very accessible ponds. With no particular insect agenda to pursue at present I have spent two warm afternoons there this week just to explore and enjoy myself with the camera.

At the north-west corner of the site a track leads south from Well House Lane (SU746632) then branches around both sides of what I believe is called the long pond. On arrival the first things I encountered upon peering over the water side vegetation were Downy Emerald, Hairy Hawker and Blue Emperor all going about their business. There are many dragonflies here, amongst which the most frequent is Four-spotted Chaser.

To me the last named is a dour bruiser of a dragonfly: aggressive, interfering and intent upon making life difficult for any more interesting species in the vicinity. Though OK to see when I first began taking an interest four seasons ago, now they just get in the way. They can be photogenic if the light catches them in a certain way against a subtle background, but today’s best subject (above left) just seemed to cry out for some work in the editing suite (right). Chernobyl variant? Well I have admitted what I’ve done.

On Wednesday damselflies provided some of the best images again, as they had at Warren Heath. There are vast numbers of them here and all intent upon propagating their kind. I was struck by the colour variations in the mating female Common Blue Damselfly (pictured below), and found the golden tones of the newly emerged females (top left) very attractive.

As I strolled around the pond’s southern side yellow dragonflies would arise from the long grass and fly up into nearby coniferous tree tops. These were teneral  Black-tailed Skimmer of which several mature males were also found basking on the stony track along the northern shore. On Friday it was noticeable how this species was competing for perching rights out on the water on that side, and being just as territorial as the four spots.

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Blue Emperor (male)

Everywhere else I looked the four-spotted bully boys were hustling, squabbling and generally dominating. On occasion patrolling male Blue Emperor (pictured above) would intervene like big bosses from upstairs intent upon restoring a little order. And at less frequent intervals iridescent Downy Emerald would glide through the proceedings, always on a zig-zag course and without stopping. No Hairy Hawker were seen on Friday.

Out on the surface vegetation Red-eyed Damselfly (pictured above) were striking up their own poses, to be disturbed from time to time by an egg laying female Emperor (below). I had brought my chair today and set it up at the best waterside locations to observe and enjoy all of this. Having the place largely to myself I mused this was perhaps the best Odonata location I have yet visited, relegating Thursley Common and Otmoor to the bottom of the pile because of the level of disturbance at those sites.

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Blue Emperor (female)

But by late afternoon the tranquillity here too was spoiled by a gathering of stick throwing dog walkers. Personally I find the whiff of wet dog to be especially unpleasant and always wonder what these people’s cars must smell like on their way home. But on my own sweeter scented drive back to Oxford I still felt uplifted by having spent some time in communion with the fascinating insects that damsel and dragonflies are.

Early summer Odonata in Hants and Oxon – 5 & 6th June

The past two days have provided an interlude in another grey English early summer so I took the opportunity to catch up with some local dragonflies. My inclination not to do English butterflies over again this year has proved to be just as well because there hasn’t exactly been the weather since my return from France. And having a new neighbour to share the interest with I’ve started to get my sadly declined wildlife garden back into shape on dry days.

Where Odonata are concerned there’s a fairly specific agenda for 2016. Having recorded every regularly occurring English dragonfly and all but one damselfly in the last three seasons, things are mainly about photography now. This means better pictures of certain species and any images of the most difficult dragons of all to capture well. So weather permitting a lot of time and effort may be required to that end.

On Sunday I considered two classic sites for Downy Emerald. One was Thursley Common, Surrey that usually involves competing for space with Joggerus ipodicus on the board walks and noisy groups throwing sticks for their dogs into the Moat Pond. The other was the southern end of Warren Heath Wood, Hants that I visited in July last year (see here), and manageable solitude. Not a difficult choice then!

warren heath.1601As soon as I walked into the forest at the latter a dragonfly was encountered: an immature male Black-tailed Skimmer. Then on reaching water’s edge at one of this site’s two Emerald friendly ponds (SU774596), a first Downy was observed. This looked promising so I walked round to the sunny end of that pond (pictured above). There two territorial Four-spotted Chaser were mounting their sentry posts, an inevitable but discouraging sight since these “bovver boys” see off any other species that comes near them.

Sure enough as soon as the next downy appeared it was harassed by the four-spots wherever it flew. The same fate befell two male Hairy Hawker that were the next to arrive. In this scenario the only species likely to settle in the brief intervals between defending their patch were the Four-spotted Chasers. So I completed a circuit of this pond, observing perhaps seven Downy Emerald in all.

I then crossed over to the second pond where in the nearest corner there were three more downies and no interfering four spots. But in place of the latter Large Red Damselfly were behaving territorially here whilst themselves being harassed by hover flies. Two hours ensued in which I observed the Downy Emeralds patrolling the same route over and over again without ever settling. I sat on tree stumps near suitable perches protruding from the water or along the bank, but all in vain where photography was concerned.

So my experience here of Downy Emerald was exactly the same as with their brilliant cousins last July: watching an attractive but constantly moving subject until I eventually tired of things. But Warren Heath Wood proved to be an excellent Odo site that I had wanted to get to know better. As well as the most downies I have ever found in one location and the other species mentioned above, single Broad-bodied Chaser, Keeled Skimmer and Blue Emperor all put in appearances. So that was a total of seven species in one afternoon representing a good cross section of early summer English dragonflies.

Perhaps the most photogenic insects here were the many Large Red Damselflies (pictured below) amongst which frequent mating pairs were found. Blue damselflies were also present in large numbers as is usual at this time of year, and one Banded Demoiselle was seen.

On the way out in the morning I had stopped at Pangbourne on the Oxon / Berks border to attempt to cross paths with that elusive creature the Common Clubtail. There I walked the Thames path upstream for an hour then back without success. Whilst appreciating it’s a little late in the season for emergences now I nevertheless hoped that the first sunny day in a while might have some bearing on things, but it wasn’t to be for another year.

Closer to home the smart site of choice during May for Oxon Odo buffs appeared to have been by the Thames in Abingdon. Here a large pond is hidden away on land adjacent to the Barton Fields Jubilee Wildlife Site. So this morning (6th) I checked the location out. A path had been cut through vegetation hopefully to give enthusiasts, not paying anglers (what chance of that?) access since a new colony of Variable Damselfly was discovered here in 2015 (see here).

Downy Emerald and Hairy Hawker were indeed both flying as I had read on the county recorder’s sightings page, but photographing them could have involved a long wait and a lot of luck. I kept an eye open rather casually for Variable Damselfly, taking pictures of blue species that I came across, and was eventually rewarded. The right hand insect (below) stood out as different even before I confirmed the diagnostics of the exclamation mark blue stripes on the thorax and the wine glass pattern near the top of the abdomen.

The above collage includes Common Blue and Azure Damselfly from today for comparison. My morning was then rounded off by a nicely posed Banded Demoiselle snacking on a Mayfly.

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Banded Demoiselle

This struck me as an agreeable location in which to wile away time peacefully with a chair and camera. I have gained some improved damselfly pictures over the last two days but not images of the difficult dragons that I wanted. So I am more than likely to re-visit the Odonata sites featured in this post on sunny future days.