Moorland Hawker and other late summer dragonflies at Priddy Mineries, Somerset – 28th Aug

The last weekend of August produced a break in the month’s hitherto unceasing Atlantic weather and so I took the opportunity to complete my insect agenda for this season. That was to have a better than previous experience of Moorland (or Common) Hawker dragonflies, and hopefully gain a picture of a perched male. The location for observing this species in southern England is Priddy Mineries atop Somerset’s Mendip hills. And most importantly I had read online of people actually capturing perched images there, which is very difficult to do because these insects rarely settle.

I had been waiting throughout August to make a first visit to what is by repute a superb odonata site, but first I had some local birding business to attend to. My day began at Oxford’s Farmoor Reservoir where eight juvenile Shag had roosted overnight. This was the first county record in six years and were I to be year listing in 2017 I would need to see these birds. In the event they were rather attractive and I spent a respectful amount of time in their presence while indulging in parochial chit chat and banter. Not for the first time I was called sad for my love of dragonflies. Then I left my Oxon birding colleagues to count the first winter scapulars on some distant passing gull or tern, and set off to do some real wildlife watching.

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Moorland Hawker (male)

Priddy Mineries SSSI (ST547515), a former lead mining area is a mosaic of heather and grassland, valley mire, open water and acidic pools. The site’s industrial past, from Roman times up to the early 20th century, has left a landscape of mounds and hollows that now host more than 20 species of damsel and dragonfly, as well as uncommon flora and important amphibian populations. On my arrival I parked in a lay-by overlooking the site’s main lake (pictured below) that in the pleasing early afternoon light suggested odo excellence.

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Walking away from the car I at once began to notice Black and Ruddy Darter (pictured below) in the long grass. Then upon my reaching the water’s edge a female Moorland Hawker announced herself, and was quickly followed by a first patrolling male. As I made my way around the lake to it’s far side, where the sun would be behind me, other large dragonflies were on the wing: Brown and Southern Hawker and Blue Emperor, all with their distinctive jizz that I sat and appreciated for a while. In amongst them more occasional Moorland Hawker looked rather non-descript by comparison, with dullish brown and blue hues but distinctive yellow patterning on the thorax.

At the sought for spot it was readily apparent this was Moorland Hawker territory, and so I sat on a convenient tussock, watched and waited. Several males were all competing for space here. These have a very restless flight pattern, being constantly on the move and indifferent to human presence. They show broad yellow stripes on the sides of the thorax, while the antehumeral (top side) stripes are narrower than in Southern but still much bolder than Migrant Hawker. The bright yellow costa (front edge to wings) is another very apparent diagnostic. When errant Southern Hawker entered the fray from time to time their own brighter blue and green patterning was obvious by comparison, as was the iridescence of occasional passing Emperor

My previous experience of Moorland Hawker was all at a true wilderness location in Hampshire’s New Forest, Ashley Hole (see here and here). There the few males encountered would fly in strongly then around the same circuit over and again without pausing. Today’s dragonflies seemed to favour smaller circuits, flying low over and in amongst the water side vegetation. They hovered frequently, allowing many flight shots my best of which are below, but as expected did not settle in the lakeside willow scrub that I was staking out.

Unlike Ashley Hole, that is at the back of beyond, there was a degree of disturbance on today’s bank holiday afternoon. Initial peace and tranquillity soon acquired the usual accompaniment when dragonflying of splashing dogs and calling owners, and two groups of anglers set themselves up. Later in the day I went back to the car for a power nap, then returned to the same spot in the hope that one or more Moorland Hawker might perch in the aforementioned willows as the light faded.

I now acquired two companions with the same idea, one of whom like myself said no more than is necessary while concentrating on the task in hand. The other just could not stop talking, and eventually I retreated to a safer distance from the one way barrage on every photograph ever taken, the birds seen on each foreign trip and what his best shots were. I had waited four years for the pictures I was seeking, and four weeks for this day’s opportunity, and the edge was definitely being taken off what might now be the climactic moment.

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Moorland Hawker (male)

All the while the Moorland Hawkers continued in their same way, fluttering and hovering around their chosen circuits and challenging one another without perching. When they did settle now and again it would be tucked in on the blind side beneath water’s edge tussocks of long grass. Yes there are a lot of them at Priddy Mineries so the better experience I wanted was gained. But as with Downy and Brilliant Emeralds at Warren Heath (see here) earlier in the season those much sought perched photo portraits will have to wait for some or perhaps a long time yet.

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Butterfly therapy: a celebration of roosting Blues + Silver Spotted Skipper – 14th Aug

Two days ago, having paid very little attention to downland butterflies this season, I made only it’s second visit to the Chilterns escarpment. Feeling confused and fragile in spirit after two gruelling shifts at work over the weekend, I needed to clear my head and spending the afternoon extracting more weeds from my wildlife garden wasn’t going to achieve that. So I went out to do some butterflies instead.

Conditions were lightly overcast as I walked out onto the noisy hillside above the M40 motorway at BBOWT’s Aston Rowant NNR (N) (SU733967). But plenty of butterflies were still active and I was at once reminded of the wealth of wild plants at the reserve. In the early years of this decade I would spend many days in summer wandering sites such as this, counting every species and taking bad, grassy photographs. But there are only so many British butterflies to record and hence more recently that enthusiasm has waned. Last year it had been difficult to get motivated at all, but it would have been a pity to pass by the late summer specialities in 2017.

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Adonis Blue (male) on Parsley sp

The pale, floppy forms of Chalkhill Blue were immediately apparent, keeping low to the ground and striking up many a grassy pose that I ignored. The objective now is always better, premium pictures but flower head shots of this downland specialist were less likely in the cool breezy weather. All around tiny Brown Argus (pictured below, right) ghosted about in the long grass as they do, always hyperactive and fiercely territorial. And a few fiery Small Copper (centre) stood out in places. Meadow Brown numbers are now waning but here some were still in good condition (left).

Before long I began to come across Silver-spotted Skipper, one of the August specialities at this and other Chilterns escarpment sites. This diminutive, moth-like butterfly is often first seen buzzing about the downland sward in a blur or darting sideways from the observer’s footfall. When settled they have a pleasing penchant for intriguing poses on flower or grass heads and are always photogenic. Having many good pictures of SSS in my collection I tried to find new angles or back drops, without great success. Here (below) are my day’s better results, with some concession to grassiness.

But my heart still wasn’t in it, having done all this so often before. As I continued I pondered how when abroad I can become immersed totally in experiencing new and different (for me) butterflies and dragonflies so all else becomes unimportant. If it was possible to dwell all my existence alone in beautiful wild places, luxuriating in such communion with nature I could remain very contented. But the human psyche doesn’t work like that. Ultimately there is always the need for company and unsatisfactory involvement with one’s own kind; and so all the frustration, conflict and hurt that goes with it. More’s the pity but thus is life.

And so I walked on, the traffic noise from below being a constant reminder of that downside of life’s mix. Having crossed the prime SSS area I climbed back to the top of the hillside then walked all the way back down, directly through the hotspot for Adonis Blue but without finding any of the latter. It was now around 4:30pm and conditions were becoming duller and cooler with the imminent onset of light rain. Then an episode unfolded that illustrated most aptly why indeed I still do this, and made the afternoon out worthwhile after all.

In a sheltered spot near the foot of the hillside I first noticed a nicely posed female Brown Argus (pictured above) in a large clump of Knapweed, then became aware of other roosting Blues in the vicinity. Brown Argus is indeed a species of Blue. Was she aware of the smaller male behind her? I expect so and also that he had things on his mind. A kind of dance then ensued as the pair seemed to assess one another tentatively, but then she flew to one side leaving the male to his own devices. A case perhaps of faint heart ne’er winning fair lady.

I next became aware of various Common Blue all roosting in the straggly, swaying vegetation. And the more I looked the more there were to find. This is a butterfly that in my experience is difficult to photograph well, too often appearing fuzzy somehow in top wing and washed out in underwing shots. But on this occasion they just seemed to stand out in the failing light, and with the right exposure compensation I was able to gain my best ever premium pictures of the species (below). Hence I remained here for some time, re-motivated once more and relishing a reminder that insects can and will deliver new variations on the old experience if sufficient time and patience is expended in the field.

A photo-celebration of roosting Common Blue butterfly

Here and there butterflies were concerning themselves with rather more than roosting. The rhythm of insects actually pumping away is always sensuous to behold, well it is sex after all. This mating pair of Common Blue (pictured below) were getting things on with gusto and loving it. Images as good as this cannot be planned or anticipated, they just leap out and happen now and again. And so the photo opportunities continued to improve.

Having done Common Blue justice I next went in search of other roosting Blues, capturing first a male Chalkhill Blue on an enticing flower head (below, left) and finally a male Adonis Blue (right). The full set of Blues for the site had thus all contributed to what was ultimately a rewarding exercise, and I returned home to the editing suite feeling partly refreshed but still world weary.

At the petrol station last night I was back on form behind the counter. Pleasant to deal with customers made a comeback against the inky grunters and pushing, impatient obnoxiae; and there were no technology issues that I couldn’t deal with. And so I awoke this morning with a different kind of warm glow from that other essential communion with people. But thank heaven for butterfly therapy!

Addendum

Back at home in Garsington’s shanty town I have acquired a crop of Large White butterfly larvae (pictured below). Like the twice yearly Scarlet Tiger caterpillars these ascend the walls of my park home to pupate under the eaves or soffit boards, and every time I look there seem to be more. They are strong crawlers and fast climbers but are being parasitized by the larvae of some much smaller life form. When one began to spin it’s cocoon on my rear window I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing when the adult would emerge. But the next time I looked the unfortunate, writhing larva was being eaten alive before my eyes … yuk!

I suspect others that seem to have died and shrivelled further up the structure have suffered the same fate, but several have pupated successfully, including one below my kitchen window (above, right). When I got home from Aston Rowant on Monday, another caterpillar was trying out my front door (centre). It was still there yesterday morning so I moved it to the rear wall where it might find a little more adhesion. Oh dear … more munchers on the plot, but that after all is what a wildlife garden is for.

Late summer Hairstreak and Hawkers at Rushbeds, Bucks – 10th Aug

Today offered a window in what has been more than three weeks of conveyor belt Atlantic weather since the previous insect post in this journal. My choice was to try to track down some Brown Hairstreak butterflies at a new and different location, and in the process hopefully photograph Southern and Migrant Hawker dragonflies that are also on the wing at present. When I visited BBOWT’s Rushbeds reserve in the first days of July (see here) I had noted some areas that looked like ideal habitat for Hairstreaks and resolved to check them out later in the season. So that was where I headed this morning.

The soggy second half of July and start to August has been good for my wildlife garden at home, that is currently under re-establishment, but not so for getting out and about. It must also have helped Brown Hairstreaks that having emerged early this year in common with other butterflies, will have suffered less of the harassment they always endure with the change in the weather. After all butterflies are quite capable of getting on with reproducing their species away from human gaze, whatever the conditions.

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Mission accomplished – premium Brown Hairstreak

I started the day at Oxford’s Otmoor RSPB “home for nature” where the yearly Hairstreak bun fight has resumed in earnest during recent rain breaks. But that situation may also be of wider benefit if the destructive attentions of butterfly tourists can be concentrated at one welcoming site. My reason for going there was to see Common Redstart on land adjacent to the reserve these birds frequent at this time of year. I found two females and in making a complete hash of photographing them gained one of those images (below) that look more like a painting but to me are strangely pleasing.

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Female Common Redstart in oils (or dodgy record shot?)

On waking to fair weather I had just wanted to get up and out and there was no point in going to my insect destination too early. In the event I lost time due to a road closure and HGVs not being able to pass one another on the diversion around it. So it was not until 11am that I arrived at the southern edge of Rushbeds Wood (SP672154). Here there is a lot of Blackthorn, the BH food plant and bramble banks; and the hedgerows were bursting with an abundance of autumn fruits. It didn’t take long to come across a first Migrant Hawker dragonfly in its immature colouring (pictured below).

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Migrant Hawker (immature male)

This was one of the forms I most wanted to capture today. It is still early in this autumn hawker’s flight season and many of the insects being observed will be of this brown and mauve, grey-eyed appearance. In early July it had been the emergent Southern Hawker that were in their own immature colours, now today along this woodland edge I encountered several brightly patterned adults, both male and female (below).

Through all this I was careful not to trample habitat, only treading where other people had already trod, not moving around too much once on a subject and always trying to look where I was putting my feet. I would like to think of this as a best practice model. After walking in such a way as far as possible to the western edge of the reserve, I retraced my steps then continued to the east of the exit gate from the woods. This looked even better for Brown Hairstreak with huge, mature Ash towering above extensive stands of Blackthorn and a brambly under storey.

I was at this point joined by a Butterfly Conservation transect walker with whom I am acquainted. He confirmed this is indeed a site that is both managed and regularly monitored for BH, but neither of us saw one today. Of the butterflies that were on the wing the few remaining Silver-washed Fritillary (top left, below) were very worn, quite a contrast to their majesty in June and July. Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper were still active but the myriad Ringlet of mid-summer were all gone.

Some butterflies always seem to photograph well and others not. Green-veined White (bottom right, above) are definitely in the former category. This second brood individual shows bolder patterning than the paler insects seen in spring, and the rather striking veining with creamy yellow highlights and pale green eyes always seem to stand out from a suitably subtle backdrop. Common Blue rarely make a good top-wing picture, but the underwing shot (bottom left) was worth saving. The top right picture is the drab form of female Common Blue Damselfly, yes really and always an interesting variant to come across.

It was now early afternoon and I next walked the main ride through Rushbeds Wood without observing anything more of note. At the northern end of the reserve lies a wild flower meadow that is surrounded on three sides by Blackthorn hedges. In mid-summer this area teems with common grassland butterflies but by this time of year it has been mowed. As soon as I walked through the gate from the northern edge of the wood a small brown butterfly flew up from the grass at my feet into a hedge to one side. This looked promising and indeed I was connecting with a fresh female Brown Hairstreak.

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Oh you beauty – female Brown Hairstreak

Almost at once the sun went in and a cool breeze blew up. As a result my butterfly kept stock still for some time just inches from my admiring gaze, glistening in all her pristine beauty. I changed to my macro lens, set my entry level Nikon to its freeze the action sports setting, then commenced upon the kind of peaceful communion and oneness with an insect in the field that I most crave. This is only possible when butterflying or dragonflying alone. If insects are not chased about, surrounded and jostled they will give of themselves freely in this way. I have enjoyed dozens of such encounters at the back of beyond in Portugal, Cyprus, Morocco, the south of France and elsewhere and today was just the latest such occasion.

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And a little closer … but she doesn’t mind

It wasn’t going to get better but I still walked a quick circuit of the meadow without seeing any more Brown Hairstreak, before returning through the wood to my start point. This had been a most rewarding day out. I had encountered all my sought after wildlife whilst crossing paths with just one expert naturalist and two genial dog walkers. After rather too much recent rain whatever the benefit to my garden, it goes without saying that I returned home with spirit well and truly refreshed.

Marsh Sandpiper and Black-winged Stilt at Cliffe Pools, Kent – 31st July

Having followed reports of a juvenile Marsh Sandpiper on the north Kent marshes for the last few weeks, now seemed a good time to go to see it. This is an eastern European and taiga-breeding wader that I had recorded previously in Cyprus in 2012, so it would be a British list addition. But as most citations on RBA stated the bird was being observed distantly, I waited until there was more of interest at the site to make a day out worthwhile.

The RSPB-managed Cliffe Pools reserve (TQ721769), on the Thames estuary just east of Gravesend has a mixture of big salt water lagoons, fresh water pools and grassland; with a network of visitor trails. It attracts large numbers of waders and wildfowl and has hosted other scarcities such as Lesser Yellowlegs and Terek Sandpiper in recent years. This is one of three English sites where Black-winged Stilt have bred in 2017, and as the end of July approached Spoonbill, more than 1300 Avocet and 1700-plus Black-tailed Godwit were all present here.

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Marsh Sandpiper, April 2012

Hence the time seemed right for a visit, but having dipped three out of my last four national birds – a female King Eider duck in mid-Wales being the most recent – I needed a talisman to change my luck. Ewan duly obliged, accepting an invitation to partake of a little Mediterranean birding in soggiest English July. We arrived on site late morning and set out to find “Radar Pool” where the Marsh Sandpiper was being reported on RBA.

I soon became distracted by the numerous Migrant Hawker dragonflies along our route, while Ewan strode on ahead as is his wont. When I caught up with him he was talking to three local birders who put us onto the Marsh Sandpiper: a talisman indeed and an immediate connect! Our target was associating with two Greenshank and somewhat resembled a smaller version of the latter. It is just about visible in this picture (below) along the shoreline, right of the furthest right Egret; but I really should have brought my digiscoping kit. For a comparison photo published on RBA recently see here.

cliffe pools.1703The bird then moved through a gap onto a larger lagoon to the east of Radar Pool and gave us good if always distant views. I recalled at once the species’ delicate jizz from my experiences five years ago at Phassouri Marsh on Cyprus’ Akrotiri peninsula. MS is between Wood Sandpiper and Redshank in size, with a very fine dark bill, slim body and neck, and long spindly legs. It has a dainty walk and rather deliberate downward dabbing bill movement. The species inhabits grassy lowland marshes and pools and migrates through eastern Europe to winter in Africa, the southern Middle East and India. There are typically several British records each year.

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From our second viewpoint large concentrations of Avocet and Black-tailed Godwit were indeed visible, as well as two Spoonbill and numbers of Little Egret and common waders. It now remained to find the Black-winged Stilts, and the local birders directed us to where they had last observed them. But as we walked around the reserve’s perimeter track a Peregrine put all the waders up, so a bit of a search ensued. Ewan forged on ahead again and when I eventually re-joined him he had located the family party of seven Black-winged Stilt from the northern edge of the marsh.

Two pairs have fledged seven chicks following long term habitat creation work (see here). This was my third British encounter with a rather special water bird that I have watched on numerous occasions in southern European wetlands. It would be difficult to tire of such a beautiful, even exotic looking species : tall, slim and elegant with those endless red legs that seem barely capable of supporting the body weight. As with the Marsh Sandpiper the birds were too distant to photograph, so here instead is my best archive picture from Tavira marsh in Portugal. For recent pictures of the Kent birds see here.

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Black-winged Stilt, May 2014

This had been a very satisfying day out and the extensive marshland reserve of Cliffe Pools had not disappointed. The vast open spaces and untroubled environment for birds here reminded me of Alkborough Flats on the Humber estuary where I went to see a Purple Gallinule last October (see here). For me there is just too much going on at many Royal Society for Populist Birdwatching (RSPB) reserves for visiting them to be enjoyable. But today’s more tranquil site is how I prefer things to be and testimony to all the fantastic conservation work the charity undertakes, before the mass marketing that funds it all sets in and spoils everything. If only there was another and better way.

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Migrant Hawker (immature male)

Everywhere around the visitor trails today there were reminders of approaching autumn: flowering Buddleia, ripening Blackberries and newly flying Migrant Hawkers. I had gained one more bird on my British list and hope the summer’s bad run of form is now over and more new birds will be added in the shortening days of the passage season ahead.