Monday, 16 April 2018

Channel hopping

Just back from an Easter break in Brittany with the family, where two themes dominated: first, the almost unrelenting greyness of the skies, which made photography a bit of a challenge; and, second, the presence of a number of species which appear quite catholic in their habitat tastes on the near continent, but ridiculously fussy, or absent altogether, here in the UK.
Male Cirl Bunting in the last of the light at Quiberon
A range restricted species in the UK, but more widespread on the other side of the Channel
If you can imagine Sandbanks and the top bit of Studland put together with a lot less dogs, you would not be far off the Quiberon peninsular - but can you imagine Cirl Buntings breeding at Sandbanks?
For some of these species the English Channel appears an insurmountable obstacle to establishing (or re-establishing) a breeding presence; for others, the slight difference in climate has the same effect; and for others still, the reasons for their relative success over the water are a bit of a mystery. One such is the Cirl Bunting - restricted to a few specially managed coastal slopes in the south west of the UK, but apparently much less of a fusspot across the Channel.
Female Cirl Buntings were not as showy as the males - this one was skulking in the car park at Pointe du Grouin
The song of the Black Redstart echoed around the citadel at Mont St Michel
Difficult to photograph the dark plumage against the insipid sky
We saw a pair of Cirl Bunting at our first stop on disembarking the overnight ferry at St Malo, on the rocky headland of Pointe du Grouin, and another pair on the sandy peninsular at Quiberon on Brittany's south coast, near where we spent the rest of the week. I also bumped into them on some non-descript farmland away from the coast confirming the impression of them being fairly widespread across the French countryside.
High in the Abbey grounds of Mont St Michel, a lone Lesser Black-backed Gull had staked out a small lawn within the cloisters 
Mont St Michel from the mainland
The bridge linking Mont St Michel to the mainland. Not sure Cornish planners would permit this at St Michael's Mount - and a good job too!
Before heading for the south coast of Brittany, we thought we should visit Mont St Michel - a worthwhile detour which, as well as the spectacular setting and fascinating history of the Abbey, had the added bonus of singing Black Redstart on the ramparts and rooftops.
Serin in Carnac-Plage - another species which is common on the near continent but rare in the UK 
Short-toed Treecreeper: ditto. Very similar to our Common Treecreeper but my eyes and ears tuned in to the subtle differences eventually.
Sunset at Quiberon

Tuesday, 20 March 2018


Between 'beasts' there were a couple of sunny days which encouraged me to head out with the camera in search of early spring reptiles. Not far from home, a south facing bank is favoured by basking Adders which, with a long lens, can be photographed from the road without risking disturbance. Half a dozen had braved the low temperatures to catch some rays. Amazing to see them flattening their bodies to get maximum warmth from the sun. 
The first Adder of the year is always a thrill
On closer inspection, my first Adder of 2018 turned out to be two Adders 
A recent visit to Portland in search of migrant birds also provided an opportunity to look for the Wall Lizard which has become established on the island. Finding this species was quite straightforward as they bask on the rocks and around the chalets of Church Ope Cove. Photographing them was another matter - the first and last sign of one was often a scuttling noise as it vanished under a beach hut! Unfortunately this non-native species appears to prosper at the expense of native lizards. They tend to return to the scene of past crimes so despite the frequent disappearing acts, a few photographs were possible with patience.
Wall Lizard, Portland
Wall Lizard, Portland
A Common Lizard later in the day was my third reptile of the year but unfortunately it too was vanishing - down the throat of a Kestrel. This bird was one of a number which gave remarkably close views during my meanderings around the quarries, cliffs and coves of Portland:
Kestrel: reptile-lovers look away now
Scanning for prey intently from a fencepost, the Kestrel was unperturbed by passing dog-walkers and joggers
Finishing off the Lizard
An attractive male Kestrel
This Raven was another approachable subject on Portland
A long robust, bill with extensive feathering - compare to...
Carrion Crow on the West Cliffs
Rock Pipit from the car window at Ferrybridge

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Dropping in for a chat

I joined the ranks of the unemployed this week for the first time in 27 years. In case you were worried there, don't be, I wasn't fired from my job at the council in disgrace: fortunately, unlike many of my colleagues in cash-strapped local government, I was able to leave at a time of my own choosing, and I shall return to full-time employment as early as next week. But more on that later, the week between jobs provided an opportunity yesterday to get out and about with the camera.
Northern Wheatear at Maiden Castle yesterday
The morning light was better at the Bill earlier in the day, but the Wheatears more distant

A female was with the male on a dung-heap at Maiden Castle
A second, less well marked bird at Portland Bill
It being mid-March, as the first summer migrant birds had been trickling in all week, there was one species in particular on my mind: Wheatear. Rising early I negotiated the road works onto Portland and hit the Bill slopes just as they were being kissed by the rising sun. The immediate reward was two male Wheatears. Seeing these long distance migrants from Africa catching the morning light was a tonic and appeared as proof that spring was winning the battle with winter, despite the forecast for weekend snow. Skylarks singing overhead seemed to prove the point. An obliging male Stonechat on the slopes and a Black Redstart in the Bill quarries completed an attractive trio of chats for the morning.
Female Black Redstart
A presumed migrant in the Bill quarries
Male Stonechat - often obliging around the Pulpit Inn
Skylark at Portland Bill
A brisk southerly saw rough seas crashing around the obelisk at the Bill's southern tip, so much so that the Purple Sandpipers which are often directly below had been pushed up to almost eye level, providing unusually good photo-opportunities. They were rather more successful at dodging the spray than I. I headed up to the more sheltered Church Ope Cove to dry off and look for Wall Lizards - more on them in a later post - and was treated to my first photographable butterfly of the year: a Peacock which basked briefly on a warm rock.
Purple Sandpiper
Purple Sandpiper
The Bill was taking a bit of a pounding on Friday
Peacock at Church Ope Cove
On the subject of butterflies, the return to gainful employment mentioned above starts very shortly in the form of probably my dream job at Butterfly Conservation, the UK charity dedicated to saving butterflies and moths, which is based here in Dorset. If you're not a member already, you obviously should be: they do great work for our hard-pressed Lepidoptera. And now there is the extra incentive that by joining you will be keeping me too busy to clutter up the internet with so-so photos :-). Speaking of which, here are a few more chats to end with - and why not!

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

A look back at the beast

In the excitement of blogging about patch Hawfinches, I almost forgot to recount everything else I saw during the cold snap in the Swineham/Wareham area a couple of weekends ago. In truth, there was nothing spectacular, but plenty of common or scarce species were turning up in unusual locations, some surprisingly easy to see as the harsh conditions forced them into gardens or otherwise into the open in the search for sustenance. The highlights were a Firecrest in my postage stamp of a town centre garden, and an icicle-clad Spoonbill on the main gravel pit at Swineham. Sadly, two of this last species were found dead in recent days in Dorset: one had presumably succumbed to the cold, the other, which had two broken legs, was thought possibly to have snapped them trying to free itself from ice. An illustration of the harsh impacts of the freeze which, judging by the death toll chronicled on social media, befell many individual birds over the course of a few days. And a reminder to put some food out for the garden birds if the coming weekend's forecast of snow materialises.
Adult Spoonbill - I have never seen one with icicles on the breast feathers.
Black-tailed Godwit, one of several hundred on the frozen fields at Bestwall.
A few dozen Curlew were also present.
Fieldfares were in the gardens of Wareham.
Redwings were everywhere, including my town centre garden and this one in the town's churchyard.
Blackbirds were among the other thrushes in the churchyard.
Normally shy Song Thrushes seemed unusually bold in the cold.
Not a great view of a Water Rail - but any view is a good view in the thick reeds at Bestwall. This was one of three of this species out in the open.
This was the only reasonably sharp photograph of the Firecrest in my garden I could manage, snatched through foggy glass with shaking hands!
The first time I have seen ice floes coming up the River Frome!
Swineham Point inundated by a very high tide - Redshanks, Skylarks, Meadow and Rock Pipits were attempting to feed on the ice here.

Within hours of the last snowflake, the onset of spring seemed to resume: temperatures were back up to double figures and this Dunnock was belting out song as if to declare it had survived the harsh conditions.