Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Shetland: part the first

At the turn of last month, David Bradnum, Howard Vaughan, Bob Vaughan and I reprised our 2017 Shetland adventure with a week based on Muckle Roe, in the west of Mainland.
Woodchat Shrike at Barns Ness
Woodchat Shrike at Barns Ness
I don't think I could face writing a day-by-day account, let alone subject you poor innocents to it, so I'll try to wrap it up in just a few posts. Not that there weren't many highlights - there were plenty, and we saw a selection of birds that, had they been seen over the course of a week anywhere else in the country would have represented an excellent haul. But by Shetland's high standards it would be a lie to say that it wasn't just a wee bit anti-climactic.
The American White-winged Scoter at Musselburgh, flanked by two drake Velvet Scoter
White-winged Scoter (left) has a pink bill (yellow in Velvet) and a more prominent white 'uptick' over the eye
The main culprit for this was westerly winds: an almost constant stream of them preceded our arrival and they remained the dominant influence in the weather throughout our stay, depriving Shetland of the famous easterlies which have delivered so many beasts from the east over previous autumns.
One of a pair of Ringed Plover sheltering in tyre tracks on the beach near Busta House Hotel
And here's the other one of the pair
But I'm getting ahead of myself: first we had to get there. This involved me heading over to the east of the country to meet the rest of team who are London/Essex/Kent based. Our planned departure time of mid-morning gave me a couple of hours of daylight to head first to the Thames Estuary to scan for the Beluga Whale located a couple of days before. I failed to find it but it re-appeared an hour after I left - an inauspicious start.
A wind-swept Pied Flycatcher at Swining
A ditch-bound Common Snipe - one day it will be a Great!
There wasn't too much to divert us on the long road north - a Grey Phalarope at the well-appointed RSPB reserve at Old Moor and a party of Willow Tits on the Northumberland coast were barely a detour from the main drag, and we reached our first overnight stop in Berwick at a sensible hour. The following morning the Lothian coast offered a little more promise, with a Woodchat Shrike and Rose-coloured Starling at Barns Ness, plus a Pectoral Sandpiper and the long-staying American White-Winged Scoter at Musselburgh. We saw them all in beautiful light, the latter being my second encounter of the year with this bird after I caught up with in on a Scottish trip back in March.
This was the bird we initially identified as an Icterine Warbler based on the lead -grey legs...
...and apparent pale panel in the wing (we didn't get a good view of the primary projection)
A surprisingly calm crossing on MV Hrossey ended in a familiar sight: horizontal rain lashing the rock armour of Lerwick Harbour, though within minutes we had seen our first Otter and only Purple Sandpipers of the trip. Much of the rest of the day was a bit of a wash-out so we checked out our (plush) self-catering accommodation and gave the kettle its first workout of the week.
Later in the week we re-visited the re-identified Melodious Warbler
With better views the diagnostic short primary projection was more apparent
Melodious Warbler, Lunna
Undaunted we ventured out again later in the day to the picturesque Lunna Kirk, where we found what we took to be an Icterine Warbler. It was later re-identified as a Melodious - an even rarer bird for Shetland, making it a good if not entirely competent start to our birding week!
Howard channels Jesus at Lunna Kirk

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Alpine mammals

In an earlier post I rashly promised a future piece on Alpine mammals - I like to keep my promises but it feels like very old news so I'll keep it brief, for all our sakes. Fortunately it was a case of quality over quantity as there weren't too many species to be seen but Marmot, Ibex and Chamois were all pretty high on my list.
Alpine Ibex
Ibex are famously nimble around the precipitous slopes of the Alps - but seeing them up close it was clear this was no lightweight
I hadn't seen Ibex before this trip so was hopeful of changing all this when we headed up into the mountains at Col de la Colombiere, scene of two close encounters with Lammergeier. Our first trip drew a blank but on the second, as George and I headed up to a higher altitude, within half an hour a young Ibex startled us as it ran past at speed down a steep rock face.
This presumed male was a real unit - and blinged up to the eye-balls with four ear tags, three neck tags and what looked like a satellite tracking necklace!
An impressive set of antlers, one of the reasons this species was hunted almost to extinction
As we climbed higher we came across another group of three, then a second group of half a dozen. Most of these were tagged for what we assumed was a conservation monitoring scheme. Reading up on the status of the species on returning home, I discovered that, rather like the Lammergeier, Ibex are only present in the French Alps today thanks to a re-introduction scheme after being shot to local extinction in the 19th century.
Typical scree-slope habitat for the Ibex
An incredibly sure-footed animal
The Alpine Ibex has recovered from a low of just a few hundred to over 30,000 individuals with all those living today descended from a population in the Gran Paradiso National Park in the Italian Alps.
Wider angle view of the Ibex habitat
Mont Blanc from Col de la Colombiere
When a planned trip part-way up Mont Blanc via cable car was called off due to bad weather, we pawned all the non-essential organs of our first born to pay for the toll to enter the Mont Blanc tunnel. We emerged skint and blinking 7 miles later on the Italian side of the border to radically different architecture, substantially stronger coffee and even higher mountain passes than we had been visiting in France.
Alpine Marmot - this one appeared to be acting as sentry for the colony
Marmot bolting for its burrow
The road to the highest of these - Col du Petit Saint Bernard, at a wheeze-inducing 2,188m - featured in The Italian Job, and while the switch-backs were impressive, we felt quite safe thanks to the substantial barriers which the Italians seemed to have over-engineered by comparison to their French counter-parts.
On duty again
Native to the Alps, and reintroduced to the Pyrenees in the 1940s
The weather was better than it had been in rainy Chamonix but still overcast, but I headed up from the car park at the Col anyway to check our the alpine habitats nearby. Not far from the car it became clear that this was THE place to see Alpine Marmots - while we had heard them at other locations, we had yet to see them, but at this site there were good numbers, several of which allowed for a close approach.
Marmot fat is coveted as it is said to cure rheumatism when rubbed on the skin. Eugh.
Adult Marmot with youngster

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Creatures of the Cols part II

As well as providing some close encounters with Lammergeier, two visits to the Col de la Colombière during our recent trip to the French Alps proved productive for several high altitude species of butterfly. My favourite among these was the Mountain Clouded Yellow, a pallid version of the more familiar Clouded Yellow which we see in the UK, with a distinctive dusting of black scales on the upperwing.
Mountain Clouded Yellow - always lands with the wings closed
The beautiful upperwing could therefore only be captured only in flight
Reminiscent of the patterns made by iron filings with a magnet!
This individual showed the distinctive dark dusting through the underwing
It turns out that continental butterflies are every bit as unfussy with their tastes as our own: we christened a particularly large pile of dog-mess near the Col 'the turd of plenty' on account of the number of butterflies it attracted, including two new species for me: Red Underwing Skipper and Common Brassy Ringlet (the latter sounding a bit like a Shakespearian insult, I think).
Red Underwing Skipper doing what it says on the tin
Upperwing shot of Red Underwing Skipper
Common Brassy Ringlet taking a break from feasting on excrement 
This more discerning Large Wall Brown eschewed the turd of plenty to roost on a rock
A walk into the mountains west of Sallanches to the Refuge de Doran produced a few more new species including an attractive Damon Blue and an elusive Alpine Heath which led me a merry dance around a scree slope before I eventually pinned it down for a photograph. Still to come in future posts: a few Alpine mammals, fun with Fritillaries and some Erebian nightmares...
Alpine Heath - a reasonably straightforward species to identify with the broad spotted white band in the underwing
Closer crop of the Alpine Heath
Damon Blue underside - another fairly easy one to identify
Damon Blue upperside

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Creatures of the Cols part I

If the birding was hard work on our recent holiday in the French Alps, butterflying was a bit easier and more productive - we caught the end of the continental heatwave, enjoyed good weather even at altitude, and I saw several species for the first time. Colleagues are still helping me with some of the trickier identifications - oh for the simplicity of the British butterfly list and its 59 reasonably discrete species! So this post, the first of a couple focusing on the species I was reasonably confident about identifying myself, may be followed by others as my tentative identifications are either confirmed or corrected.
Queen of Spain Fritillary, Col du Grand Colombiere
The closest I got to photographing the stunning pearls of the Queen of Spain's underwing
Queen of Spain Fritillary
One of our first excursions to higher altitude from our base near Annecy took us west to the Col du Grand Colombiere, just shy of 1500m. This was a recommendation from Dr Martin Warren who kindly provided some site info before I left - and a good recommendation it was too. Within a few minutes I had seen Apollo, Scarce Copper, Queen of Spain Fritillary, Large Wall Brown as well as species familiar from home in the UK like Adonis Blue, Chalkhill Blue and Silver-spotted Skipper.

Scarce Copper - the first of several new species for me
A view of the Scarce Copper underwing
The first Apollo of the trip was the smartest - but a bit distant for a good photo
From there we dropped down into the lowlands and the beautiful Marais de Lavours, another recommendation from Martin. A boardwalk took us through a variety of wetland habitats but it was too hot for both us and the wildlife it seemed - a False Heath Fritillary and a fleeting view of a probable Southern White Admiral were the highlights.
Adonis Blue was one of a number of species familiar from home
Ditto, Chalkhill Blue...
...and Silver-spotted Skipper - this species appeared quite widespread - more range restricted back at home
From there we again went in search of the cooler air of high altitude, driving up to the top of Mont du Chat, an attractive location who phonetic pronunciation caused much mirth with my increasingly puerile children. I really don't know where they get it from. As well as spectacular views, Mont du Chat offered a close encounter with a hilltopping Swallowtail of the gorganus sub-species which prevails in continental Europe.
The Silver-spotted Skippers (this a female) appeared darker to my eyes than those we see at home...
...the field guide suggests this is a feature of higher altitude specimens - this one a male
False Heath Fritillary at Marais de Lavours
With the heat of the day receding we descended to the lowlands to meet up with friends for a swim in Lac de Bourget. The lakeshore area was too developed to see much in the way of wildlife but for someone who is not much of a swimmer I must say even I enjoyed a dip in the refreshing mountain waters.
This Swallowtail was in excellent condition
Found in very different habitats to the britannicus sub-species I saw in Norfolk earlier this year
Swallowtail
Returning to base near Annecy was a reminder that we didn't need to climb into the high mountains to see good butterflies - there were Brown Hairstreaks nectaring in the garden and I even rescued a Glanville Fritillary from the swimming pool!
Brown Hairstreak - not bad for a garden butterfly
This Glanville Fritillary was water-logged in the pool
I was able to see the attractive underwing pattern as it dried out