Sunday 12 June 2016

Summer's lease...

..hath all too short a date. So said Shakespeare and I know what he meant - it will soon be gone, we will wonder where it went and wish we had done more with it. Fortunately, as we're on a literary theme, a new book by my friend James Lowen has arrived on the shelf to help make the most of it.
Wood White - the rarest and daintiest of the Pieridae

A Summer of British Wildlife condenses 100 days worth of special wildlife-watching opportunities into a beautifully illustrated, pocket-sized volume which should remove any excuse for not making the most of the sunny weather. I should add at this point that I'm not on commission, or I would be promoting it on more widely read media than this. I did, however, get a complimentary copy thanks to having a photo included and an acknowledgement as one of the 'notable rabble' who provided information and inspiration for some of the content.
A female Wood White ovipositing

I am rarely short of ideas for where to go and what to do when it comes to wildlife - shortage of time to do it all being a more common complaint - but when flicking through my copy a feature on the Wood White butterflies of Branscombe caught my eye. I have seen Wood Whites in their more typical woodland habitats, but never on the crumbling undercliffs of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, despite having some professional responsibilities for stewardship of the latter.
A pair of Wood Whites in courtship mode...

So that seemed reason enough for an 'out-of-county' excursion to neighbouring Devon. Having not been to the precise location before, and being on a bit of a tight timescale, the site directions and advice on where to look were an invaluable aid to discovering the butterfly colony without too much aimless wandering. As the book points out, why this primitive species thrives on the primeval slopes of the Jurassic Coast is a bit of a mystery given its typical habitat. Such snippets punctuate the book nicely, though the drafting remains concise and to the point such that even the most impatient reader should be able to get what they want from it without wading through too much superfluous text.
...a rare sighting of the male's open upperwing during courtship
Neither is this book restricted to the wildlife superstars of the bird, mammal and butterfly world - it delves into moths, amphibians, wildflowers, dragonflies, beetles and bugs of all descriptions. So there should be something in it for the experienced wildlife-lover, not just the novice. Having wildlife itineraries all mapped out isn't for everyone of course: some people like to do all the planning, discovering and researching for themselves, and some seem to know-it-all already and have no need for 'where to watch' guides. Well the good news for those folks is that they don't have to buy it! But if you're not one of those folks, and are interested but not quite sure where to start, then you could do a lot worse than get a copy to guide you through the summer months. 
Wood White nectaring on Bird's-foot-trefoil
As I said of James's previous publication, there's really no excuse not to buy A Summer of British Wildlife, except perhaps grinding poverty, a total lack of access to all good bookshops, or a complete disinterest in Britain, Summer and Wildlife. Which, if you're reading this, seems unlikely. Just one complaint about the book really. While the wonderful Durlston Castle and Country Park quite rightly gets its own feature, the ownership and stewardship of this successful, self-funding gem of a facility by Dorset County Council doesn't get a mention. (OK, declaration of interest time: that's my employer, and hard-pressed local authorities don't get much credit for getting things right so we need to claim it wherever we can!).
Large Skipper also nectaring on Bird's-foot-trefoil

Anyway, enough praise for the latest from the Lowen collection, and back to Branscombe, and the Wood Whites, which were just brilliant. The first ones I came across were doing their courtship 'dance', the male bobbing his head back and forth and caressing the female lovingly with his extended proboscis. Several more males were floating around spirit-like, nectaring on wildflowers, prospecting for females and occasionally coming to rest as if to pose for photos in the overcast conditions. A single, fresh Large Skipper was also on the wing, along with a Thick-kneed Flower Beetle - a first sighting of this 'Iron Man' of the entomological world for me. A fine mini-beast safari, then, and not even a broken down car back at the car park could take the shine off!
Thick-kneed Flower Beetle

Thursday 9 June 2016

Every cloud...

I have been so impressed with the macro-like capabilities of what I really must stop calling my 'new' lens (it's so old I have almost paid off the interest free credit loan) that it has been getting plenty of use for insect photography. My last visit to Cerne Abbas produced just a single Marsh Fritillary so I had been planning another visit closer to their peak emergence as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
I confess to having a bit of a thing for the underwing pattern of the Marsh Fritillary - surely one of the most attractive, even with the stiff competition offered by other members of that family. But photographing Fritillary underwings is not easy as on the sunny days when they are flying they tend not to reveal the undersides in their full glory for too long. To make matters worse, getting the whole beast in focus requires a high f-stop, which in turn reduces the shutter speed - not great if the butterfly is moving.
Some of the best success I have had in the past is on overcast days, when the butterflies are a bit harder to find but more likely to be encountered with wings snapped shut. So a bit of a 'meh' forecast was enough to get me back to Cerne Abbas last weekend. Fortunately, Marsh Fritillaries had emerged at this site in such numbers that finding roosting individuals next to the paths under the cloudy skies wasn't too difficult. A thoroughly enjoyable spectacle and a credit to the management of this site, by both the landowner and the local Butterfly Conservation volunteers who clear the scrub in winter, where Marsh Fritillaries are bucking the trend of long-term decline elsewhere.

Sunday 5 June 2016

Chequered past, bright future

At the end of our recent trip to the Outer Hebrides, we calculated that, weather permitting, there should be time to look for one of our rarest and most localised butterflies, the Chequered Skipper, as we passed near some of its strongholds in Invernesshire and Argyll on the way south.
The pearly underwing of the Chequered Skipper resting on a Bluebell
Argent & Sable, a nationally scarce moth, was a bonus at Allt Mhuic
The original plan was to head for a well known site at Glasdrum Wood, near where I spent a week at Easter. But on disembarking the ferry at Uig and setting the satnav we realised we had forgotten how big Scotland was! We were concerned that it might have been too late by the time we arrived there so we quickly hatched a Plan B to head for the Butterfly Conservation reserve at Allt Mhuic, an hour further north and therefore closer to us, and only a short detour off our main route south. I had not been to the reserve before, and my travelling companions had never seen Chequered Skipper, so all agreed it was well worth the diversion.
We bounced along the minor road which skirts the northern shore of Loch Arkaig admiring the attractive landscape and eventually found the reserve entrance. After a brisk walk anti-clockwise around the circular route with no sightings, I came across the first Chequered Skipper on the path on the downward slope heading back towards the car park. Once we had seen one, others started to appear and we admired their feisty, territorial behaviour.
The Chequered Skipper went extinct in England in the 1970s but, after a failed reintroduction in Lincolnshire in the 1990s, plans were announced last year to reintroduce it to suitably managed habitat in the East Midlands. Good news indeed which will hopefully lead to it becoming established in its former English haunts - though for dramatic backdrops, the Scottish colonies will remain difficult to beat. A spectacular setting, a lovely reserve and a fitting end to an excellent trip before the long journey south - a big thanks to my co-pilots Dave Bradnum and Paul Welling for their company.

Saturday 4 June 2016


The Corncrake Crex crex calls its scientific name through the night from the gardens, iris beds and haymeadows of North Uist, where I spent some time at the start of the half-term holidays. We had heard several and seen one scuttling through low vegetation early on our first morning on the island, and after spending the rest of the day cruising around the island chain looking for breeding waders, scanning for eagles and searching for Twite, we headed back to the Bayhead area for another look at the Black-billed Cuckoo. We couldn't improve on our views of the previous evening, but as we leant on a wall waiting for it to show a rasping call from the other side of the wall gave away the presence of a male Corncrake declaring his intentions.

We could only just see over the neck high wall so were able to listen and take a few photos without perturbing the bird, which continued to call, despite the house owner mowing part of the lawn it was calling from. Every now and again a comedy head would appear through the vegetation and duck down quickly again, reminding me of the scene in Jurassic Park where the velociraptors do the same when hunting the appropriately named Bob Peck! The Corncrake moved up and down the garden and at one point came close enough for us to see the nictitating membrane over the eye and saliva on the mandibles, presumably required to lubricate the throat for that distinctive call, which is said to be given up to 20,000 times per night. The owner of the garden complained about the nocturnal racket but we agreed we would be quite happy to be crexed to sleep by this once commonplace but now very rare breeding bird.

The decline of the Corncrake in Britain is linked to the mechanisation of hay mowing, but a more recent recovery in the breeding population has been made possible as more grassland has been managed for corncrakes in Scotland via EU agri-environment schemes.

Friday 3 June 2016

Twite of the day

Twite is a speciality of the Outer Hebrides, and we were fortunate enough to stumble across several paired up birds on our meanderings around North Uist over the Bank Holiday weekend. Like the waders, the best views were obtained kerb-crawling around the back roads of the island, often quite close to human settlements and their motley collections of rusting farm machinery. I was just commenting to my travelling companions on the shocking state of some of the dead tractors which the locals leave lying around, and wondering aloud 'why can't they all be as attractive as that rusty old plough on the verge - hang on, what's that on top of it - Twite!'. It flew before we could raise our cameras but landed again on a fence on the other side of the road for a close view and a preen to reveal the pink rump of a breeding bird.
When driving around the island, we stopped on many occasions to check fencelines for perched birds. I would estimate that about 1% of these were Corn Bunting, 1% were Twite, 1% were Stonechat, 30% were Meadow Pipits, and 67% were the chunky metal clamps used by the islanders to tension barbed wire fences. These became known as 'Clampfinch', a byword for false alarms. As the trip progressed, we also spotted the closely related Clampchat, Clamp Pipit and the much rarer Clamp Bunting (which was more inclined to perch on telegraph wires than fencelines).
Corn Bunting at Balranald
Meadow Pipit
Stonechat, stubbornly refusing to sit on a fence
Clampfinch - as you can see, easily confused with a distant Twite. This one even has a pink rump patch

Thursday 2 June 2016

Drive-by shootings

My last visit to North Uist was memorable for the exceptional views of breeding waders, the best of which can generally be obtained by driving slowly around suitable habitat (which is most of it) with the windows down. All of the following (with the exception of the Sanderling) were taken this way, with Bradders (aka Parker) doing the honours as chauffeur in that finest of wildlife safari vehicles, a clapped out Astra with a dodgy clutch, which made every gear change sound like a Corncrake with tonsillitis.
Redshank in breeding plumage

Common Snipe
Common Snipe
Common Snipe among the rocks and Cotton Grass of Balranald
Ringed Plover
Lapwing in the lengthening shadows
Red-necked Phalarope (female) - a rare breeding bird in Britain at the southernmost edge of its range - photographed from a respectful distance from the car with the aid of teleconverters
A male Red-necked Phalarope - duller than the female, who lays the eggs and leaves him to bring up the youngsters
Red-necked Phalarope (male)
Red-necked Phalarope (female) - we thought we had travelled a long way to get to the Western Isles, but satellite tagging has revealed that a breeding bird of this species from Shetland migrated across the Atlantic, south down the eastern seaboard of the US, across the Caribbean and Mexico, wintering in the Pacific off the coast of Peru. And all without the aid of an Astra.
Sanderling in summer plumage

Wednesday 1 June 2016

A Hebridean adventure

A partially-baked plan for a family holiday on North Uist this half-term sort of fell apart when competing demands for a camping trip at nearby Burnbake emerged a few months ago. Fortunately, as we've established over the years, I am generally regarded as surplus to requirements on family camping trips these days on account of my irrational dislike of sleep deprivation, insect bites and punctured airbeds. I was therefore delighted when my wife informed me that I could go and get lost on the Outer Hebrides on my own for a few days. At least I think that's what she said.
Black-billed Cuckoo - the red eye-ring indicates this is an adult bird
My desire to go was strong, but my plans to do so remained, as ever, slightly half-baked. The arrival of a Black-billed Cuckoo on North Uist last Monday, a rare vagrant from the Americas, helped solidify them, however, as, first it gave me the extra incentive to get my act together and, second, a couple of birding friends were keen to make the long pilgrimage north to see it. Some compromise was required as, while I was planning to go for four days to photograph the breeding birds on the Outer Hebs, my potential travelling companions didn't have the same flexibility and could only make the long weekend. Ultimately I concluded that the opportunity to share the company of friends, not to mention the driving, and the costs of the journey, was worth sacrificing the additional day on the islands.
The best flight shot I was able to get of this mobile bird
Having made the commitment to travel together, plans came together remarkably smoothly, with accommodation, hire car, and ferry times all sussed out by the impeccably organised David Bradnum. All I had to do was pack a bag, sort out car insurance so we could share the driving as far as Uig, and detour via Surrey to pick up Paul Welling, before meeting Dave in Stafford. With his car ditched in a suburban side-street, we rotated the driving through the night to take advantage of the empty roads, arriving in Uig in good time to make the 1400 ferry.
The buffy throat can be seen here
We had already seen Golden Eagle and White-tailed Eagle before leaving Uig, and Black Guillemot, Puffin, Great Skua and Harbour Porpoise were added to the trip list on the crossing to Lochmaddy. Remembering that the last time I had teamed up with Paul we had dipped on the closely related Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Cornwall, I wasn't wholly convinced that the Black-billed Cuckoo would still be present. So I kept telling myself that I was going for a few days premeditated birding and photography with the Hebridean specialities, not for the mega-rarity. By the time we disembarked at around 1600, I had almost convinced myself!
My first view of the Cuckoo was obscured, but showed the striking tail pattern very clearly
Disembarking and collecting the hire car we headed straight for Bayhead, hoping to see the Cuckoo quickly to take the pressure off and be able to enjoy the islands at leisure. After a bit of aimless wandering about, the Cuckoo was rediscovered by one of the 50 or so twitchers who had come across on the ferry, and after a breathless scamper enabling us to catch up with it, we enjoyed extended views as it perched up in bushes, on wires and on fence-posts around the local gardens.
The silky white underparts made the Cuckoo easy to pick up from distance
Most islanders seemed to embrace the influx of visitors who had come to see the Cuckoo, and the ferry crew said it had been a welcome boost to the local economy. We chatted to several residents who seemed quite amused by the whole thing, one of whom was casually mowing a lawn from which a Corncrake was calling (judging by the rasping calls before and after, it survived the ordeal just fine!). Others invited birders into their gardens to get better views of the Cuckoo, bearing out my own experience on my last visit.
The more familiar Common Cuckoo seemed abundant on North Uist - no doubt due to the large numbers of breeding Meadow Pipit in whose nests they lay their eggs
There have been only fourteen previous records of Black-billed Cuckoo in Britain, all of which have occurred in the period August-October, and most of them were found dead or dying on arrival. So it was a truly exceptional experience to see a spring adult thriving, apparently thanks to the abundance of caterpillars it was finding in the gardens of Bayhead. A special start to our stay on North Uist, and with the rarest island resident seen on our first afternoon, we could look forward to a few more days birding the rest of the island chain. More on that in my next post.
And the third Cuckoo of the day - Cuckooflower, adorned by a nectaring Green-veined White