Monday 30 April 2018

Bony's back

Bonaparte's Gull, named for the Emperor's nephew rather than the great man himself, is an American species which, until 2015, had been a very rare visitor to Dorset. A long-staying bird in Weymouth that year started a run of records which has seen at least one occur in the county every year since.
Bonaparte's Gull, Longham Lakes on 15 April
Note partial Ashy-grey hood, dark bill and pink legs
A shade smaller than the local Black-headed Gulls
The bird came in really close to feed on some bait thrown out by a fisherman
Dip-feeding and pattering on the surface, reminiscent of a Storm Petrel
The Bonaparte's (bottom right) was getting some hassle from Black-headed Gulls but held its own in the melee
Last year I managed to catch up with a first summer Bonaparte's Gull at Longham Lakes, and what is presumed to be the same bird reappeared there earlier in 2018. When first relocated in March just a few flecks of dark feathering could be seen on the head as it moulted into second summer plumage. I first hooked up with it a few weekends ago when these flecks had developed into a mottled, ashy grey hood. This had developed further still by the time I last saw it on 22 April. Quite amazing to study the photographic records which show that particular plumage feature advancing on a daily basis.
Bonaparte's Gull, Longham Lakes on 22 April
A little more distant on this occasion - but still very smart
A view of the upperwing...
...and the paler underwing (compared to Black-headed Gull)
Compare the key features in this shot with....
The more familiar Black-headed Gull
As if often the case, Longham Lakes had a good supporting cast for the Bonaparte's Gull - a smart drake Scaup was present on one of my visits, Great Crested Grebes were in their breeding finery and the first Reed Warblers of the spring gave themselves away with their scratchy song in the reedbeds.
Drake Scaup with Tufted Duck
Great Crested Grebes
Great Crested Grebe
Reed Warbler
Reed Warbler
Reed Warbler
Bonaparte's Gull

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Beauty in Brittany

Before our recent family holiday in Brittany I had high hopes that we might see some different butterflies and moths on the continent compared to the species we are familiar with at home in Dorset. Although I took a portable moth trap, we found ourselves a bit too closely packed into the campsite to use it without it being considered anti-social behaviour by the neighbours! So it became more a case of waiting for the sun to come out and seeing what we could see.
Camberwell Beauty
A very obliging individual
The more subtle but equally beautiful underside of the Camberwell Beauty
When it eventually warmed up, we were in the middle of Le Parc naturel régional de Brière, the second largest area of marshland in France after the Camargue (technically in the Pays de la Loire Region, so you will have to forgive the poetic licence in the title of this post). Reminiscent of the Avalon Marshes in Somerset, this too is a vast former peat digging and reed harvesting area now restored and protected as a wetland paradise for its natural interest.
Male Marsh Harrier - one of over a dozen in the air at the same time
Two of the largest birds of the region gave only the most distant of views - this Sacred Ibis was at Pont de Paille. A non-native species which established having escaped from a zoo, the population is now being controlled to reduce predation in local heronries
I had read that White Storks bred on the pylons in the Briere - this one was about 2 miles away!
At about noon we had climbed the steps of a tower hide at a fantastic looking reserve called the Pierre Constant Site. There were reedbeds and Marsh Harriers as far as the eye can see, and I could hear Bluethroats and Savi's Warbler singing in the reedbeds ahead of us. But for reasons we couldn't quite fathom, the rest of the reserve was closed to visitors until 1 July. I later read that public spending cuts had something to do with it, a shame as we would willingly have paid good money to get onto the rest of the reserve.
Blue-headed Wagtail was another highlight at Pont de Paille
This continental race of Yellow Wagtail occasionally appears in the UK
White Wagtail in the salt pans at Geurande
To add to the frustration, I could see the unmistakable white petticoat of a Camberwell Beauty around a flowering bush in the distance which I assumed would also be out of bounds. In retracing our steps, however, we found that a canal towpath took us to that very bush, which was being frequented not by one but by two Camberwell Beauties, sparring with a couple of much smaller Peacocks. An undoubted highlight of the trip, and the first I had seen since a migrant at Pulborough Brooks in Sussex over a decade ago.
My third Camberwell Beauty of the month was sighted on a South London wall this week during a business trip.

Thursday 19 April 2018

On the beaches of Brittany

By the mid-point of our recent family holiday to Brittany my attempts at wildlife photography had been confounded by the weather. Not only did the low light present a challenge, but the cool conditions had been holding back the spring migration of birds and the early emergence of butterflies which I had hoped would be well underway by mid-April. So when the sun put his hat on for a few hours we were tempted to head down to the beach at Suscinio, at the eastern end of the Golf du Morbihan.
Male Kentish Plover, Suscinio
The male's plumage matched the colours of the beach pebbles superbly
 A very attractive wader

I had walked a good 20 minutes from the car looking for the Bluethroats which breed there when the rain came down, catching me without a raincoat. It was probably the nadir of the trip and I shuffled back along the beach having seen no Bluethroats cursing my luck. I trudged past some small areas at the back of the beach which had been cordoned off for breeding Kentish Plovers, thinking how woefully inadequate they looked on a beach which appeared popular with dog-walkers and sun-worshippers.
A front view of the male's head pattern
The female Kentish Plover lacks the male's striking head pattern...
...making for excellent camouflage in the context of the beach as this wide-angle view shows

Then a peep just ahead of me alerted me to the presence of a pair of Kentish Plover - one of the birds I had most hoped to see on the beaches of Brittany. I had to walk past them to get back to the car so headed down to the water's edge to avoid any potential nest site and made my way carefully past. The pair posed beautifully for a few photographs as I skirted their adopted patch of beach.
White-spotted Bluethroat, Suscinio
A distinctive song from a distinctive bird
Now that's just showing off
The close encounter with the Plovers had put sufficient spring in my step to have another look for a Bluethroat - this time I was more successful, as a male belted out his song across the marsh behind the beach from a prominent perch. The rain had stopped by now and other birds decided to show themselves - first a Fan-tailed Warbler, the archetypal little brown job, and then a Black-winged Stilt, a proper newspaper of a bird with its red, black and white plumage.
A typical view of the skulky Fan-tailed Warbler, though one would occasionally burst into the air in song flight...
...and a couple of times sat out in the open
Fan-tailed Warbler
The weather and my mood had improved substantially by this point so I returned to my ever-patient family. As we left we were serenaded by a deafening frog chorus, but couldn't see a single one of the choristers! I can highly recommend Suscinio if your are in the area - a fairy tale Chateau provides a stunning backdrop to the wildlife-rich marshland behind the sweeping bay, and if you are short of time and energy, you don't have to go far from the car park to enjoy it all.
Black-winged Stilt, Suscinio
A presumed male, judging by the extent of black on the head...
...and a presumed female flying over the car park

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