Thursday 14 June 2018

A pinch of saltmarsh

My sons are both 'Kentish Men', born in the Garden of England west of the Medway, but since we left the county in 2007, visits back there have been a bit few and far between. The recent birthday of a former neighbour provided one such opportunity, and Sunday morning offered a chance to reacquaint myself with an old favourite, the Elmley Marshes Natural Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey.
A breeding plumage Yellow Wagtail always brightens the day 

Yellow Wagtails are very leggy enabling them to stalk through the long grass of the grazing marsh
This unusually bold bird was strutting up the entrance track calling constantly
A wider angle view perched on thistle
Although it was a brief encounter, after my last few visits when breeding birds seemed a bit thin on the ground, it felt a bit like the 'old days' at the turn of the century when I first started going there: breeding waders like Lapwing and Redshank appeared to be doing well, as were the ground-nesting passerines - Yellow Wagtail, Corn Bunting, Meadow Pipit and Skylark.
Wonderful close-up views of Redshank from the car window
Juvenile Redshank
Marsh Harriers were very much in evidence...
...much to the chagrin of the breeding Lapwings
All the photographs in this post were taken using the car as a hide on the 2 mile entrance track to the reserve centre. Since the reserve management reverted from the RSPB to the private owner a few years ago, the area around the farm complex has undergone some reconfiguration, with more provision for paying guests and conversion of farm buildings. But if that's helping to pay for the conservation work, I'm certainly not complaining.
This adult male Lapwing was sporting a spectacular crest
Increased Lapwing chick productivity is one of the key management aims on the reserve: here's one they prepared earlier
Stunning iridescence on this roosting bird
My car's reflection can be seen in the eye of this Lapwing photographed at close range
I rediscovered an interest in the natural world relatively late in life, and it was a visit to Elmley back in the late 1990s which re-ignited a childhood fascination with birds which had been dormant while I was studying and working in London in my 20s. One of my earliest memories of the reserve was a Corn Bunting singing from a trackside bush - so I was touched to see another singing from the same bush on Sunday. The children haven't yet learned to share my pleasure at being on the grazing marshes and saltmarshes of Sheppey. Thankfully, for as long as good conservation management continues, there is still time.
Meadow Pipit
A flock of Stock Dove was nice to see
Corn Bunting

Monday 4 June 2018

Tails and the unexpected

Swallowtail butterflies were the main target of my recent Bank Holiday weekend in the fens and I was not to be disappointed, seeing them shortly after my arrival at one of the most well-known and accessible sites for this species, Strumpshaw Fen near Norwich. I arrived mid-afternoon to find unexpected traffic chaos caused by a fair at the nearby Steam Museum, swelling the ranks of the Swallowtail admirers who head there at this time of year. The famous 'Doctor's garden', whose planted beds are a favourite haunt of the butterfly, was out of bounds but, having seen them on the somewhat gaudy flowers there some years ago, I was in any case hoping to see them in a more natural setting.
Swallowtail, Strumpshaw Fen
A wider angle showing more of the nectar source
A portrait crop which I quite like
After a short wait near the garden, a Swallowtail arrived, turned its nose up at more exotic plants, floated over the mown lawn and headed for an unkempt patch full of Red Campion. I enjoyed extended views as it sought nectar from almost every flower, some of which were close to the path. Due to the long grass it was difficult to get a clear photograph but with patience, and high ISO ratings in the gathering gloom of late afternoon, I was able to take a few opportunities to capture the butterfly in this habitat.
Swallowtail, Hickling Broad
Nectaring on Yellow Flag Iris, abundant around the Broad
A different individual, judging by the nick in the right forewing
I returned early the following morning to look for butterflies and dragonflies but, having found both in short supply, on the advice of a local butterfly enthusiast I headed a little further east to Hickling Broad, which had the added advantage of avoiding more steam fair related chaos arising from the ongoing festivities at Strumpshaw!
This pair appeared to be engaged in some form of courtship, with some elaborate parallel flying manoeuvres
Swallowtail must be one of the few butterflies large enough to photograph in flight distantly over a reedbed!
A close-up of the exquisite hindwing pattern and tails
This turned out to be good advice, as good numbers of Swallowtail were visiting a recently cut patch of reedbed in which Yellow Flag Iris were flourishing. Getting a clear photograph through vegetation was, again, difficult, but there was an uncluttered view of several flowers from a conveniently placed bench, so I made myself comfortable and waited. Eventually Swallowtails obliged by nectaring at the nearest flowers and then it was just a question of hoping that my chosen camera settings could capture the action of these restless, hyper-active insects.
The long tongue can be seen here searching for nectar
The mating pair - note the tails of the lower individual poking through the closed wings of the one above
Not something you see every day: Swallowtail threesome!
Sitting in the same spot for so long enabled me to become intimately familiar with the surrounding habitat, and eventually I noticed a pair of Swallowtail apparently mating low down in the reedbed. They were repeatedly bothered by a third individual, which seemed determined to get in on the action! The pair stayed bonded for at least half-an-hour before the indiscreet third party finally seemed to have ruined the moment for them, and they went their separate ways. Hopefully not before the seeds of the next generation were sown!
Hickling and Strumpshaw were also excellent for dragonflies - this a male Broad-bodied Chaser at Strumpshaw...
...a female Black-tailed Skimmer at Hickling...
...a Hairy Dragonfly at Strumpshaw...
...and, best of all, a Norfolk Hawker at Hickling
My view of this green-eyed monster was very restricted but made for a nice soft focus edge to this image 

Sunday 3 June 2018

Banished to the fens

Another family camping trip over the Whitsun Bank Holiday weekend saw me, again, surplus to requirements, opening up the possibility of a few days away at a destination of my choice. I have not seen Swallowtail butterflies in some time or photographed them since investing in some decent camera gear, so heading for the Broads and Fens of Norfolk seemed like an attractive option.
Avocet, Frampton Marsh
The reserve holds a healthy breeding population
Avocet feeding on the muddy scrapes
Not too difficult to photograph in flight due to its highly contrasting plumage making it easier for autofocus to lock on

Checking the forecast before departure, my first morning away didn't look like great butterfly weather so I started my road trip with an early start at Frampton Marsh, over the border and the from Norfolk in the Lincolnshire section of the Wash. A group of Ruff had been lekking on the reserve viewable from the car park and having only seen this spectacle once before the opportunity to do so again was not to be missed.
 A few Avocet chicks had hatched at Frampton Marsh
Lapwing chicks were also on the reserve
The adult Lapwing was nearby
A Little Stint was another wader of note on the reserve
As a Schedule 1 breeding bird, Ruffs can't be photographed at or near the nest without a licence, but as these birds were viewable from a safe distance the RSPB has been encouraging visitors to the reserve to enjoy the spectacle. On arrival I parked near the reserve centre and walked to the old car park near the sea wall from where the lek could be viewed. Avocet chicks had recently hatched in the scrapes by the roadside and the adults were alert to danger, calling loudly and mobbing any passing traffic on the road.
Two of the three males present in the Ruff lek
The female can be seen skulking on the water's edge - looking a bit disinterested here
The male Ruff's headgear looks very Elizabethan
This male appeared to be bowing to the female
The battles between males were brief but fierce
Much has been written in natural history literature about the sexually charged nature of the Ruff lek but for an unconventional take on it, check out this Guardian article about 'Ruff Sex'. I would have borrowed 'Let's talk about leks, baby' from this piece as the title for this post but for the intellectual copyright theft it would have represented.
A distant Glossy Ibis was at Frampton Marsh
Several Little Gull were feeding over the water
Swift feeding over the neighbouring farmland
Tree Sparrows were around the nearby farm buildings
Spring was certainly in full swing at Frampton, and with so many farmland birds seemingly in trouble and numbers of migrants apparently down, it was a tonic to see Tree Sparrows and good numbers of singing Sedge Warblers alongside the breeding waders. Unfortunately I could not locate the Turtle Doves which were present on my last visit to the reserve but I was reassured that one of their favourite 'purring' trees had blown down in winter storms and that they were still in the wider area.
Sedge Warbler
An energetic singer
Sedge Warbler