Sunday 5 January 2020

Black magic

An engagement with the family at the Warner Bros studios near Watford for the 'Making of Harry Potter' tour - a birthday present for my youngest son - saw us heading in the general direction of Watford this weekend to pay homage to J K Rowling's bumfluff-chinned occultist and his pagan pals. A birder's instinct is 'always on' they say, so I was pleased to see my first animatronic Phoenix and several Snowy Owls. I'm not sure whether Buckbeak, being half-bird, half-horse, is tickable, but I suspect it's included on the UK400 Club version of the British list.
Dumbledore's Phoenix, Fawkes
Potter's Snowy Owl, Hedwig
Hagrid's bird-horse, Buckbeak - tickable under UK400 Club rules
The trip had the added advantage of putting me within reach of Whipsnade Zoo, where a long-staying Black-throated Thrush has been delighting visiting birders and photographers for the last few weeks. Knowing that we would be heading that way at the end of the holiday period, and being the cost- and carbon-conscious type, I couldn't justify the trip up from Dorset to see this bird previously but as we were in the area anyway, it seemed almost rude not to.
Black-throated Thrush
Black-throated Thrush
Black-throated Thrush
Now before anyone accuses me of manipulating a Harry Potter-themed family excursion just to put me within striking distance of a rare bird - as if I would do such a thing - I should point out that the Warner Bros tickets had been procured some months prior to the actual studio visit, and long before the Black-throated Thrush appeared.
On the fence of the pig enclosure
Black-throated Thrush
Black-throated Thrush
On arrival at the Zoo I followed a few birders who looked like they knew where to go and after a short walk found myself by the pig pen which I recognised from several photos of the bird which had been posted online. If it returned to this spot, views would be excellent. Many other online images had depicted the Thrush feeding in a heavily-laden Cotoneaster. There was one next to the pig pen but I figured it couldn't be this one as it was right next to the path and surely too prone to disturbance, so assumed it must be somewhere else in the Zoo.
Black-throated Thrush
Damaged primaries on the right wing might explain this bird's long stay
Black-throated Thrush
If it was this Cotoneaster which the Thrush was feeding in, views would have been ridiculous. But within minutes, it appeared in the very same tree and gave, well, ridiculous views. Even when the crowds built up and prams, scooters and excitable toddlers were running around the base of the trunk, it continued to feed periodically out in the open. I had seen just one of this species before - in South Wales 2006 - but only distantly through a telescope, so it was a bonus to get such exceptional views as well as an 'English' tick.
The Thrush roosted in this tree between bouts of feeding
Black-throated Thrush
Plenty of Cotoneaster berries to keep it well fed
As for the speccy sorcerer tour, it was actually pretty good. It's where they made the movies and a lot of the original sets and props are on show, so it's more of a movie history tour, and not the theme park of my worst fears. Yes the queueing was a pain and the whole over-priced food/merch thing was a bit much, but thankfully the children are now old enough to be capable of leaving such places without pestering us into shelling out thirty quid each for a plastic wand. This also meant I could afford the Whipsnade entry fee (with 10% discount for booking online, if you're thinking of going).
A single Redwing kept company with the Black-throated Thrush
Normally a shy species, it was a bonus to see this one so well
Redwing feeding on Cotoneaster
So a good double-attraction day with something for all the family. It's been a while since I enjoyed point blank views of a photogenic top rarity, and with only a handful of birders present, and plenty of opportunities to point out the Thrush and explain the mysteries of migration to passers-by, it was a satisfying experience all round.
The Dursleys from the Harry Potter films. But fans of Withnail and I will know what I mean when I say I can't see this guy without thinking 'Monty, you terrible ****'!

Wednesday 1 January 2020

2019: hit me with your best shots

In my final post looking back at 2019, below are some of my favourite images taken over the course of the year, many of them 'previously unpublished,' in this space at least:
During our Easter week in Speyside, I observed the code of conduct which discourages searching for Capercaillie in the early morning when lekking birds are prone to disturbance. Karma repaid me when this female walked across the road near Feshiebridge at 1030 in the morning. I pulled across the road and took this photo from the car window
Having successfully photographed Mountain Hares on the lower slopes of Cairngorm at Easter, we continued up into the Coires to scan for Ptarmigan. This male flew in close to our vantage point and gave its distinctive call - a 'hold your breath' moment for George and I
A female Ptarmigan was close to the path on the way back down from Cairngorm
This male Red Grouse was also photographed at Easter from the car along the road to Lochindorb
I knew it would be too early for Dotterel to be back on the high tops when we visited Scotland at Easter so took the opportunity to see two migrating birds closer to home at Cheesefoot Head in neighbouring Hampshire 
Difficult to beat a male Wheatear in spring on a Scottish moor!
I like the movement in the wings of one of the Durlston Bee-eaters taken in May
A singing Garden Warbler posed nicely at Blashford Lakes in May
Also at Blashford the Little Ringed Plovers were doing their thing
I spent a happy hour finding and then trying to point out to other visitors, including the BBC's environment correspondent Justin Rowlatt, this roosting Nightjar from the Lake Hide on Brownsea
The shimmering song of Wood Warblers provided the soundtrack to a lovely out of county day out to Hodder's Combe in Somerset in May

This Elephant Hawkmoth visited my garden trap in June
A Brindled Beauty from the trap at our holiday cottage near Loch Insh in April
Just one entry in this post from our Mallorcan summer holiday: Crag Martin near the Albercutx tower
Back in Dorset, August also produced more Wheatear photo opportunities - this one was at St Aldhelm's Head
Great White Egret has become much commoner in Dorset in recent years - this one was at Lodmoor in September
One of my favourite shots (among hundreds!) of the Portland Lap Bunting in September
This one of the long-staying American Black Tern at Longham came out quite well
This image of a Song Thrush on a gravestone in Old Town churchyard on St Mary's captures something of Scilly in autumn for me
An unusually showy Spotted Crake was another photographic highlight of Scilly in October
Long-tailed Duck is a favourite species - this female gave close views at Oxey Marsh in Hampshire
An even more stunning drake Long-tailed Duck returned to Barrow Gurney reservoir for the winter
Not sure whether I prefer the light or dark background with this bird - so have included both!
And to end this post, this Kestrel posed beautifully for Steve Smith and I as we waited for more views of tbe Brown Booby in St Ives. Happy New Year and thanks for reading!

2019: also good for...

After a few posts celebrating the birding highlights of 2019 it's important to say my eyes remained open to non-avian subjects too. The search for exotic butterflies, dragonflies and reptiles normally has to wait until the spring but a period of unseasonably warm weather in February made 2019 slightly different. Reports of multiple Large Tortoiseshell butterflies on Portland saw me head down there to see my first. Subsequently some doubt has been cast on their provenance, but the one I saw in Tout Quarry was still spectacular. The warm weather early in the year also brought the local Adder population out of hibernation and afforded the rare opportunity to witness the 'dance' of rival males.
Male Adders at Swineham
The first time I had witnessed this behaviour
The Adder dance was an impressive spectacle
A Grass Snake kept company with the Adders
Large Tortoiseshell, Tout Quarry, Portland, 27th February
A Hummingbird Hawkmoth also enjoyed the warmth of Tout Quarry at the end of February
I still have a handful of British dragonflies and damselflies left to see in Britain so made the effort in the summer to see one of the more spectacular, Brilliant Emerald, at one of its known sites in neighbouring Hampshire. This proved tougher than expected, with one individual showing briefly early morning before being seemingly displaced by the similar but more numerous Downy Emerald. My only other dragonfly 'tick' of 2019 came in the form of a female Vagrant Emperor, which I jammed in on Portland thanks to a kindly gent who stood watch over its roost site in the long grass next to the Obs quarry.
Brilliant Emerald in Hampshire
The green brilliance of the Brilliant Emerald became obvious in profile...
…compare with the darker-bodied Downy Emerald
A few years ago, Red-veined Darter would have been a major rarity in Dorset - it's now commonplace at Longham Lakes
Similarly, Southern Migrant Hawker was first recorded in Dorset last year but bred this year in Poole Harbour
Female Vagrant Emperor on Portland, 27th October
A few new moths visited by garden trap in Wareham, my favourite being the common but still stunning Burnished Brass. But the most impressive new moths of 2019 were both day fliers and required me to travel a little further afield. Not too far in the case of my first Broad-bordered Bee Hawkmoth which graced the pollinator garden at nearby RSPB Arne, but to the other end of the kingdom for my most spectacular moth of 2019: the Kentish Glory which I saw whilst on a family holiday in Speyside at Easter. The assistance of my excellent ex-colleague Tom Prescott was essential in this regard. Several other successful twilight trips were completed with James Lowen as part of his 'moth year', the book of which is now awaited with great anticipation.
Kentish Glory at Granish
This is a male
It never landed so I had to 'spray and pray' for sharp flight shots
A spectacular moth
Dingy Mocha was one of the highlights of a mass trapping session in Wareham Forest with James Lowen, Phil Saunders and the folks at Footprint Ecology
Burnished Brass graced the trap in my Wareham garden
A very dark Broad-bordered Bee Hawkmoth at Arne
Whilst in Speyside I also had high hopes of photographing Mountain Hare. Sadly the first one I saw was dead on the road - still warm from a recent hit and run. Happily, the ones son George and I watched bounding up the slopes of Cairngorm on an early morning trek a few days later were very much alive - the undoubted mammal highlight of 2019.
This Mountain Hare met a sad end on the road to Speyside
Mountain Hare, Cairngorm
A careful approach was needed to avoid them bolting up the steep incline
A wonderful habitat in which to see these animals
We made sure we were first up the mountain on the morning I took these pictures
Another first - George came with me up Cairngorm!
Adders at Swineham