Blitzing spiders and stringing butterflies

A weekend of wildlife began with a sunset.

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Heronry Pond, Wanstead Park (having been re-filled)

A crowd of people waited in the warmth (we are about to break June temperature records again in London with five consecutive days when the mercury has topped out over 30 degrees centigrade) and watched dark shapes scythe through the sky.

We had come to watch bats, but in the light cloudless skies of the evening, it was a huge flock of swifts at first that cut through smoke-like murmurations of midges rising up from the trees like Ashphodel souls.

The bats did come out later, also appearing silently from the trees, and were silhouetted against the sky or water like the bat-sign from comic legend. Silent, that is, apart from the fact that several of us were armed with bat detectors. Common Pipistrelle were picked out from their tiny shapes in the sky, but also from the fast-paced pricking at frequencies well out of range of human hearing. Also too high to hear unaided, but positively bass-like compared with their tiny cousins, were the abstract beats of the beefy Noctule bats punching and pulsing out of the speakers in a way that would have many hip-hop artists drooling with envy.

Friday night ended, not with multiple gin and tonics, as is my normal wont, but with the strangely hospital-like glare of moth traps drawing some moths, but tens of thousands of midges and other tiny flying creatures of the night.

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Moth (and midge!) trapping

All of this activity was for our local conservation group’s annual bio-blitz weekend. Check us out here: Wren Group.

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The wonderful, knowledgeable Tricia Moxley teaching us about introduced and wild plants

I started Saturday leading several of my neighbours (people I know and people I didn’t) on a walk around our local wood. I talked a lot about trees, but the highlights were the butterflies including a year-first Ringlet and a location (but not full patch) first with a Purple Hairstreak (a species that would get me in trouble the following day).

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Ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus)


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A temporarily trapped Purple Hairstreak (Neozephyrus quercus) and a rather disinterested baby

Overall, it was a reasonable weekend for butterflies. I counted thirteen species in total (a little way off my record patch day total of 16 from last July).

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Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus)


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Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)*

The number ’13’ is unlucky for some. Unlucky ever since that 13th disciple betrayed Christ for some silver. Well, I too felt mildly betrayed, or was it simply embarrassed, soon after I saw another hairstreak on the ground near some elm trees whilst I was trailing behind one of Tricia’s walks. Elms, as in the favoured tree of the White-letter Hairstreak

I peered down at the little lepid and started breathing a little faster when no large orange eye peered back at me from the hindwing. The hindwing was a little crumpled, not only obscuring the eye, but also rippling the hairstreak into a ‘W’ shape. The newly emerged butterfly was promptly, but gently scooped, into an inspection pot and whisked off to be held aloft triumphantly in front of the wondering eyes of my fellow Wren members. But, on closer inspection, it was, of course, simply another Purple Hairstreak despite my earlier innocent efforts to ‘string’ it into something more exciting.

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Purple Hairstreak again with the offending unfurling hindwings

So we may not have scored any super rare butterflies, but the far less excitable (than me), and far more expert, arachnologist, David Carr did find some great spiders.

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The maestro at work, David Carr

We believe that one of his finds of the weekend was the 19th specimen ever found in the UK, of Philodromus buxi:

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Philodromus buxi


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David and Araneus triguttatus

Across all the activities, we had about 300 participants. An opportunity for many people to find out a little more about the wildlife on our doorstep.

*All photos on here were taken with the iPhone 7. I really am very impressed with the quality of the camera on it.

Peak District: the barren hills

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River Ashop, Peak District, Derbyshire

The Peak District contains some of the most dramatic scenery in England, and is a great place for walking. It is beautiful, historic, and interesting, but also bleak, damaged, and perplexing.

The famous Gritstone rock formations were like natural staging posts and diversions on our walks up in the hills.

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Sometimes the layers – that would have been formed hundreds of millions of years ago from depositions of sand under the sea – were visible.

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And sometimes it was hard not to anthropomorphise the escarpments overlooking the plains down below the Kinder Scout plateau.

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The bleakness of the moors is famous and loved by many. I can certainly appreciate a beauty in the desolation of the moors, hills, and plateaus, but there is also something that leaves me uneasy.

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That unease stems from the knowledge I have that these areas should not look like this. This is not a natural wilderness, but – like so much of British uplands – a scraped, denuded desert shaped by the hand of man and the teeth of sheep.

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George Monbiot describes the ‘white plague’ and the ‘sheepwrecked‘ landscapes that have been stripped of so much that is ‘natural’.

It would be unfair to ignore the fact that some wildlife seems to thrive in these landscapes. Everywhere we went the squeaks and songs of Meadow Pipit followed us, and Skylark seemed to punctuate the bleakness, singing and looking down upon the land we have stripped almost bare for them.

Of course, the careful management of the land is deliberate to encourage one species in particular to flourish: Red Grouse. I didn’t have my camera with me, but even with an iPhone and some binoculars, I was able to pick the odd head out of the heather.

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Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus)

Occasionally, a parent would be separated from a chick, and the stripey young birds would scuttle across the paths in front of us.

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Red Grouse chick

And, of course, when land is maintained (burned and stripped) for one species, others sometimes benefit as well. Curlew were sometimes seen suspended in the wind or passing over our heads in small herds (yes, that is the correct collective noun), but more often they would announce their invisible presence with their mournful cries. At one point two almost sea-bird-like shapes appeared above our heads and seemed to hover over and watch us. Before I put my my bins to my face to identify them, they gave the game away with not just a call, but a song: weirdly my first Golden Plover for the year. I later watched one drop down in the grass so I took a record shot with my phone up against my bins:

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European Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria)

Despite trying to make a case against the wildlife desolation, I was also lucky enough to see a pair of Ring Ouzel and Whinchat. Whenever there was a tree – rare but present in gorges and river valleys – there were Willow Warbler singing – far more common up there than the also-present Chiffchaff and Blackcap.

Despite wheezing my office-air-con fuelled lungs, hungover, up hills, I also turned my eye to other non-avian fauna. Not exactly spectacular from the lepid-pespective, but a year tick for me was Green Hairstreak – a butterfly I expect to see many of shortly on my local Patch, but haven’t yet.

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Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

I was also quite pleased with this rather uniquely marked Two-banded Longhorn Beetle (I have looked through tens of pics of this species and can’t find any that look quite like this):

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Two-banded Longhorn Beetle (Rhagium bifasciatum)

So… not dreadful, but still a pretty small number of species given the expanse of wilderness. I tried to cast my mind back before memory to what these hills would have looked like just a few hundred years ago. Fully wooded and just full of life. Life that is now not just gone, but beyond gone, before memory so treated as an irrelevance or a non-existence by the powers that be.

My perspective became ‘resolve’ and hardened when I saw this sign.

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Let’s just read that first paragraph again:

This apparently simple landscape has been shaped by people over hundreds of years. Forest clearance, farming and grouse shooting have all had a lasting impact.

You don’t say! Perhaps those words washed over you as neutral or benign, but just imagine flying to Brazil to visit the Amazon Rainforest and when you get there, there are just burnt and empty fields or pasture land for cows and there was sign saying “forest clearance, farming and wild animal shooting have all had a lasting impact”! Yes they ‘effing well have. We have wrecked our wooded island like a larger scale version of Easter Islanders who wiped out first their trees and, then, themselves.

It appears that some authorities are aware of the problem. We walked past a field of plastic posts. My friend remarked it was probably a commercial plantation, but when I peered into the tubes I was heartened to see a mix of species: English Oak, Birch, even Rowan had been planted and protected from the ever-hungry mouths of the white plague.

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Rowan. I thought back to the ancient stooping tree over the trout-filled stream that we walked by in some inaccessible corner. I thought back further. I thought back into the depths of imagination when dots of Rowan would have appeared in the newly ice-cleared land dominated by the pines, oak, and birches.

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An old Rowan or Mountain Ash (Sorbus aucuparia)

The rowan with their many leaves and colourful berries bringing something different to our newly re-forested land. Our land that soon after became an island (when dogger disappeared under the waves), and then… just a few thousand years later (blink of an eye in geological terms) has been stripped and scoured and scorched to the bleak and barren hills we now know that overlook our equally barren agricultural lowlands.

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Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

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Walking through planted pine woodland

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Well established pine and fir plantation

And so, during my walks in the Peaks, I reflected on the wild, the re-wild, the desolate hills, the life wiped out that is never to come back, and occasionally also the human life forgotten and lost in these hills, like the villagers of Derwent whose homes were ‘drowned’ in the name of progress (Ladybower Reservoir) with only the odd sign left telling of their presence.

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Looking down to Ladybower

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Gateposts from a now destroyed and drowned house in Derwent

If you would like to read more about re-wilding, I can heartily, and strongly, recommend George Monbiot’s magnum opus, Feral, which I see as a manifesto for the wild we so desperately need to let back into our hearts, our lives, and our environment.

 

Norfolk Broads and the Common Crane

Sometimes it is good to be out in the wild but not birding. I actually have two weekends of that in a row. This weekend just gone saw five old school friends and me on a boat on the Norfolk Broads (what could possibly go wrong?!) and this weekend coming I will be hill walking with two other friends in the Peak District. On both occasions, I am the only birder.

I could wax lyrical about the history of flooding and marshlands and navigation and… water and wetland generally in East Anglia, but tonight I just don’t have time. As many will know, the Norfolk Broads are flooded peat-works (excavated by the monasteries back in the Middle Ages) and joined by some of the major rivers.

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Historic wind drainage pump on the River Yare

The six of us chugged along in our hired boat doing a spot of fishing, playing various musical instruments, drinking beer, bird watching, sunbathing, drinking beer, playing poker, drinking beer and various other activities that may have also involved drinking beer.

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My pals armed with guitar, harmonica, and fishing rod and comedy captain’s cap of course

But a lot of the time we just enjoyed the expansive waterways, the expansive vegetation, and the even-more-expansive skies.

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Rookburgh St Mary Broad

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Distant rain and rainbow over the marshes

I obviously had my binoculars to hand most of the time, although trying to operate them in one hand whilst standing on a boat and drinking beer simultaneously with the other hand is not all that easy, so sometimes I lay down to do it more easily (you understand?) and was occasionally snapped naturally for a photo.

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Yours truly ready to pounce into birding action

We didn’t spot anything unusual, but by the end of the trip I made sure my friends could all identify a Cetti’s Warbler by its song. I think they struggled a little more with all the Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler, but were suitably impressed with the Hobby, Marsh Harrier, Kingfisher, and Short-eared Owl sightings. I didn’t have my camera, so no bird pics this time, just iPhone shots of landscapes and thirty-something-year-old men.

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One of the narrower waterways linking a flooded ‘broad’ with the river

One of the birds you might hope to see in this area is the Common Crane; made extinct but reintroduced to a couple of secret sites in East Anglia. However, it was only when back in London that I heard this bird was at Rainham Marshes – a huge London tick for me and many others, and a first ever site record.

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Common Crane (Grus grus)

This record shot was taken from up on the ridge of the Rainham landfill site and looking down several hundred meters on to Wennington Marsh towards the A13.

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X marks the spot

Not a bad weekend overall.

Third time lucky: Bonaparte’s Gull

Having only been to Barking Creekmouth for the first time recently, it may seem a little excessive to pay two visits in one day. In fact, it seemed a little excessive to me as well. The monotonous mile and a half walk alongside the Beckton sewage works is bearable once or twice, but four times in one day is tough going.

But such is the pull of birds. Such is the ‘twitch’. And this wasn’t just for a year or London tick, this was for a full fat life tick: Bonaparte’s Gull. But oh boy did this diminutive larid give a couple of us the run-around on Sunday!

One benefit of the walks was seeing the Roding at different stages of Thames tidal-flow; an easy comparison of just how radically different it makes the place look. This is a photo I took a couple of months ago at low tide:

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Roding at Barking Creekmouth, low tide

And this was almost the same view (slightly different angle) taken on Sunday at high tide – this had nothing to do with the flow of the Roding, which was similar on Sunday to the flow in the photo above:

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Roding at Barking Creekmouth, high tide

By the time I arrived, the finder of the American vagrant gull, Paul Hawkins, was leaving, not having seen his his bird for about fifteen minutes. This didn’t bode well.

Those of us there studied every Black-headed Gull present carefully, and twice, and then probably all over again. Luckily some of the guys I was with are truly excellent gull specialists and helped point out the first cycle Yellow-legged Gull which was a year tick for me and I would have almost certainly overlooked were it not for them.

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Poor record shot of 1st Cy Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Nick, Marco and I even drove for twenty minutes to get a view from the other side of the Roding, a mere 100 metres away as the gull flies, but with no extra luck.

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Nick and the tidal barrier where the Roding meets the Thames at low tide

After some driving around the dystopian mini-rust-belt that makes up the Barking dock area, I headed back to give my wife a lift to the airport. Fast forward a few hours and I heard the Bonaparte’s Gull was back and was soon-after joined by a young Caspian Gull (another potential year tick). Nick and I missed both by a matter of minutes. Super!

I consoled myself marginally with the sight of three very cute Shelduck chicks.

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Common Shelduck and three chicks (Tadorna tadorna)

The expert view was that our best chance of finding the main prize (only a few are seen in the UK each year) was to try down-river and on the other side of the Thames. A mere forty minute drive and twenty minute walk (please inject sarcasm if not apparent) despite being just a few flaps of wings even for a small gull.

As Nick and I marched down the south bank in the early evening light we had the extraordinary sight of over a hundred terns (we presume mostly or all Common Tern) but didn’t really have time to scan or photograph properly so you just get this iPhone shot of about thirty of them. I have certainly never seen that many tern in London before.

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The white dots are mostly Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

From one sewage works to another, Nick and I finally arrived at Crossness and scanned the Thames around the sluice mouth.

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Thames from Crossness with rain clouds to North-West. The Bonaparte’s is one of those dots

There were only a couple of dozen black heads to look at this time, and it was only a couple of minutes before I was exclaiming that “I’ve got it!” All the driving, and walking, and scanning, and sewage smells were worth it. My life first Bonaparte’s Gull and an important tick for Nick’s big London year list quest as well:

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Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

As any American readers will know very well, the Bonaparte’s Gull is the third smallest gull in the world (I had ticked off the smallest, Little Gull, just a couple of weeks earlier). It is named, not after the similarly diminutive French emperor – which was my assumption – but his exploring ornithologist nephew, Charles Lucien Bonaparte.

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Bonaparte’s at the back just about showing overall size difference and dainty bill compared with Black-headed Gull in the front (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) and different stages of moult obvs!

I was thrilled, and the walk back to the car after a long day of driving and walking, seemed like the shortest yet. I was even in a state of mind to enjoy the sunset.

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The twenty-year-old, 100m long hopper dredger, Sand Fulmar, on its way to Southampton*

*Not that I’m a secret ship-spotter you understand!

A bad case of ‘telescope eye’ and the DDDs

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Staines Reservoir, South Basin

The Staines Reservoirs are one of the best birding locations in London. The site is also a bogey location for me; something good at Staines probably won’t be there, or be visible when I arrive. Matters aren’t helped by it being about as far away from where I live as you can possibly get whilst still being in London.

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The bisecting causeway

I was drawn there today with the hope of seeing some terns. Anything other than Common Tern would be a year tick at least for me, and I thought I might have a chance with Arctic Tern or even a Black Tern. I had also heard that some rather late Black-necked Grebe were there this morning, which would also have been a year tick.

I scanned the vast expanse of water, first with my bins and then switched to ‘scope, slowly working my way around the fringes, but the only grebes were Great-crested Grebe, and the only terns were Common Tern (although both were here in large numbers).

I don’t know whether other birders have noticed, but using a spotting ‘scope for long periods of time screws you up. Having the vision of one eye vastly magnified for long periods of time, and the vision of the other eye completely restricted; closed to aid focus in the other eye. When I put the scope down, a weird asymmetrical sensation occurs.

I spent a bit of time watching Common Tern on the rafts with all the Black-Headed Gulls.

One pair were getting ‘close’ to each other if ya know what I mean…

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Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

At first, the male didn’t really look like he knew what to do and he just stood on the female’s back for about minute:

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But shortly afterwards things seemed to get … er… going.

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Whilst interesting, it was another ‘day of disappointing dipping’ for me, or ‘DDD’ as I like to call it.

Life beginning and ending in the wood

It may not match the scale of the ocean of Bluebells in Blean Woods, but our very own Chalet Wood in Wanstead Park – with a little help from our conservation group – puts on a pretty impressive show every year as well. Even now they are past their best, it is still an arresting sight. The peculiar combination of Bluebells with Beech – the ‘Mother of Forests’ is a true source of wonder – the deep blue-purple of Bluebell combined with the fresh life of new green Beech leaves just… works.

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Chalet Wood, Wanstead Park

I have been spending a bit of time recently in a wood at the other end of Wanstead Park: Reservoir Wood (so called because the large man-made lake that used to be located here in the palatial grounds of Wanstead House). And I have witnessed the hope that comes from the beginnings of wild-life. A Nuthatch – a scarcely seen bird on the patch with a bill full of invertebrates; a sure sign that it has bred successfully and that somewhere close by a nest of gaping mouths awaits.

Much later at night in the same wood I heard the squeaks of new life as well. Two young Tawny Owls squeaking constantly and the occasional contact call of the mother. Nothing seen, but recorded here in a video I took.

I also heard the loud squeaks of a very different sort a couple of days before; or more accurately the squawks of death. A female Sparrowhawk startled me with how closely it swooped past me and, before I could even focus, it had a Starling upside down in her talons. The terrible screams continued for a about a minute after the hawk had taken its unfortunate prey off into the seclusion of branch and leaf. The remaining flock of Starlings circled, alarmed and useless but unwilling to leave the scene immediately as if in hope that their comrade would return to them. But, of course, that was never going to happen. The woodland brought life and death, and… maybe life again as it reminded me of when I watched fledging Sparrowhawks in the neighbouring wood back in 2015.

Wetting my lips: the call of the Quail

On the Patch it already feels like June is on us. I was out early this morning, but it did not feel very rare at all. Tony and I stood in the Brooms watching nothing, bemoaning nothing, and then went our separate ways. My Patch story from today was short, but didn’t quite end there as I got a lucky patch year tick from three Shelduck flying low over the School Scrub as I walked home.

My ‘way’ took me back to Rainham. This time to Stone Barges and the three mile walk to Rainham Marshes – as I arrived too early to park in the reserve.

Wheatear dotted along the path kept me company on the walk, as did the omnipresent sound of singing Skylarks on the tip, and a steady stream of Swallow that whipped past me as I walked East, and the occasional screams as large numbers of Swift gathered.

But it is also a long, and rather odd walk: past the concrete barges; alongside the rising tidal Thames lapping at the mud with the occasional Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, or Whimbrel to break the monotony; gulls circling over the landfill site and – depending on wind direction – the odd whiff of the stench of waste; a smell replaced by a strange sickly molasses odour as I walked past hundreds of old damp wooden pallets mixed in with the brackish smell of the estuarine Thames. The strange combination of industrial and marshy wildness is occasionally decorated with the bizarre; perhaps a statement of the uncertainty that exists in urban fringes.

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Eventually the marshy reserve stretches out in front of you with the mud of Aveley Bay to your right and the pregnant grassy mound of filled-in-tip to the left. It was here that I saw Shaun; a super guy as well as being a good birder, but looking slightly agitated. I was greeted with a question: “is that your phone? Are you playing Quail James?” Before I even had time to answer, the distinctive, but short, song of Quail reached my ears too. There were a few tense minutes of slight uncertainty before others joined us and louder bursts of the song of this elusive summer bird sealed the deal. Despite a reasonably sizeable twitch of watchers for much of the day, nobody saw the diminutive galliforme, but my lips were wet (apologies if the birding in-joke doesn’t make sense): this was a big London-first tick for me and a lovely addition to my UK year list. I think I owe Shaun a pint in the not-too-distant-future as this is not the first excellent bird he has found that I have enjoyed.

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The view from ‘Quail hill’ with the reserve to the extreme left, the mud of Aveley bay to the centre left and the Thames stretching away to the sea

When I left, I focused more on waders. I had some good scope views of three Wood Sandpiper on the reserve and was then treated to a super mixed flock of waders on Aveley bay (where last week I had watched Little Gull).

This time Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Dunlin, and Redshank were also joined by some super smart Knot – all in breeding plumage.

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Red Knot (Calidris canutus), female Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola), and Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Whilst, again, I missed lots of good birds I had hoped to see (Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Ring ouzel, Grasshopper Warbler being first in mind, and if I were a better birder I may have been able to nail a probable first year Caspian Gull) I still nudged my patch year list up to 92, and took my UK year list up to 140 with four new additions.