The valleys

No, not Wales. I mean the valleys that make up my second patch in the foothills of the Pyrenees. I often climb our highest hill, Mont Major (about 530m above sea level), and just sit and look over the next valley and further South to the Pyrenees.

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200m vertically from me down to the valley floor –  a view I have photographed a hundred times

I have sat here and watched Golden Eagles on several occasions, but not this trip. Crag Martins seemed to scrape the rocks (to the right of the photo above) they flew so close in. One afternoon a much bigger shape scythed past me – it was noticeably larger than Common Swift – which I had seen drifting past in small migratory flocks – and the bright white underside showed well. For a life tick I identified it almost immediately: Alpine Swift. Unfortunately, I didn’t really manage to photograph it and only got the back view with a slight showing of the white as it flew hard and fast and south, parallel with my eyeline over the valley and towards the mountains beyond.

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Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba)

Further down the hillside, there was a lot of noise. I saw a pair of Bee-eaters hawking low over the maquis bushes. They settled back on the same tree time and again. I then realised that there weren’t two, but three, then four, five, eight, and eventually 12 of them all together. They were a long way away and below me, but I managed this photo in which nine Bee-eaters can be seen together.

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European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

What do you mean you can’t see them?! Treat it like a game of ‘Where’s Wally’ – there really are nine showing in the photo. if you have given up, here is the photo again with each Bee-eater circled, including the four together on the lower-left branch.

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12 Bee-eaters together was a European record for me. A record that would be broken just a few days later when 33 flew over our house in a single flock or ‘colony’ – I managed to get all of them in a single frame.

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Crossing over the ridge from one valley to the next was another bird hawking for large insects.

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Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

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At one point another shape flashed out of the trees beside me and straight at the Hobby as if to mob it. I managed to steal a single usable photo of of it as it went over my head. Given the proximity, it had me thinking Goshawk at first, but was actually a large female Sparrowhawk.

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Over the week we were there, the number and variety of raptors was poor. I imagine many of the Short-toed Eagle‘s must have flown South already. But the paucity of variety was mitigated by a second patch sighting of Griffon Vulture which flew straight over our house, albeit very high.

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Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

Back down on the land, my wife must get the credit for spotting a bird fly across our path as we went for a walk. It turned out to be another patch tick for me (one of the three this trip, alongside the Alpine Swift and the … err… Lesser Whitethroat): Red-backed Shrike. It obviously enjoyed hunting on the land as I saw it again, along with a second bird a few days later. I have long known that the area is ideal for Shrikes and so am amazed it has taken almost a decade for me to find one two here.

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

The wonderful – but at the same time, difficult – thing about my French patch is that I am the only birder. All the birds are self-found in just two or three short trips a year.

So, a three patch-tick trip – not bad. About average actually, although inevitably the number of new species will taper off as my list starts to creep up into respectability. But there was actually another ‘tick’ to be had on this trip. Not a patch tick (sadly), but a full-blown life tick, albeit belatedly…

I had nipped out to the shops for some groceries and drove out a bit beyond the nearest villages – wonderful examples of rural French charm.

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“Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet” – Saint Laurent-de-la-Cabrerisse

I watched a chattering of Red-billed Chough circle in the sky and then drove on. Through tree-lined roads and fields of French farming… when something caught my eye. Acrobatic flight from narrow-winged raptors low down over the field. A male and female by the look of it. I am used to seeing Hen Harrier on my patch so I didn’t question that they could have been anything else. That was foolish! I pulled over and clicked off a couple of very distant shots from the car and then drove on to get supplies of cheese and wine.

It was only later when reviewing the dreadful quality photos that I realised these weren’t Hen Harrier at all, but Montagu’s Harrier. In the cropped versions of the photos the thin  black wing-band can be seen and the extensive black wing-tips stretching down much further on both upper and under side of the wing than we would see with Hen Harrier.

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Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus)

These could be birds that have spent the summer here or they could be stopping for food and frolics part-way on a journey south through Europe on their way to Africa. This means I have finally seen all of the European Harriers, having only relatively recently ticked off Pallid Harrier in Norfolk, alongside our Hen Harrier (or what is left of them before grouse-shooting estates make them extinct in England and beyond) and the conservation success story that is Marsh Harrier.

My French Patch list is still small, but it has some cracking birds on it and I feel a real sense of achievement with every new sighting as the sole birder in these remote valleys. After a scorching day in the field, I often sit back in the late afternoon and early evening with a glass of wine, beer, or a gin & tonic looking out over our valley and reflect on what I have seen and how lucky I am to experience it.

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Paean to Phoenicurus and the other patch-breeding birds

Being away from the Patch when the Autumn passage migration begins is never easy. It is made easier by having the privilege of a second patch in a different country in which to holiday.

Common Redstart has been seen again in the East London patch; a bird I hope to catch up with when I return. But I can’t complain. On the French patch, Common Redstart are also migrants, but they stick around and breed over the summer rather than just pass through as with London.

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Immature male Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

I love redstarts: they are stunning birds with bags of character and are relatively bold affording us with great views. Sadly, the only bird not showing fantastically well was the mature breeding male – the best shot I managed was this:

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Female, left, and young male, right

They will soon head back to Africa. However, their similarly red-tailed relatives, the Black Redstart – that have also bred successfully – will stick around as they are full year residents. The family that breed year after year by the house beat their ‘common’ cousins as being the most showy of the patch birds.

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Juvenile Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

It has been great to watch young birds be fed, learn to feed themselves, and grow. Other birds visibly doing the same thing on the French Patch have been Stonechat – with immature birds perching up every now and again, and several of the resident and migrant-breeding warblers. The most successful sylvians here have always been the Subalpine Warblers and I have spent hours this trip watching families of this warbler making the most of the early autumn berry bonanza to supplement their invertebrate diet.

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Male Subalpine warbler (Sylvia cantillans)

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Male with juvenile

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Male feeding juvenile

There are, of course, several other breeding birds on the French Patch that have not proved as easy to observe. August can be a tricky month in that respect as birds are so quiet – there has been very little song. In fact, it can lead one to – sometimes incorrectly – conclude that birds have already migrated. I have only had brief views of Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, and Melodious Warbler with barely even a call out of any of them.

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Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta)

In may and early June the land is alive with the song of prospecting and protective males of multiple species. Most beautiful, of course, is the Nightingale. I haven’t seen a single one of these notoriously shy songsters and had concluded they had left for the South when I was treated to a few grating calls and even a short burst of sub-song from deep within the scrub.

There are also some more exotic migrants which I will return to in a different post.

 

The Inbetweeners: a short story of seasonal change

There is a transition. A point in-between seasons that is neither one nor the other. A chronological no-man’s land, so to speak. A seasonal limbo of…

…This is nonsense of course. Seasonality is a human construction to assist us in making sense of the passage of natural time; applying order to the highly relative flow of change.

Nevertheless, a riddle could be written: ‘when are there many swifts, but at the same time… none?’. The answer, of course, sits in the middle of our ‘summer’ holidays, but many, many weeks after the solstice. The locally breeding swifts have departed, or mostly, and the gathering flocks of swifts in the sky are passage birds.

Other birds are moving too. A south-bound Wheatear has been seen, and a number of bright Willow Warbler have been found on the patch. Far more than the one or two pairs that we believe have bred locally.

I was looking out for these, and hoping to see other passage migrants – perhaps an early returning flycatcher – when I heard a strange two-tone disyllabic call from within the lime trees in our SSSI area of the Wanstead Flats. I heard it again and again, from within the trees. I even videoed the sound (click here).

And then the tiny bird emerged from the foliage. In the morning light I thought it was a young Willow Warbler with a very odd call and missing some tail feathers, but studying the calls, it appears to be one of the young Chiffchaff from the patch.

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Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

As some birds leave, and others pass through, other creatures hold on to the last strips of summer. Peak butterfly time has been and gone. But luckily not all of them have disappeared yet. I saw my first Brown Argus on the patch on Saturday (my 25th species of butterfly here) and photographed one again today…

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Brown Argus (Aricia agestis)

The diagnostic black spots on the forewing are clearly showing in this photo, which help distinguish the argus from the similar looking female Common Blue. Of course, no such difficulty exists with males – also still on the wing.

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Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)

Seasons change. Or so we imprint on the natural flow. If you need further evidence that Autumn is coming, you should have seen some of the giant fungi that have sprouted up recently, including these:

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Unknown fungi

The art of looking closely

Recently I have started studying plants far more carefully than before. This is not so much learning about the plant, as searching for galls on the plant. Some are easy to overlook such as the tight leaf edge rolls on Common Beech caused by the mite, Acalitus stenapsis:

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Leaf edge roll caused by mite, Acalitus stenapsis

But in searching for galls, I have also started to notice other things.

At first I thought the red spots at the base of wild cherry leaves were galls. I now know they are glands, or ‘extrafloral nectaries’ to name them properly.

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If the plant comes under attack from some kind of animal, the glands exude a scent which attracts different types of animal that will likely feed on the attacking pests. This knowledge would still be outside of my awareness were it not for my interest in, and search for, galls.

I also wouldn’t have found this Swallow-tailed Moth had I not been studying the underside of leaves for galls.

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Swallow-tailed Moth (Ourapteryx sambucaria)

Nor indeed this wonderfully coloured and cryptically marked micro-moth:

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Grapholita janthinana

My new-found interest in the small has led to the acquisition of an 10X magnification eye-glass to study my quarry better.

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Two Knopper galls on acorn caused by gall wasp, Andricus quercuscalicis

To be honest, Knopper Galls do not really need magnification to appreciate them, but other galls are so tiny they really benefit from it:

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Gall caused by asexual generation of gall wasp, Neuroterus anthracinus

This year on the patch I have been hunting fruitlessly, so far, for the Brown Argus Butterfly whose wing undersides resemble relatively closely the Common Blue:

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Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)

It is only by careful and close study that we truly get to know a species, sometimes taking such efforts to simply differentiate one species from another, such as the Dingy Footman from the Common Footman, Scarce Footman or others from the large eilema genus of moth.

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Dingy Footman (Eilema griseola)

As a birder, I have become trained in noticing subtle movements, sounds, colours, and shapes at distance. But this summer, honing my skills in looking at things more closely and carefully, has opened up wonderful new worlds.

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Male Long Hoverfly (Sphaerophoria scripta)

From galls to gulls (and back to galls)

The Summer ‘silly season’ in patch birding – when self-respecting birders go off and get new hobbies like… er?… surveying plant galls, or lichen, or when they attempt to turn gin and tonic drinking into an Olympic sport – may be coming to an end somewhat faster than I expected.

The quiet month of June normally leaks a little into July, but one of my patch colleagues shattered that peace last Saturday with news of an extremely early ‘Autumn’  Common Redstart on the Patch. He also found what may have been a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull. I was busy doing other stuff that morning, but returned for an afternoon wander.

The Redstart was nowhere to be found in the early afternoon heat so I strolled onto the football pitches. The pitch-roost of gulls is still pretty small at the moment, but there was a reasonable selection of non-breeding birds that was worth scanning as I was rather keen to ensure YLG joined my 2017 patch list.

I could almost immediately see that one of the young, and very pale, Herring Gull‘s was colour-ringed. It was only when it took flight that the ring came clear of the grass and was readable as Orange L1YT. I am still waiting to see full details, but I understand it is likely to be a ‘Pitsea’ bird.

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Young Herring Gull (Larus argentatus): ‘L1YT’

I followed it as it moved from flock to flock on the pitch when a slightly bulkier gull flew in behind it. I instantly knew it was different, and you can see that the bill, face mask, and tail – amongst other things – give away the ID as Yellow-legged Gull, but also point to this being a different bird from the one Tony had seen earlier.

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Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Aside from the juvenile gull, there was little else of interest in avian terms so I reverted back to studying leaves, with my best find being this impressive fig gall caused by an aphid on English Elm:

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Tetraneura ulmi

In case you were to think that my day was solely spent with gulls and galls (some people’s idea of wildlife hell), I also counted double figures of species of butterfly with Small Copper being new for the year on the patch for me.

The Plant Invaders: Part I (Galls)

“a sort of botanical glory-hole”
― John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids, 1963

That animals eat, and make homes from, plants, is something we learn at a very young age. But fewer of us seem to be aware of the very much more complex manipulations of living plants that some organisms conduct. Sometimes the plant tissue itself is distorted by another organism. A growth forms. We call these growths, galls.

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Marble gall formed by a parasitic wasp (Andricus kollari) on Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur)

The nature and shape of these galls can vary wildly: from hard nutty growths, to soft fleshy lumps; from tiny specks on leaves, to giant weighty tumours on trees. The ’causer’, to give the parasitic organism its correct term, is often a very small invertebrate such as a mite, midge, wasp (if you are thinking of large stinging black an yellow things, you are in the wrong ballpark altogether), or aphid; but can also be fungi, bacteria, and even other plants (mistletoe for example). The ‘hosts’ are often specially chosen and parasitised by specialist causers, meaning that if you see a nail gall on the leaf of a Common Lime, it has been caused by a different species to the similar gall on the closely related Small-leaved Lime.

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Nail gall caused by a mite (Eriophyes tiliae) on the leaf of Common Lime (Tilia x europaea)

When invertebrates are involved, galls are formed to provide shelter, sustenance, and/or protection to the causer and/or its offspring. Sometimes the lifecycle of a gall causer can be so complex that different stages of metamorphosis can require different, sometimes multiple, host plants (I have a pear tree in my garden infected by a fungus that will require juniper to conduct the next stage of its vital process).

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Gall caused by an aphid (Crytosiphium artemisiae) on the leaves of Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Galls fascinate me. Unlike birds and butterflies, they stay still when you want to study or photograph them. They straddle the worlds of botany and zoology (the study of plant galls is called Cecidology, in case you were wondering), and form a welcome distraction to the lack of interesting migrant birds on the patch during the quiet summer months.

Armed with no equipment, other than a camera phone, and very limited background knowledge, I have managed to photograph and identify at least thirty types of plant gall on my local patch. I am confident that I shall find many more.

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Oak Spangle galls of wasps (Neuroterus numismalis) and (Neuroterus quercusbaccarus)

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Growth on an ancient birch formed by bacteria (Agrobacterium tumefaciens)

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Oak apple gall formed by a wasp (Biorhiza pallida) on Oak host

 

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.