Category Archives: wildlife

Pond life

I’ve got a new job!

I’m a water monitor. No, not like being a milk monitor at school! This is a scientific job that… err… requires me to photograph a water measurement gauge on one of the Patch ponds (Jubilee) every other week and send the photo to the wardens/ecologist who manage Epping Forest.

The pay isn’t great, by which I mean it is non existent, as by ‘new job’ I obviously mean a small commitment to volunteer outside of my day job. Here is my submission from today:

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

So far I have managed to snap the gauge with Mute Swan and Canada Goose in front of it, and with Black-headed Gull and Grey Heron on top of it. This is what happens when you give a task like this to birder. Maybe one day over this year I’ll photograph a scarce duck or wader with the water gauge? Or maybe a rare gull? Like an Audouin’s Gull – which I believe is still one of the rarest gulls in the world – and which I saw a lot of over the last week as I have been in Ibiza – a bit of a hotspot for these chaps.

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Audouin’s Gull (Icthyaetus audouinii)

Or, maybe a little Red-necked Grebe will  paddle past one day – that would be almost as excellent as the Audouin’s, and probably significantly more likely as we currently have a young bird showing well just a few miles away in the Lea Valley Park (I twitched it of course).

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Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena) and Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)

But I suspect I am just dreaming. Jubilee Pond has been host recently, however, to some well known gull individuals – ringed gulls such as our most frequently seen band-carrier:

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“2LBA” Black-headed Gull ringed in Essex two years ago

and…

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“J8M4” Common Gull (Larus canus) ringed in Norway just over two years ago

I shall keep you posted if and when I find anything else interesting whilst doing my water monitoring.

 

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Red start to the Autumn

Autumn didn’t start today, of course. Many birds have already long gone South, but there was something about this morning that just felt and looked truly Autumnal.

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Dawn over the Western Flats

I waded through to the mist straight to the SSSI where I got dew-soaked looking for Wryneck … or… anything really.

There wasn’t much to see apart from the glorious morning light.

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SSSI, Wanstead Flats

And so I followed the siren voices of my fellow patch birders (by which I mean their WhatsApp messages) to the Brooms and a staggeringly friendly Redstart.

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Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

We all took lots of photos.

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I am used to getting close to Redstart at my other patch in France, but this was something else.

Whilst our attention was mainly on this grounded passage migrant, other migration was happening all around us. As the clouds came in, tens of Swallows, plus a few Martins moved through, at least one Yellow Wagtail and several Grey Wagtail flew over and Meadow Pipits swirled confusingly around (are these our Mipits, Mipits I have just seen fly in a different direction, or different ones altogether? – the answer, of course, is surely “all three”). Training my binoculars on the cloud often yielded dots passing by, although I wasn’t always sure what those dots were.

Today’s Redstart wasn’t the first of the Autumn passage, but it was the one I shall remember the most.

The butterflies of Blanes

The butterflies of my ‘French Patch’, Blanes, have been neglected compared with the birds. I don’t think they mind too much.

Some have, of course, been noticed like the stunning Scarce Swallowtail and the magnificent Two-tailed Pasha.

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Two-tailed Pasha (Charaxes jasius)

Watching the huge Charaxes flap around fearlessly, investigating food plants such as the Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is a Mediterranean delight.

Geographical context: The Patch is situated about 40km inland from the Mediterranean, and about 80km North of the Spanish border. The scrubby maquis land ranges from around 300m to 540m above sea level and is just a few flaps of eagle wings away from peaks rising up to almost 3000m.

On my trip this August, there was still plenty on the wing and I figured I ought to pay them a bit more attention. I had flown out from London where I had spent time watching Common Blue and Brown Argus. The French Patch had these two species in abundance as well.

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Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)

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Mating Common Blues

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Brown Argus (Aricia agestis)

There were other species as well that are very familiar to me back on my London Patch; Small Heath and Meadow Brown for example.

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Female Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)

But then there are other, seemingly familiar, butterflies that are actually somewhat different. One of the most frequently seen butterflies on the Patch was a Gatekeeper, but  not all of them were the Gatekeeper species I commonly see in London. Some were Southern Gatekeeper close to the most Northerly part of their range.

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Male Southern Gatekeeper (Pyronia cecilia)

An unusual find on my London Patch is Marbled White. I have only seen one there in fact (last year), but they are believed to be one of the most numerous species in France. However, the one I found a few weeks ago on my French Patch was Iberian Marbled White (a nice life tick for me) which has a range that only snakes into a tiny sliver of the South East of France.

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Iberian Marbled White (Melanargia lachesis)

Just as Catalonian culture and language bleed and blend into this ultra rural part of Southern France, so too this Spanish butterfly’s range ignores the political borders of humankind.

Even where my two patches share the same species, sometimes there is noticeable sub-specific variation. This was most apparent with the Speckled Wood: a common butterfly in both London and the Languedoc, but with quite different appearances. The pale yellow/cream of the P.a.tircis form found in the UK, contrasting quite strongly with the orangey colour of the P.a.aegaria nominate form found in France:

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Speckled Wood (Parage aegaria aegaria)

A butterfly found in England but not seen in Wanstead is the Grayling; this was abundant in August.

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Grayling (Hipparchia semele)

As mentioned above, on this trip I actually paid attention to the butterflies and realised that what I thought were all Graylings, were actually a range of different species: most of them new to me. Ones I managed to identify were Tree Grayling, Striped Grayling, and False Grayling.

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False Grayling (Arethusana arethusana)

If a False Grayling were to appear on my Patch it would cause a frenzy of interest from Lepidopterists as only one has ever been recorded in the UK, in Surrey in 1974, with experts still unsure whether it was an errant vagrant from the continent or a bred specimen from a private collection.

Most of the blues seen were Common, but sometimes a large pale ghost-like blue would float past on the grassier parts of the Patch. This was another first for me: Provence Chalkhill Blue at the westernmost part of its narrow range.

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Provence Chalk-hill Blue (Lysandra hispana)

Another Blue I was thrilled to find was this gorgeous Long-tailed Blue:

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Long-tailed Blue (Lampides boeticus)

I had lazily thought I had been looking at White Admiral until I noticed a blue sheen on these large and, and commonly seen, Nymphalidae. It was actually Southern White Admiral.

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Southern White Admiral (Limenitis reducta)

At the other end of the size spectrum are the skippers. I have a feeling there were a few species on the wing, but I only managed to photograph and identify a couple. With open wings, the Silver-spotted Skipper resembles a Large Skipper I am used to at home, but with closed wing the greenish tinge and white studding is very different.

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Silver-spotted Skipper (Hesperia comma)

Less classically attractive perhaps, but interesting nonetheless, is another butterfly where the South of France serves as the northernmost part of its range; Southern Marbled Skipper:

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Worn Southern Marbled Skipper (Carcharodus boeticus)

Butterflies I saw on this latest trip which I have not yet mentioned were, Wall, Spotted Fritillary, Clouded Yellow, and Wood White, taking my trip count to 23 if you include the butterfly I mention below. Not an enormous count, but respectable for a first real effort. I suspect I shall be far more observant on future trips as I look to build my overall list up and discover what else appears in this hilly, mediterranean, boundary land.

Of course, with so many butterflies around, there are inevitably other creatures which benefit from this, such as this stunning Wasp Spider:

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Female Wasp Spider (Argiope bruennichi)

Another yellow and black predator of butterflies is, of course, the Hornet. Watching a huge Two-tailed Pasha flap around in vain on the floor as a hornet repeatedly stung the helpless butterfly and eventually tear off its wings piece by piece while it was still alive was disturbingly brutal to my human sensibilities.

Butterflies are so deeply embedded in our cultural psyche as symbols of hope, change, resurrection, and life itself that it is difficult not feel drawn to them.

A special moment for me was seeing pulses of yellow, green, and orange in flight before, what appeared to be, a Brimstone (a butterfly I have seen before on the Patch) settled with its wings closed (they never settle with open wings). But the orange I had glimpsed in flight was a give away and a slight breeze helped to gently and fractionally open the wings of the resting Pieridae, again revealing the orange blush and instantly identifying it as a Cleopatra.

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Cleopatra (Gonepteryx cleopatra)

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)