Thursday, 28 April 2011


They say that to find the love of your life, all you have to do is stop looking. It would seem the same is true of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers.

I went to Sue's house yesterday to watch the (final) final of Masterchef. We were greatly looking forward to an hour of nonsensical food displayed against a canvas of wildly overdramatic music. It was a sunny, though somewhat chilly and windy afternoon, and after a bit of garden-pottering Sue suggested a short walk in the local area. We headed out along a nearby public footpath, through an orchard where Sue had a lie-down on her blanket while I went for an explore.

The orchard was full of Whitethroats, but they were not as co-operative as this lovely Willow Warbler.

Heading downhill, I reached the edge of a patch of woodland. I stood there quietly and heard the discreet tapping of a woodpecker (or Nuthatch) in feeding mode. I didn't have my binoculars with me, but searched the trees from where the sound was coming, and eventually detected movement on the shaded side of a large dead branch. Looking through the camera, the bird was tucked behind almost hidden from view but I could see the silhouetted outline of its head when it drew back for a peck.

There was nowhere I could go for a better view - too many trees in the way. I tried to take photos of the silhouetted head. From the very little I could see I thought it looked good for LSW - a small and rounded head with a relatively little bill. Then the bird flew onto a higher branch, much obscured by leaves. I pointed the camera anyway and fired. Through the viewfinder I could now see the ladder-striped back that said this was indeed an LSW.

Here's the clearest shot I got. I think that's some peeling-off bark obscuring his face. Despite rubbish photos I was over the moon. When you dip and dip a bird you can start to feel paranoid, 'will I ever see a [insert bird's name] again?' The LSW moved up this branch to become completely shrouded by leaves, then it must have flown because I heard it calling from deeper in the wood.

Continuing our walk, we headed down into the woods, meeting a few insects on the way.

I'm embarrassed to admit that this is my first 2011 Comma. It behaved in typical Comma fashion, sitting on a leaf in high alert mode and taking off to harass other passing insects.

 We were surprised (and Sue was alarmed) to see two absolutely stunning Hornets, which unfortunately disappeared before I got shots of them. Then Sue spotted another big yellow thing - this time it was a pristine female Broad-bodied Chaser which posed beautifully. Fifth Odonata species of the year.

ETA - actually, make that a male. I didn't realise that the sexes are the same colour when very freshly emerged... but after comparing lots of photos, I've decided that the shape of the anal appendages makes this a male.

On the way back home along the road, we paused to watch some fluffy lambs in a field. We weren't the only ones. This Fox looked lovely in the late afternoon sun. She was initially a bit closer but saw us and scampered off to the far side of the field.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011


While doing a bit of idle websurfing on Sunday night, I found that there had been three Vagrant Emperor dragonflies at Dungeness that day. I hadn't really expected our 2011 dragonfly quest to begin with a species I'd never even heard of, but it seemed silly not to plan a trip there for Monday. We didn't make a very early start, but got to the spot at Dengemarsh at 11.30ish. A despondent crowd of would-be dragon-twitchers was present - the dragons were not.

A pair of Marsh Harriers provided light relief as we waited on the stone bridge overlooking the creek where the dragons had been yesterday. There was much calling and aerial interaction by the pair, but they were very distant - this pic of the male was taken when he floated a little closer.

More distraction - a biggish Pike in the river, too close for me to fit him all in so here is his shovel-shaped head. I used manual focus for this shot - don't know what kit is best for fish photography but I don't think that what I have is it.

After maybe half an hour of waiting, we had seen a few dragons but they were all Hairy Hawkers. I never thought I'd be disappointed to see a Hairy Hawker - it's not a very common species, after all. I was certainly not disappointed when I wandered downriver and a kind couple pointed out this Hairy which was resting in the reeds. Its muted colours and doziness suggest it could have emerged very recently.

Back on the bridge, I photographed my first Sedge Warbler of 2011. He was in fine voice, and quite showy too.

Many of the dragon-twitchers had drifted away by this point. Rob was sitting on the riverbank. I was just setting off to join him when we noticed a group of people further down the river break into a sprint, away from us. Looking back, we saw that the remaining people on the bridge were also starting to hurry towards us.

A hot and breathless run later, we were all enjoying views of a male Vagrant Emperor, chasing away down the river. We'd stop at a bend, watch him disappear, then run round the bend for another quick view of his retreating behind. Finally he turned back towards us.

We sat down on the bank, and waited. Sure enough, the dragon came back and forth several times, giving great views. At some point in the melee Rob had asked for my lens, and I'd given it to him. He got several sharp pics of the flying dragon, including this one. Note the greeny-brown eyes, and striking solid blue 'saddle' at the abdomen base, just behind the wings. Against the light, the wings shone golden, and the dragon had a more powerful and purposeful flight than the Hairies.

Blurry, heavily cropped rear view. This was the best I managed with the 180mm macro.

After the third or fourth flypast, we waited a while longer but it became clear that the show was over, for now. Some of the people who'd left were now back, but not all of them had managed to see the dragon - I heard later that it did put in another brief appearance later. While we waited, we photographed the bumbling Alderflies that were settling on and around us. I have a great fondness for these dozy insects, even though I have embarrasingly misidentified one as a Stonefly in my most recent book - d'oh!

Rob noticed a parked car with a very flat tyre on our way back to our car, and when he saw the owner get into the car and set off towards us, he waylaid her and ended up changing her wheel, for which she was most grateful. Then we went on to the nature reserve proper.

In the car park, I spent a couple of minutes trying to photograph a song-flighting Whitethroat.

These two Common Gulls were chilling out on the visitor centre roof, until a Carrion Crow came along and would have landed on top of one of them had it not hastily tumbled off the roof.

We went straight to the ARC viewpoint where we failed to hear the Grasshopper Warbler reported there earlier. We did get quite a close view of this passing female Marsh Harrier, though.

Can you see what it is yet? I saw this damsel coming down to land on the sandy stuff by the footpath - would never have spotted it otherwise. I am pretty sure it is a fresh male Common Blue which hasn't coloured up yet.

We had a celebratory late lunch at the Pilot, and a desultory look around for the Glaucous Gull which is apparently still on the beach (this is the same bird that we dipped on the bird race back in January). No sign, so we opted to spend the last hour of good light down the road at Rye Harbour. Not very much there that I didn't show you last time we went, but I'll end with this plunge-diving Sandwich Tern, making the most of the end of a beautiful day.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Seaford and Cuckmere Valley

Yesterday, Rob and I got up early (by Rob-standards) and drove down to Seaford, picking Michele up on the way. It was another scorcher with only a light breeze. We made good time as the traffic was remarkably light, and parked up on the Esplenade.

There was a funfair by the promenade, with attendant gulls and Carrion Crows. While everyone sorted out their bags and stuff I amused myself by photographing the very approachable crows.

Walking up the Head, I was keeping close to the cliff edge and watching the Kittiwakes when Michele called my attention to a small bird grovelling on the grass, which I said was probably a Mipit. It wasn't - it was a Rockit. Mipit = Meadow Pipit and Rockit = Rock Pipit. I do like these silly abbreviations.

 Out by the cliffs, something altogether bigger and more fearsome was heading our way. My camera refused to focus on the fast-moving Peregrine against the sea, much to my frustration. Rob had more luck.

It's a stiff climb up Seaford Head from the Seaford town side. You do one very steep bit, and just as you think you're at the top you see over the summit a second climb ahead, even bigger and steeper than the first. We ascended slowly, stopping to listen to Skylarks and Meadow Pipits and to admire the pink drifts of Thrift.

Michele and I sat at a likely-looking bit of cliff near the summit and watched for further Peregrines. No luck. Rob, meanwhile, wandered off and lay flat on the grass to get some lovely close Meadow Pipit photos.

Spotting something big that was powering inland at a rate of knots, I got the camera on it and saw to my surprise that it was a Red Kite, quite probably newly arrived from the continent. Its trajectory suggested it had flown right over us, unobserved. I shouted to the others but it was too late, the kite was already just a speck in the distance.

After a lengthy semi-doze in the sun we noticed that it was nearly lunchtime and headed down the Head to find food. On the way I photographed this Starling on the semi-ruined building near the bottom of the Head...

... and grabbed a lucky shot of a Fulmar from the cliff edge.

We drove to the Golden Galleon at Exceat for lunch, but could find nowhere to park so went to Litlington Tea Gardens instead. We sat at a shady table by a raucous rookery and ate expensive sandwiches in very pleasant surroundings, while discussing what we would do for the rest of the day.

I'd thought we could walk from Exceat to the sea, but a squillion other people had had the same idea (well, it is a glorious and well-known walk, and it was a lovely Easter Sunday...) and all the car parks were full. We drove back towards Litlington, and on the way found a layby near a footpath to a higher part of the Cuckmere. Perfect!

The first bit of the path went through a small copse, where I photographed this Speckled Wood. Then we came out among pasture and reedy creeks, and up to the river bank. The tide was low, and plenty of lovely gungy-looking mud was on show. Subadult Mute Swans swam in the river itself, and Reed Warblers chuntered away from the reed-lined ditches.

It was a gorgeous walk back down to Exceat, and with the promise of an icecream when we got there, the mood was very cheerful. Michele was happily collecting swan feathers from the river bank (from which she plans to make toys for the two cats she's adopting soon), and Rob and I found the odd thing to photograph, such as this Whitethroat.

At Exceat we purchased icecreams and sat down to enjoy them by a loop of the beautiful oxbow lake that makes this valley so picturesque.

Various birds contrived to amuse us while we relaxed in the shade. First this Grey Heron came creeping around the corner of the spit. We watched it strike at and catch a small crab. Then a peculiar-shaped white dog came running along the spit and startled it into flight.

Rooks, Swallows and gulls flew overhead. This Herring Gull came down for a little paddle.

At the shore right before us, a number of very small fish were swimming about. I thought they would be baby Roach or something, but I'm now inclined to think they were sticklebacks. I am not good at fish (as you can probably tell) - any ID help would be appreciated! (and sorry for the rubbish photo).

We opted not to walk on to the sea, but did nip down the seabound path a short way just to see if the pathside Sand Martin colony was still active (it was, but I failed to get any photos). Then we walked back to Litlington.

One of the Rooks in the pasture was near enough to photograph, and was sporting an enlarged throat pouch - no doubt stuffed with leatherjackets, worms and so on for its chicks.

There was a Little Egret on the river. This was nice to see, as the Cuckmere was where I'd seen my very first Little Egret a couple of decades ago, when they were rare. Before we could get anywhere near this one, it was flushed by a couple walking the other way, and it did a great fly-past for us.

Skylark song had been our soundtrack all day, but on the walk back we finally saw one within lens-reach, feeding in a well-grazed meadow.

Once we reached the car, I asked the others if they minded a short return trip to Seaford. It was by now about 4.30pm, and I figured the light would be much better for photographing Kittiwakes. They agreed, so off we went, and soon were heading back up that steep hill.

I found a good spot and worked hard to photograph the 'kitties' in flight as they wheeled noisily around their cliff-face nests. They are such beautiful gulls, clean, neat and gentle-faced with wonderful translucent primaries against the light and those nifty notched tails.

Many were resting on the sea, while others were coming in to settle at their seaweed nests. This pair were having a particularly joyous reunion.

Rob was on another outcrop, from where he photographed this juvenile Kittiwake with its smart stripy back pattern. I'd seen what was probably the same bird moments before, but had utterly failed to get a shot of it.

Walking back down the Head for the last time, we were suddenly surrounded by House Martins and Swallows - a freshly arrived influx perhaps.

Saturday, 23 April 2011


This morning (well, lunchtime, really) we had a walk on the North Downs to look for springtime butterflies. In stark contrast to other recent outings, this one was successful.

There were lots of Brimstones around. I was watching a female flying along minding her own business, probably looking for some Buckthorn on which to lay some eggs, when a male spotted her. He immediately rushed over and the two began dancing around each other in a frenzy. I'm pretty sure she was trying to reject him and he wasn't listening. Almost at once another passing male joined in and it became a three-way whirl of wings. I took lots of photos, most of which show whitish butterfly-shaped blurs against a sharp background of grass and leaves. Here are some of the successful shots. The trio eventually flew out of view, still tussling away like mad.

I soon spotted one of our real target species - Grizzled Skipper. It looks tiny, grey and buzzy in flight, and today at least most of them were very reluctant to settle, even for a moment.

The other target skipper was a little easier to photograph. Dingy Skipper has a terrible name but is a pretty little thing, with the helpful habit of choosing elevated perches on which to bask. It looks bigger, browner and more fluttery in flight than Grizzled. At rest it often holds its forewings swept back so they completely cover the hindwings, moth-style.

Last target butterfly - the Green Hairstreak. Small and dark in flight but those iridescent green undersides do catch the light. It has a broken white 'hair-streak' on the underside hindwings. The lower photo shows an individual with no perceptible hair-streak - maybe that's why he looks so crest(antennae)fallen.

Besides the butterflies, I saw two Adders, both small, one male and one female. Sadly they'd seen me first and were slipping away to cover, too fast for photos and for a dawdling Rob. There were several Whitethroats singing, and I heard and glimpsed (but failed to photograph) my first 2011 Lesser Whitethroat.

A couple of moths to finish. This very pretty day-flying moth rejoices in the name 'Small Purple-barred'. We saw several of them, though only this one posed nicely in sunlight.

These tiny moths had wonderful iridescent gold wings, which doesn't show well in this photo, and outrageously long white antennae, which do. There were lots of them all swarming around one small area of scrub. I think they are Adela reaumurella.


On Wednesday morning I got up very early and set out to Knole Park in search of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, inspired by Phil Sharp's (of Sharp by Nature fame) recent success. Given my recent track record with this species, it will come as no surprise that I didn't find any, though I'm not certain I made it to the best part of the park to look - I did get a bit lost on my meanderings.

It was a gorgeous morning, still as you like, with clear skies but hammocks of mist across the valleys. The Knole deer are in mellow mood. These three Fallows had a little friend with them, a confused Greylag Goose.

These three Sikas, on the other hand, looked a bit menacing as they approached over the brow of a hill.

My unaccustomed route took me past several very picturesque small pools (or perhaps they should be called water hazards, as I was on the edge of the golf course). This one contained a Sika deer, and I regret that I had too long a lens to catch its reflection as well as the beast itself.

Approaching a rough scrubby area, I heard a Yellowhammer calling. He didn't let me get too close. I also heard Whitethroat singing.

Forging onwards, I reached a more wooded area, though I think I was closer to the school than to the Godden Green entrance, which was where I was attempting to get to. Birds in the wood included this fine male Blackbird.

I noticed a flock of Ring-necked Parakeets descend to examine this water trough in a small clearing.

Along one of the sunny rides through the woody bit was this Drone-fly, which provided several minutes' distraction as I attempted to get an in-flight shot. I remembered too late that I'd intended to try manual focus next time I saw one of these - still, it's sharp enough, just very badly lit.

The trees were full of Nuthatches and Great Spotted Woodpeckers. I didn't have much luck getting photos of either, sadly, but here's a Nuthatch anyway.

Another shy Bird of Knole - a Stock Dove. I was hiding under the tree when this one arrived, and it didn't spot me for a moment. I do like the twisty dead branch it's sitting on.

Green Woodpeckers were, as usual, abundant and unapproachable. All the photos I got were from a great distance, but I've included this one for its comedic value - the woodie seems to have tripped over a blade of grass.

Finally, a bird that didn't mind having its photo taken. This Jackdaw had a drooping wing, I hope it's OK. It was certainly foraging with plenty of energy and enthusiasm.

I didn't see or hear any sign of Lesserpecker this time. I may give it one more try before the leaves grow in completely and everything goes quiet.