Friday, 15 July 2011

High summer, apparently

You know that feeling when the alarm goes off at 5.30am and being awake feels like the worst thing imaginable? Luckily it doesn't last too long. Sunshine was forecast for today, followed by rain all weekend, so I decided to pay a long overdue visit to Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve. Wildlife-wise, my expectations were very low, and they were met (just about). Still, it was very nice to be out in the sun at this early hour.

The walk down to the reserve yielded very little. Young Blackbird eating a squashed apple in my road. Song Thrush going through the leaf litter at Bradbourne Lakes. Great Spotted Woodpecker calling from a tree opposite the reserve entrance. So far, so so.

Walking down the track, I spotted too late that there was a Red Admiral posing on the 'Wildfowl Reserve Only' sign. It flew up into the trees and paused briefly on some sunlit ivy.

After watching Red Squirrels in Scotland, I actually bothered to take a photo of this Grey Squirrel up a tree in the car park, eating what looks like a catkin. They really can't hold a candle to the native species, cuteness-wise.

The Grebe hide had a notice on the way in, warning that wasps were nesting inside. Half the interior of the hide was taped off (luckily the less interesting half) and though I couldn't see the nest I could certainly see plenty of wasps coming and going. Nothing coming to the feeders, not much moving on the lake. I moved on.

I went to Tyler hide next. The lake was about as quiet as I've ever seen it. The odd Lapwing, Black-headed Gull and a bonus Common Sandpiper was about all there was to see. Then a Goldfinch came to feed on the thistle heads in front of the hide.

I retraced my steps and headed up towards Willow hide. The vegetation here has gone nuts in the last few weeks - on some of the smaller trails I had a distinct sense of disorientation as familiar views were obscured by great walls of Teasels, thistles, Brambles, various young trees and whatnot. Though very lush and pleasant, it made for tricky photography.

About the only pic I took from Willow hide was this one, of a handsome Song Thrush in an island tree. Vegetation in front of the windows has grown very tall, making viewing of the fast-drying lake difficult. I could see the Mute Swan pair in the far corner, accompanied by a single small and very white (Polish-type) cygnet. A few Tufties, Coots and Canada Geese were also bobbing around in a desultory manner.

Leaving Willow hide, I heard a Reed Warbler going 'jerrrr, jerrrr' from the very thick mass of willows and reeds by the boardwalk path. I peered into the tangle for a while and was rewarded by a lovely sunlit view of the bird at close range - I don't think it could see me.

By Long Lake I listened for a while to another Reed Warbler in full song. Among its usual phrases were some fine examples of mimicry - I picked out calls of Blackbird, Blue Tit, Goldfinch and Kingfisher, plus a lovely exotic silvery trill which I didn't recognise. Maybe it's an African species, heard by the Reed Warbler last winter.

It wasn't til I got to the mini-meadow at Long Lake that I saw some Odonata. First a Brown Hawker which sprang from its invisible hiding place at my approach and disappeared over the treetops, and then a few damsels - nothing like the numbers of a month ago. A lone Ragwort plant in the middle of the meadow was being demolished by lots of Cinnabar caterpillars.

I went back and sat in Carter hide for a while. Would this become the Kingfisher mecca that it was last summer (albeit not til late August)? Today it was extremely peaceful and I zoned out a bit while gazing across the clear sunlit water, watching the odd fish leaping about. At some point a bird (Woodpigeon I'm guessing) landed heavily on the hide roof, sending down a cascade of dead leaves. Soon after, a dozy juvenile Wren flew up and settled on the hide windowframe, peered in at me for a moment and decided against coming in. When I heard what I thought was the mewing of a distant Buzzard but was actually the squealing of a nearby baby Coot, I decided I'd better move on.

 I went back via West Lake. Pausing to scan from the north corner, I disturbed a young Great Crested Grebe, which gave a small squeak of alarm and dived, surfacing a few feet away. There it sat, eyeing me. Then a disturbance in the water right at the shore revealed itself to be an adult grebe approaching from the right. It didn't notice me at first and swam right in front of me, dipping its head underwater in search of prey. Then it looked up, clocked me, did a double-take and beat a panicked retreat out towards the baby, which - thinking it was feeding time - began to squeak excitedly and paddle over to meet its parent. I felt quite bad - I would have stepped back straight away but it was all over too fast.

I ended my trip with a bit of a mooch around the wildlife/butterfly garden. I'd sneakily borrowed Rob's new lens, a 70-180mm macro, and decided to give it a workout. Here are some of the results:

Purple Loosestrife. One of my favourite flowers, and a sure sign of summer (calendar-wise, at least).

I checked the Corn Marigolds carefully, having found a crab spider here last year. Not today, but this lovely Speckled Bush-cricket was an acceptable substitute.

Although damsel numbers have fallen, there were still some fresh emergees among the ones I did see, like this teneral male Common Blue.

A desperately tatty Ringlet. I include her photo because I'm not sure I've ever seen a Ringlet here before.

Not so shabby, a nice fresh male Gatekeeper. This species appears a few weeks later than the other single-brooded browns, meaning it looks great when they mostly look all worn out.

Finally, a real test for the macro lens. I presume this is a Rose Aphid. I'm quite impressed with the lens, and may well pinch it again in the future.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Sunshine at Thursley

Today I went dragon-hunting at Thursley Common, in the most excellent company of Phil Sharp. You can see his version of the day at his blog - Sharp by Nature. We got lucky with a pretty sunny day, though the cloud did slowly build and the northerly breeze made itself felt from time to time. None of this was enough to deter the dragonflies and damselflies for very long, and we came away with a haul of 11 Odonata species.

Across the Moat flew a lone Emperor Dragonfly, my first of the year. Around the margins, numerous Large Skippers flitted and posed in the grass.

We'd barely set foot down the main trail when a Hobby wafted overhead, in full hunting mode. Phil, watching it through binoculars, saw it deftly dismantle a dragonfly. I didn't, because I was trying to find the damn thing in the viewfinder. Then we reached the first bits of water and began to tick off the dragonflies in earnest.

The Black Darter, a beautiful little green-eyed dragon, is common here and we saw lots, mostly settling on the boardwalk. It was a bit of a challenge to find one posing on something a bit more photogenic than a plank of wood. Here's a male...

... and a slightly fuzzy female. A tick for Phil, and a welcome reunion with an old favourite for me.

Another Thursley speciality is Keeled Skimmer, and as soon as we neared the boggy bits we started seeing plenty of them. The odd Black-tailed Skimmer that we saw really stood out among the Keeleds - not just for its black tail, but also its appreciably greater bulk.

Thursley in high summer isn't exactly awash with birds. One of the star species, Dartford Warbler, seems to have disappeared (hopefully temporarily), while for another, Nightjar, you'd have to hang around til dusk. We had two sightings of Hobbies, one of Common Buzzard, plus a male Reed Bunting, a handful of Linnets, a noisy Whitethroat family, a scattering of Swallows, and around the Moat Nuthatches and Long-tailed Tits.

Oh, yes, and this Kestrel, which my photos revealed to be wearing a ring. It came very close to us (but I was a bit slow with the camera) and then hovered over the heath. Was it hunting dragonflies? Or maybe the abundant Common Lizards.

We were watching this male Emperor hawking up and down, when it snagged an unfortunate pair of blue damselflies (probably Common Blue) that were mid-copulation. It then settled nearby and began to slowly munch the male of the couple, head-first. Phil at this point was actually on the phone, but still managed to get some in-focus shots of the gruesome spectacle. I'm not sure if the dragon went on to eat the other damselfly or not...

On the big marshy lake were a Little Grebe plus chick, and a female Mallard was paddling around with two half-grown ducklings. One of these little darlings pounced on a dragonfly - not sure what species - and gobbled it up with evident and noisy glee.

Enough senseless violence. Along the ditch opposite the big marshy lake, Phil spotted an Emerald Damselfly and after much manouevring we managed to get some photos. Stunning little things, these are.

Determined to see a Small Red Damselfly, I'd been carefully checking every red damsel, and finally struck lucky with this little beauty. Unlike its much more common relative, the Large Red Damselfly, it has a pure red abdomen, and no antehumeral stripes. We saw half-a-dozen of these, I guess, including a pair 'in cop'.

Continuing along the path proved impossible (or daunting at least) as there was a sizeable flood blocking the path and the only way across seemed to be via some precarious floating planks. We turned back and enjoyed the whole boardwalked dragonfly-rich area again.

Four-spotted Chasers were all over the shop. This one picked a very photogenic look-out perch.

We paused by one small pool to watch this fine female Emperor Dragonfly ovipositing. Unlike the smaller dragons, which lay their eggs with quick downward dips of their abdomens while in flight, she really took her time and settled for a minute or more each time.

Before we left, we took a short walk up a drier section of path, where I was hoping we might find a Silver-studded Blue or two. And so we did, two females and a male, flittering over the short heather. Nothing compared to the numbers I saw here on my very first visit in 1995, but we are coming to the end of the species' flight season.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Speyside - actually Troup Head

On the Wednesday of our week in Scotland, we forgot about dragonflies and went up to the Moray Firth. It proved a good choice weatherwise, the closer we got to the coast, the fewer clouds there were in the sky. We stopped at Banff harbour first, and tried to track down the company that does boat trips from here. Well, Rob did, while I went off down the harbour arm with my camera.

Banff is a few miles from Troup Head, but the latter has a gannetry and evidently the Gannets find good fishing round here. I got lots of blurry diving-Gannet pics and a handful of sharpish ones.

Kittiwakes were streaming past, almost all of them heading west.

A few Guillemots bobbed about in the mouth of the harbour. This one surfaced with a fish, and then showed me how much larger a fish he had almost caught.

Another couple of seabirds, included for completeness - a line of Razorbills, and a Shag. It was all looking very good for a boat trip, but sadly the boat trip company's posters said 'trips on request' and they weren't answering their phone. So we drove on to Troup Head, and followed a trail across amazingly fragrant flowery fields to the cliff edge. From here we could see (and hear, and smell) a vast avian metropolis on the sheer cliff faces. There followed several very happy hours of seabird-photographing.

Fulmars wheeled by at eye-level, often far too close for my lens, and sometimes so close that they could, if they had been so inclined, have accurately vomited on us. Happily they didn't.

Here's a bit of the sizeable gannetry. The Gannets were busily flying to and fro, though I didn't spot any feeding in the immediate vicinity. Most of the ones flying by were rather distant...

... with a few notable exceptions. Among the pristine white adults were a handful of mottled subadults, presumably just here to size things up and see how the colony works before returning to breed when they're all grown up.

The sea was covered with floating auks, mostly Guillemots and a few Razorbills. Not many auks flew by high enough for photos, though this Puffin came pretty close.

This bit of cliff is Guillemot city (with the odd Razorbill). There were a fair few fluffy chicks among the Guillies.

Here's part of Kittiwake city. They prefer deeper ledges than the auks. There were numerous baby Kittiwakes on view, already exhibiting their boldly patterned juvenile plumage.

A big bad Bonxie - one of five or six Great Skuas we saw today. I think they are here just for some light piracy rather than breeding locally.

The picture was completed by Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. Here's a second-summer of the latter species, looking suitably mean.

Finally the cloud caught up with us and we headed back towards the car, stopping for a Skylark.

What do burnet moths do on cloudy afternoons? This, apparently. In the flowery field we saw dozens of burnets, nearly all of them were in mating pairs.

A Small Tortoiseshell, soaking up what little sun it could.

This butterfly really caught my eye as it glided past, and I was very pleased that it landed on a thistle by the trail, permitting photographs and identification - a Dark Green Fritillary. ('Dark green? It's orange!' said Rob, not unreasonably).

We went back via Banff and I had another photo session on the harbour while Rob went off on a doomed search for a late fish and chip lunch.

I saw some different stuff this time. A couple of Sandwich Terns, a Turnstone and then this Curlew.

Our only seaduck of the day - a tatty male Common Eider.

Back at the car, I made a hungry Rob wait a few more minutes while I photographed this Rock Pipit.

It had a youngster in tow, making our baby-pipit tally for the week an impressive three species.

Speyside - dragon day trips

We had two long dragon-seeking trips to make, one to Glen Affric and the other to Bridge of Grudie by Loch Maree. Between them these two sites apparently represent the cream of Highland dragonfly-watching. We began with a visit to Glen Affric on the Tuesday.

We drove to Inverness, out again, alongside Loch Ness for miles, out west into the hills and finally a long, steep drive up a windy single-track road ended in a car park. The moment I opened the car door, a Chaffinch flew down and landed on the door frame, where it sat eyeing me expectantly. I crumbled a bit of cereal bar into my hand and offered it to the bird, which immediately came down and began to munch the crumbs.

Chaffinch fed, we set off along the 'yellow trail' towards Coire Loch, at first following a lively, rocky river, and then hiking up and away from the river into the glen.

Finally, at the summit of a bracken-cloaked hill, we got our first look at the loch. Perfectly round, it gleamed beguilingly far below us, and we stumbled down to its shore. There stood a lone wildlife-person, with big-lensed Canon around his shoulders. We joined him out at the loch shore, treading carefully on the soggy sphagnum. Numerous emerald dragonflies were doing their thing around the margins of the water. All three emeralds occur here, apparently, but all the ones I got a good look at seemed to be Downies.

Still, they seemed a little easier to photograph than the ones back home. Here is a female, identified by her less waisted abdomen, and the fact that her rear end is wet from recent ovipositing in the water.

These two, though, I think are Northern Emeralds. One of the two key ID features - the shape of the male's anal appendages - is not visible as said appendages are in use. But the book tells me that the yellow spots on the frons are equally diagnostic.

Besides the emeralds, the loch also held Four-spotted Chasers, Large Red Damselflies and Common Blue Damselflies. I found it particularly mind-boggling that the damsels were here, with so much hilly and dry terrain between this and other suitable sites.

Another intriguing sight was this congregation of tadpoles (or are they toadpoles?) in this submerged water lily. The loch was also home to a noisy family of Little Grebes.

 The sunny intervals were becoming fewer and further between, so we continued the walk, seeing not very much on the way apart from this sleepy Common Blue butterfly.

We visited Bridge of Grudie on our last day in Scotland. This was the longest drive of all, almost all the way across the highlands to Loch Maree. With some difficulty we parked in a tiny space next to the bridge and headed off down a sandy track which traversed a huge tract of heathy bogland, punctuated with lots of peaty little pools.

Clouds were rolling overhead, providing intermittent spells of surprisingly hot sunshine. In the first of these, a hawker dragonfly belted past us. I didn't get a great view of it but from Rob's description - 'it was made of blue' - I knew it was our target species, Azure Hawker. Unfortunately it didn't hang around.

I staked out a pool and waited for more dragon action. In the pool was a newt - a Palmate, the default newt species this far north. The sunshine brought Large Red Damselflies out of cover, and then a big dragon appeared and dipped its behind in the water a couple of times, before streaking away and settling close to where Rob was standing.

I yelled to Rob to photograph the dragon and he did so, eventually scaring it away though when he poked his lens too close to it. Looking at his pics, I was delighted to see that it was one of my most coveted species - Golden-ringed Dragonfly.

 We saw another Golden-ringed and a Common Hawker, but no more dragons. Rob wandered off and took this rather lovely scenic, unfortunately falling in the bog up to his thighs on the way to his chosen viewpoint.