Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Downland butterflies

This morning I took a train from Sevenoaks to Shoreham, three stops up the line (ie Shoreham the Kent village, not Shoreham by the sea near Brighton or any other Shorehams I may not know about). I'd worked out that from here it wasn't too long a walk to a lovely and butterfly-rich nature reserve on the North Downs, and indeed it wasn't.

The slope faces west, so at this time of year doesn't get any sunshine until about 7am. Bit of a waste me turning up at 6am? Well, not really, as I did see some things that would have been more tricky to get close to in sunlight.

Common Blue and Small Heath, in the butterfly equivalent of their beds, waiting to warm up. It might seem odd that they should roost on prominent, elevated perches, but in the night I imagine they are safer from ground beetles, hedgehogs etc than they would be lower down.

Two Adders, one of each (the female is the browny one). This is a good spot for them, and they are not that quick first thing in the morning, so I made sure to watch my step.

Lots of Ox-eye Daisies here, and every so often I found one with something in it - a beetle, hoverfly, or in this case a crab spider, arms wide open to welcome its breakfast.

After the sun had spread across much of the slope and I was busily trying to stalk Grizzled and Dingy Skippers (both of which were present in profusion) a man with a clipboard arrived and we had a short chat, in which he mentioned another nature reserve, managed specifically for butterflies, that was just up the road. So I went there, but the sunshine had not yet reached it so I didn't see very much, though I did find a couple of attractive macro moths - a Cinnabar and a Burnet Companion. I went back to the first field and busied myself looking for photographable skippers and also Small Blues, which Clipboard Man had mentioned were present.

I eventually located a couple of Small Blues, predictably enough flitting about near a large clump of Kidney Vetch (their larval foodplant). The photos aren't great but they're my first of this species. Unsharpness aside, I love the way those apparently dull dark wings reflect subtle blues, violets, greens and golds in the second pic.

Nothing subtle about these colours. It was good to add Peacock to the daylist, although I only saw one. It was a little ragged, not surprising given that it's been an adult for probably at least eight months.

A Small Heath in a rare moment of sunlit repose.

I was surprised to see so many Grizzled Skippers. They first emerge in April and so should be nearly at the end of their flight period, though I suppose the awful weather will have kept them mostly inactive. This one is looking a little careworn, but still posing proudly. In fact this individual struck three different poses for me, each better than the last.

Dingy Skipper was the most numerous species. It emerges a little later than Grizzled, so many individuals were in good nick. I saw a pair courting (actually a male trying to court and a female saying 'get lost' with eloquent butterfly body language) but didn't manage to capture the moment.

Also today, lots of pretty micromoths and other inverts that I'll need to look up and try to identify. Very little birdlife of note - Whitethroat and Skylark the main singing species. I'd hoped for Lesser Whitethroat but there was not a rattle to be heard. I was disappointed to see no Green Hairstreaks but their season is close to over. I made a few additions to the butterfly list after the gear was packed away - Large White as I started to walk back, Holly Blue on the very handy path that runs parallel to the A225, and Brimstone while I was waiting at Shoreham station.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Sweating the small stuff

I have a feeling I may have used this title before. But it is very fitting for this morning's report, given the heat down at Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve, and that I spent most of the time chasing insects with the Bigmac lens.

Before I switched to the Bigmac, though, I did photograph this very confiding Robin with my birding lens. This was in the wildlife garden, where I spent quite a while longer, photographing flowers and insects.

This is Green Alkanet, a very pretty flower that seems to grow like wildfire in many different places. There's even some in the 'front garden' (gravel driveway) at home.

By far the most abundant damsel around was Azure. This male did me a big favour by choosing a very striking place to rest, an unopened poppy flower bud.

Not to be outdone, this female of the same species setttled on an Ox-eye Daisy.

I walked up towards Willow hide, heading for the damsel mecca that is Long Lake. The vegetation is in full turbo growth mode, making birds difficult to see. I took a look at East Lake in passing, noting a few gulls asleep on one island, and a scattering of the usual summer birds - Lapwings, Cormorants, Tufties.

Long Lake is the place for Red-eyed Damselflies. The males often sit on lily pads, watching for passing rivals or romantic possibilities. This was the only one that came photographably close. However, no Downy Emeralds at all, unlike this time last year.
Also by Long Lake were a few Banded Demoiselles. These two females were contentedly sharing a leaf, showing off their gorgeous metallic colours.
I spent a while around Long Lake, looking for other insects of interest. One that came along was this beautiful little moth, Pyrausta aurata.

Just as pretty, this Red-tipped Flower Beetle. There was a brisk wind blowing and the grass blade it was on was being thrashed about quite a bit, so it took a while to get a sharp pic. After this I encouraged the beetle onto my finger, intending to move it to a more stable place for more photos, but it was having none of this and flew away.

Common Blue Damselflies were not so common today, in fact this was the only one I photographed.

Here's another lovely moth. Not very well photographed by me, apologies for that. Not quite sure what it is. I've had a good look on UK Moths and the best I can come up with is Silver-ground Carpet, but please correct me if I'm wrong.

One of only two Large Red Damsels seen today. Though this species is very widespread and certainly common, it doesn't seem to reach the same densities as some of the blue species, at least not round here. But then
Sevenoaks is a very safe Tory seat.

I walked back past West Lake, and went down to the shore to see what was about. Here I spotted this very fresh, damp-looking damsel blundering about in the vegetation, and couldn't resist picking it up for a closer look. I couldn't tell what species it was, as it had no clear pattern and its colour was a sort of murky green. Nor could I take a sensible photo of it, as it was sitting on my left hand and I really need two hands to use the camera properly. Still, if anyone knows how to identify damsels by their eyeballs, give me a shout.

Just after this, I heard some squawking from a lakeside tree, and through bins could see half of a perched Sparrowhawk. I switched lenses and tried to relocate the bird but couldn't. I decided to keep the birding lens on and go back towards Long Lake where I'd heard a few Reed Warblers singing. I paused by the shore of North Lake for a little while, and saw a Kingfisher bolt past, and two Downy Emeralds that were similarly uncooperative.

I had no luck with the Reed Warblers, and was on my way back when I heard cheeping from a tree hole. Peering at said hole, I saw a young Great Spotted Woodpecker's face in the shadows, peering out suspiciously at the world.

I found a hiding place fairly nearby and managed an adequate shot of the proud dad as he came to feed his brood.

At the risk of inducing 'Wren fatigue' in my readers, I'll end with another Wren, this one singing with great gusto down by the river as it goes between the East and West Lakes.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

A hot one at Rainham Marshes

Yesterday I went to Rainham with Shane, and we met Andy there for a day (well, a morning) of birding/insecting/mammaling/fishing (not that kind of fishing) on this lovely gem of a reserve in east London. The clouds burned away within the first half hour and then it was hazy but hot sunshine for the rest of the day.

A Wren, singing on the sign by the riverside path. I was on the wrong side of it at first, so did the tactic of walking briskly and nonchalantly past it, eyes straight ahead, and then turning back once I had the sun behind me. It didn't mind at all when I walked past very close, but once I turned to look at it and the camera went up its little faced filled with anxiety (sort of) and it flew off. Not quite quick enough though, eh Mr Wren?

The air was filled with the discordant cries of fledgling Starlings, while their hard-working parents flew to and fro, looking for insects to stuff down the little ones' constantly open gullets.

We followed the trail clockwise, along the path/boardwalk through reedbeds that were alive with Reed Warbler song.

From the second hide, which isn't really a hide but a pleasant room with full length glass windows, with an adjacent viewing screen, we had good views of a pair of Little Grebes. The reserve is full of these little beauties, it seemed that every pool and ditch had its own resident pair.

At some point along this early part of the trail I took my best Reed Warbler photo of the day, which isn't saying much.

The tide was coming in and we saw a number of Shelducks coming in from the river, to join Lapwings and Redshanks on the meadow. One group of four went over quite low and I noticed that one bird seemed to be trying to give another a mid-air kicking.

We paused on the bridge by the one-way gate to the river path, and took a look up and down the wide ditch for Water Voles. Shane spotted one very close but it spooked and disappeared. Then another paddled across the water some distance away, and to our joy went back and forth twice more before grabbing some greenery for its lunch and disappearing among the reeds.

At the far end of the reserve we heard a Cuckoo cuckooing and soon saw it plus its mate, though not well enough for good pics. With such a healthy Reed Warbler population, it's easy to see why Cuckoos would be around.

All around the reserve we'd been hearing Marsh Frogs gurgling away and now we started to see them in the small pools.

Another ubiquitous sound was the frankly unimpressing song of Reed Buntings. They made up for their lack of musical prowess by being very showy and, in some cases, quite approachable. Who's a pretty boy, then?

Another one that showed well (though briefly) was this Sedge Warbler. If I remember rightly, it was somewhere near hear that I heard a Lesser Whitethroat, and actually SAW it outlined in a backlit tree for a moment before it flew.

A word about today's Odonata. There were a fair few damsels on the wing, lovely to see, though I only identified Azure and Blue-tailed. We also saw two Broad-bodied Chasers. I think that's what they were anyway, I had only fleeting views but did get an impression of yellowy-brownness. Also, there were plenty of white butterflies around (couldn't be sure whether we were seeing Small Whites, Green-veined Whites or both), plus Brimstones, a Peacock and, in the wooded area, LOTS of Holly Blues.

Back at the visitor centre, we sat outside in the shade, had tea, and watched the action at the bird feeders. Among several Woodpigeons we saw one Stock Dove, which landed on a nearby fence but sadly I failed to get a sharp pic. I did a little better with the Starlings, here a fledgling has taken pester power into the aerial dimension.

We shelved our plans to do the whole loop again in reverse, we were all suffering the effects of the heat. Instead we decided to walk down to the one-way gate and then back along the river path.

We'd just embarked on the path when a Hobby went over. It wheeled about, deftly hawking insects, and was joined by another. They went further and further away and we continued along the path. Then, as we neared the gate, one of them sneaked up behind us and shot past very close and low, a thrilling moment.

The walk back along the river was rather quiet. A Whitethroat sang from the bankside scrub, and over the water flew a piping party of Redshanks.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Rye Meads under a cloud

Graham, Shane and I arranged an impromptu visit to Rye Meads yesterday. It was a rather grey day but very enjoyable nonetheless to wander around this lovely RSPB reserve.

Shane and I arrived 45 minutes before the gates opened (whoops) but the staff let us into the car park, so we could go into the Lapwing hide. This commands a fine view across a large rectangle of marshy grassland, over which flew Lapwings (well, of course) and Black-headed Gulls. A pair of Shovelers near the hide looked dismayed when we arrived (this is one of the problems with the very large hide windows that seem to be everywhere these days) and flew away. Threesomes of Gadwalls periodically took off from the marsh and flew a circuit around it before pitching back down again. Over a distant ridge I glimpsed a Fox - could it have been Alice, the famous Rye Meads Vixen? Oh yes, and this Sedge Warbler was giving it some from the scrubby edges.

 We stayed in the Lapwing hide til 10am, adding a distant Pheasant to the day list but not seeing the Marsh Harrier that was here yesterday. Comic relief was provided by a Magpie and a Woodpigeon, the Maggie chasing the Woodpig around and trying to topple it off the fence posts.

On to Draper hide (can you tell I'm checking the reserve map?). Now, I don't know if any fans of the sci-fi animated series Futurama are watching... well, there is an episode where we briefly get to see what Leela, the one-eyed space captain, would look like with two eyes, when her reflection is distorted in a rippling puddle. The same effect has happened here with this Pochard, but I'm not sure if having two eyes on the same side of the head is a good look for a duck.

 There are several pairs of Little Grebes at Rye Meads, two of them uneasily sharing the small lake on view from Draper hide. No Great Cresteds though, for some reason.

We carried on along the trail, through avenues of fragrant hawthorn and other springlike vegetation, to the Kingfisher hide. This hide attracts lots of visitors on a good day, as it provides guaranteed (though not particularly close) photo opportunities of the Kingfishers that are breeding in an artificial sandbank. There is plenty of other stuff to see while you wait, including this handsome male Gadwall, and a pair of Tufted Ducks that seemed to be in courtship mode despite the male beginning to moult into eclipse plumage. A real treat was a pair of Bullfinches chomping buds in the bushes. After a half-hour wait a Kingfisher arrived, disappeared into the nest hole, popped out again and left - blink and you'd miss it.

 As we left the Kingfisher hide, we noticed the soft chorus of 'tcks' and 'prrps' that meant there were Long-tailed Tits around. There was in fact a family group, adults plus at least six fledglings, picking about in the bushes along the trail, and we eventually got great views of the bandit-masked babies and their haggard-looking parents.

We followed the trail up to Warbler hide. This seems a good time to talk warblers - over the day we had Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat (heard only - dammit!), Garden, Sedge, Reed and Cetti's. The Warbler hide overlooks the expanse of reedbed at the far side of the same marshy patch you see from Lapwing hide. On the way up the ramp into this hide we flushed this Pheasant.

From the hide we could hear and occasionally see Reed Buntings and Reed Warblers, and things looked perfect for a fly-by Hobby but that didn't happen. After a while I left the hide to indulge my Swift-photographing addiction in less than ideal conditions. One of the local Kestrels went by.

We retraced our steps, heading back for the Kingfisher hide for another try. On the ways we saw settled Orange-tips of both sexes (it had warmed up a little, though was still cloudy). Here's the female.

More insect action! Where the path divides in two, the air at head-height on the right-hand path was completely occupied by these swarming Honey-bees. We took the left-hand path.

Back at the Kingfisher hide, we didn't have to wait even a microsecond, there was a Kingfisher installed on a post (sadly the most distant one) as we walked in. It was having a good old preen, presumably removing the slimy residue of its last meal.

From this hide there's a great view of a pylon, with a Kestrel nestbox on it. We saw the female Kestrel arrive with prey, and then noticed the male was sitting in a nearby dead tree. Graham said that this tree could be seen much better from part of the boardwalk, so we left the hide and hurried off that way to have a look.

He was still there when we arrived, and sat unconcerned while we took pictures. I even had time to experiment with some pretty extreme exposure compensation, to try to deal with the backlighting. Then a couple of Common Terns came over and while we were admiring them the Kestrel discreetly flew away.

Our last stops were the back-to-back Tern and Gadwall hides. From Tern hide we saw two Common Sandpipers, one of which eventually came close to the hide but sadly I'd left by that point to photograph Swifts again (sigh) so had to settle for admiring Graham's lovely photos of it. I include this photo because I like the way the sandpiper seems to be trying to sneak past the sleeping Pochard. Good views of the Common Terns from Gadwall hide, a couple of Sand Martins from Tern hide. Then it was back to the visitor centre where I had a cup of tea from a complicated machine, and then home time.

ETA - I nearly forgot about this one - weird insect found inside one of the hides. I think it is a moth-fly (also known as 'owl-midge'), family Psychodidae. Anyone able to shed any more light? It was very small and I didn't have the macro lens, so it's a pretty rubbish photo.