Wednesday, 18 September 2013


Signs of a seasonal change at Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve - weather has become horrible, lots of groups of hirundines are going over, the (still very leafy) woods are full of Chiffchaff chat and there aren't very many insects around. I went to the reserve with Shane this morning, an impulse decision, and because it was a bit rubbish we also went to Bough Beech. It was a mostly sunny morning, with light breezes, and was getting quite warm by lunchtime.

One of the afore-mentioned hirundines, photographed over the car park. This bird's brownish smudgy neck says it's a juvenile House Martin, just a few weeks old and ready to take on the world.

We went directly to Willow hide, hoping for a Kingfisher show. We did see at least one but not photographably. The water level here has risen a little, not as much as I'd have thought from all the rain there has been lately. There were good numbers of Teals on the water but no sign of the first autumn Wigeon yet, nor even any Gadwalls or Shovelers. Flyovers included several Jays and a few Stock Doves, including this one which (in blithe disregard of the season) was carrying a bulky bit of nesting material.

On to Tyler hide, where the muddy shores everywhere looked good for waders, except (apparently) unless you actually are a wader. After much searching I finally located a distant, embarrassed-looking Snipe, but apart from that, just Lapwings, Teals, BHGs and a shedload of geese. We continued to Sutton hide and found a lot more geese with a few Cormorants among them, including these two doing their werewolf impressions.

The insistent squeaking of three Great Crested Grebe chicks hassling their parent carried to us from the far side of the lake. Another GCG, this one unencumbered by offspring, paddled into the nearby shallows and gave itself a very thorough preen, striking various cute and bizarre postures in the process.

On the walk back, it was warm enough for butterflies. We found two Commas feeding on the dregs of Buddleia flowers near Tyler hide, plus a few whites. The wildlife garden produced a couple of Common Darters, the only dragons around today.

And so on to Bough Beech, which we reached more by luck than judgement thanks to my shoddy navigating and a sat nav that couldn't find its signal. We pulled up on the causeway to scan the reservoir, which was very depleted with much exposed shore. On the other side, the water here was reduced to a few pools and channels.

At last, a wader! And an unexpected one. This Black-tailed Godwit was in one of the channels, all on its own, and was giving itself an indulgent face-and-bill mudpack treatment.

Nor was it the only wader around. Further out on the same side was a fine Greenshank, and we found another on the reservoir side. Back on the... non-reservoir side, Shane found a Common Sandpiper bobbing about on a pile of rocks, and finally we pinned down an example of the most expected wader of all, a Green Sandpiper.

On the reservoir side, there were lots of Greylags on the shore nearby, and scattered Little Egrets as far as the eye could see. This one wasn't very far at all though. There were also Mallards, Tufties and BHGs, plus a single winter-plumaged Common Tern energetically fishing.

We walked down to the visitor centre, stopping at the gate by the orchard where the feeding station used to be and noting that it wasn't there any more. Is this just a summer thing? I hope so. Then on to the little hide. I was pleased to see that the pool that it overlooks has been effectively screened off from the paths now. However, on opening the hide windows we discovered that the pool is not (at least not at the moment) a pool at all, but an expanse of soggy-looking green vegetation across which a few Moorhens were wandering. I scanned the dead trees behind the pool-that-isn't-a-pool, ever hopeful for a Little Owl, but found only a few Goldfinches and Linnets.

So it was in a state of mild disappointment that we headed back to the causeway. I suppose a migrating Osprey was a little too much to hope for but not even a Buzzard? Ah well, it was nice to be out. And I found another wader at the last moment, a Snipe that was much closer than the one at Sevenoaks, and showing off its lovely chestnut tail feathers into the bargain.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Reflections on summer

The weather forecast says that tomorrow it will be freezing cold with torrential rain. Can't wait. Meanwhile, I decided to pop down to the local patch for another crack at the Kingfishers, as it was (like yesterday) looking like a beautiful still and sunny day. I set off at about 8am, only intending to stay an hour or so, got home about 1pm. Whoops.

I headed for Willow hide. When I was almost there I noticed a green caterpillar dangling on a thread from a tree. This bungee-jumping is something that a lot of tortricid species do to escape danger. But in this case it didn't work. There was a parasitic wasp on the caterpillar and it looks like her ovipositor has found its target. Pity the light was not better.

There was another birder/photographer in the hide, and as the morning went on a couple more joined us, all intent on Kingfishers and looking set for a long stay. Because the tall stools in the hide have gone awol, and the benches are too low for me, I have to stand up when I want to take pictures. And because I wanted to take pictures of lots of things that weren't Kingfishers, I was standing up and sitting down a lot, to the consternation of the others in the hide who kept thinking I'd found a Kingfisher when in reality I was taking pictures of a Teal, Black-headed Gull or something similarly uninteresting (if your heart's set on Kingfishers). To be fair I did let them all know immediately whenever I saw a Kingfisher, which happened five or six times during my stay (though in some cases the bird didn't stop to have its picture taken).

While it was still just two of us and the light hadn't reached the nearest bit of mud, two Grey Wagtails arrived, but they didn't stay long enough for sunny photos. Still, good to see. It takes a lot of mud to tempt them down to this lake.

No, I didn't accidentally hit 'rotate file'. There were a dozen or so Canada Geese loafing on one of the muddy islands and I decided to take a photo of just the reflection of one of them. Not sure the result is terribly edifying but it does show how beautifully still the water was.

The geese presently waddled into the water, and then started making a racket before taking off for the fields for a leisurely day of grass-eating.

Then two Lapwings arrived. Both looked like this year's youngsters, and they hung around the whole time I was there, moving between the mud islands and generally being pretty. I took a lot of shots of them...

Gorgeous birds. I also tried a 'reflection only' pic, which I think was a bit more successful than the goose one, because of the golden tones in the water.

A few Jays were going back and forth at the back of the lake. Also seen around the margins were two Great Spotted Woodpeckers and one or two Stock Doves.

This Black-headed Gull is freshly moulted into its winter plumage and wanted to show off. The outermost primaries are not quite full length yet.

There were three or four Kingfisher visits to the sticks. Sadly all were rather brief and I didn't manage any flight shots, let alone any plunge-into-the-water shots.

Two Grey Herons, an adult and a youngster, came down to the water. This one walked across the full length of the lake, ending up too close to fit in the frame. I thought for a while that it was eyeing up a half-grown Moorhen chick which was swimming about with its parent, but the parent made sure the little one kept a good distance away.

The chick in question. It's at that awkward age where it's covered with both fluff and feathers.

I left the hide at about noon and wandered back to the car park. I had originally intended to visit other hides but it was now very hot and I was tired and headachey so I didn't. I did note some late-summer birdsong going on - Chiffchaffs chiffchaffing, Coal Tits tswee-tswee-tsweeing. There were still a lot of Common Blue Damselflies about, plus a few Migrant Hawkers.

I did stop in the wildlife garden for as long as it took to photograph this gorgeous female Southern Hawker, laying eggs in the tiny pond there.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013


OK. If you don't like spiders, you're not going to like this post. You'd better find something else to read.

That includes you, Rob.

OK, now we've got rid of that lot... Today was very warm and totally sunny, and I visited RSPB Rainham Marshes with Shane, Graham and Tony. My main objective was to find and photograph a local eight-legged speciality - the Wasp Spider. I failed in the first part but succeeded in the second, thanks to some assistance from Rainham Man in the Know Howard Vaughan. But first things first.

It just happened that the first thing was a spider. A female Four-spot Orb-weaver to be exact. Shane found her alongside the grassy area by the Ken Barrett hide where Howard had told us the Waspies live, but I (despite my near total ignorance of all things spidery) was pretty sure she wasn't the right species, as she lacked stripes on her hefty abdomen. Howard V later confirmed the ID for us.

Yet another Migrant Hawker. But they're having to work hard to be included in my blog now. This one made the cut by sitting on a lovely purple Phragmites head.

Aaaand... yet another Ruddy Darter. I just liked the pic. And it's interesting to me that we are still seeing lots of Ruddies - I'm sure they finished earlier than this last year.

While scouring the patch of grassland that was reputedly full of Wasp Spiders (and not finding any), we did find several of these nice-looking beetles. I'm hoping someone will ID them for me... ETA - and I've had an ID now, thank you MarJus - species is Chrysolina banksi.

Further on, things were nearly birdless though we'd noticed a few Hobbies up above and been shown a distant Greenshank on the Aveley pools. through a kind fellow birder's scope. I didn't do this scene justice but in case it's not clear what's going on, these are juvenile Moorhens and they are preening each other (allopreening). Very sweet, and not a behaviour I've seen or read about in this species before.

A Small Tortie up near the Butts hide. Other butterflies about - Common Blues, Speckled Woods, all three common whites and one Clouded Yellow which, typically, was in a tearing hurry.

Up here we had a closeish flyby Hobby, then what seemed at first glance to be two more but a proper look revealed they were female-type Kestrels, wheeling about together most companiably. The only shot I managed with both in frame is blurry so here's one on its own.

They drifted off, then we saw them again a bit further off. Except it wasn't them, it was a Hobby and a Kestrel. I guess these must have been about the same distance from me as they're both more or less in focus, so this is a shape/size comparison. Not a very helpful one though, as they are in completely different poses.

On the way back, I noticed another female Four-spot Orb-weaver. This one had attracted an admirer, a skinny male who obviously appreciates a well-rounded female figure. He kept trying to get close and being repelled, but I did catch a brief arachnid embrace. I am not sure if females of this species habitually dine on their partners but he certainly seemed willing to take the chance.

About here, we had the closest Hobby of the day (still not very close though). I would estimate there were at least five different Hobbies around today.

Anyone fancy IDing this cute grasshopper?

As usual, a Little Grebe was on view through the bars by the Marshland Disovery Zone. I include its photo mainly because I like the ripples.

We'd been trying to find Water Voles all day with no success. A last look from the bridge by Purfleet hide was also fruitless vole-wise, but did produce this Marsh Frog resting on a discarded bit of RSPB literature. (Now RSPB litterature).

We went in to the cafe and purchased refreshments. While we were up there the guy on reception was notified by walkie-talkie of a couple of nice sightings - a Marsh Harrier over Aveley pools and a Green Sandpiper on Purfleet scrape. I managed to see both of these through the full-length windows. Then Howard came over to talk books, and when I mentioned that we'd not found any Wasp Spiders by the Ken Barratt hide, he offered to take us back there and find some for us.

He was as good as his word, finding about five of the little (actually, two of them were massive) beauties. There's a knack to it, which he'd actually explained but I'd totally misunderstood. You need to look for a 'hole in the grass', like the smallish, roundish area of squashed grass you'd get if you stepped with one foot into long grass. The Wasp Spider makes this hollow (somehow) and in it spins its web. This means that the spiders are a) pretty low down and b) surrounded by tall grass, so they are really hard to photograph well, especially with a long lens as you have to stand well back which means lots of grass gets in the way. A shortish macro would be much better, I reckon. Here's one of my better attempts. And I know now how to find them, for next time. Thanks again, Howard :)