Friday, 19 June 2015

A flash of brilliance

How lucky am I - two birding/wildlife trips on consecutive days. Today Phil Sharp and I went to Old Lodge nature reserve, in Ashdown Forest. Now, I'm sure I've been here before, some years ago, but nothing about the place seemed familiar. We drove down across lovely open heathland, and Phil pointed out where last year's Short-toed Eagle (which everyone except me went to see) had hung out.  No Short-toed Eagles were to show up today but something just as good (IMHO) did.

In the car park, a cute baby Rabbit grazed, and eyed me anxiously as I took its photo through the car window.

Old Lodge is heathland and pinewood with some pools and a stream in the deep valley that runs down its centre. It is home to various birds that are generally not easy to find in the south-east. In particular, it is well known for its Common Redstarts. Within moments of arrival we had seen several, including fledged young.

Some of the Redstarts. Though numerous they were not very approachable for us - I'd like to have another try, maybe in spring.

We also found a family of Great Spotted Woodpeckers along this upper, wooded path. Here's one of the juveniles.

In a more open area, we spotted a dark, large-looking dragonfly whizzing about, our first of the day. It pitched down in the heather some way off and we went in search, hoping it might be a Golden-ringed (one of the local specialities). Phil spotted the settled dragon first, and said in surprised and slightly awed tones, 'It's a Brilliant Emerald'. My response was an undignified squeal of joy. The next 20 minutes or so involved us edging closer and closer to the resting female dragon which, being teneral, was quite OK about this and let us get close enough for frame-fillers from several angles.

We were both jubilant at enjoying such wonderful view of this dragon, one of the most beautiful odonates I've ever seen. Brilliant Emeralds are, on a national level, one of our rarest dragonflies, occurring only in the south-east of England and the north of Scotland. They occur at Thursley and I had what I put down as a 'probable' there flying over the Moat a couple of years ago, but having seen this indisputable one at close range I'm now a bit doubtful about the Thursley sighting. Though often spoken of in the same breath as Downy Emerald it gives a very different impression to that species.

We carried on the upper path, having fleeting views of Woodlark as well as more Redstarts, and an impossibly high circling Buzzard. Then the path headed down a steep slope, through light woodland where we saw Treecreeper, Bullfinches and Song Thrushes. Then things opened out again and we reached a few small pools on the hillside that looked very Odonata-friendly.

We soon found a fine male Broad-bodied Chaser and several Four-spotted Chasers. Around the margins of the pools were Common Blue and Large Red damsels.

 Patrolling the lushest-looking of the little ponds was this superb male Emperor Dragonfly. He was taking occasional breathers in the waterside sedges but most of the time he was zooming up and down over the pool, chasing the chasers. Now and then a female would show up, whereupon he rushed up to her and the pair would have a brief, frantic mid-air copulation, and then she would zoom off again and he would resume his patrolling/resting schedule.

I decided to try to catch the male in flight, setting myself up for 40 minutes of sheer frustration. On what I swore would be my last try I managed a few frames of actual dragonfly but didn't think they were any good - was pleasantly surprised to find this one when I got home.

Emperors are not given to hang on the spot, like Migrant Hawkers and Downy Emeralds sometimes do. However, this male did slow down a bit when approaching the area where he liked to perch.

Leaving the dragons behind, we headed down into the valley and the stream, which was devoid of dragons. The path then climbed the hillside to the far edge of the reserve.

The climb was steep, and it was a bit of a relief to pause now and then and photograph something - in this case one of the many orchids (I think Common Spotted) growing among the heather.

We also stopped to have a look at a Tree Pipit which was singing exuberantly away from a very high treetop. We waited a while and were rewarded with a fantastic song-flight, the little bird parachuting directly overhead while throwing out an even more upbeat version of its song.

A third pause and then detour came when we saw a Cuckoo perched in a dead tree, and as we were thinking about trying to get closer, it flew down to ground level. We stalked up to where we thought it had landed but managed to flush it without ever seeing it on the deck.

The Cuckoo detour did produce extra interest in the form of this mad little fungus (we think it's a fungus, anyway), sprouting out of a well-rotted tree stump. Any thoughts on ID most welcome...

The path along the far side didn't produce very much - another Tree Pipit or two, a Siskin, a Stonechat family. Then we were looping back towards the car park.

The last stretch of path before we completed the circuit produced one of the day's few butterflies, this Small Heath. We also saw Meadow Browns (first of the year for me), and a couple of fast-moving Painted Ladies and Small Torties.

We had a sit-down under a tree in an area that seemed quite busy with birdlife, and this young Stonechat came along and posed on a Foxglove. Then a small party of Woodlarks went overhead, and landed not far off, so we attempted to approach them.

The Woodlarks were foraging on bare ground near the road but resolutely stayed out of camera reach. Here is a record shot, which is at least recognisable as a Woodlark. A nicely pink-chested Linnet sang nearby.

And I have no further photos, your honour. We did go back to the pools for a little while but I could not get anywhere near a photo of the Emperor. It was a great day all in, and I definitely hope to return to this lovely reserve.

No Hobby puns here...

No offence to those who enjoy Hobby puns but I am so over that. Ditto 'Britain's got talons'. I went to Dungeness with Shane on Wednesday and we enjoyed a sunny though breezy walk around the reserve, and a great many Hobby sightings. It was a rare moment when there weren't at least a couple in view, and the top 'in view' count was seven.

But first things first. We drove down the access track and enjoyed an extremely close Marsh Harrier flyby. Unfortunately the rest of the day's Marshies really kept their distance. We went into most of the Burrowes Pit hides, from where we saw nothing terribly exciting.

Black-headed Gulls on Burrowes Pit, loafing in the sun - clearly this lot have no current breeding responsibilities and plenty of leisure time.

The excitement then ramped up a notch or two when a Common Gull decided it had to sit in exactly the spot that a Black-headed was sitting.

Common Gulls are rare breeding birds in the south-east, but do breed at Dunge, offering a relatively rare chance for us to see them in their pristine white-headed summer attire.

Also on the pits were a few moulting Mallards and Shovelers, several Great Crested Grebes, the usual Cormorant gang, a couple of distant Ringed Plovers, Greylag Geese and Lapwings.

As we headed towards Christmas Dell hide, we got out of the wind a bit and started to see lots of insect life - damselflies in particular. Most were Common Blues, like this 'drab form' female. A couple of Four-spotted Chasers also appeared, and we heard but did not see Beardies pinging away.

Parts of the pathside shrubbery were heaving with these caterpillars, which I know I should know (they do seem familiar) but somehow I don't. I've had a quick search for them on UK Moths and will have another go later. ETA - Lackey moths! Thank you Shane :)

The paths (everywhere) were lined with Viper's Bugloss, a favourite of mine and looking particularly fabulous at the moment.

We took Hobby photos almost everywhere, but the path between Christmas Dell hide (where, incidentally, an invisible Lesser Whitethroat was singing) and Denge Marsh hide offered the best views.

Just a few of the various Hobby-poses with which we were presented. They are rather easier to track in flight than Swifts - the main trouble was catching them in good light and facing the right way, as they seemed very skilled at angling themselves exactly the wrong way (I have many shots of silhouetted Hobby rear views).

From Denge Marsh hide there's quite a close view of a tern raft, complete with Common Terns to-ing and fro-ing. Also a pair of Oystercatchers nesting on the raft.

As with Burrowes pit, there was a smattering of wildfowl here. These two Mallards are both eclipse drakes.

 We saw a couple of Black-tailed Skimmers on the way round, but they were very skittish - only this one permitted photos.

We took the path across the reserve back to the visitor centre. The scrub was full of singing Whitethroats and a few Linnets. Sedge, Cetti's and Reed Warblers were also singing a bit. And back at the visitor centre I found this beauty nestled in a nettle leaf. My investigations have led me to Great Green Bush-cricket nymph - a first for me if so. Sorry I cut short its right antenna.

We 'did' the ARC pit next, visiting the hide first. This Scarlet Pimpernel was growing on the sandy bank.

The Willow loop was open and the number of damsels on this sheltered path was quite ridiculous. We also found this cracking praenubila form Four-spotted Chaser, I think the first one I've ever seen. The blue blur behind it is one of the many damsels.

We finished with a walk to the viewing screen/hide thing. The water in front of the hide is much diminished and there were no birds within close range. However, it soon became apparent that Swallows were nesting in the corner of the hide.

It was possible to get pics of the approaching adults if you were lucky. They didn't seem to mind coming into the hide despite our presence.

 A very rare use of the little built-in flash on my camera allowed me to catch this pic of the five nearly-ready-to-fledge chicks. Aw.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Swift and sure

Yesterday I spent the morning and early afternoon at Rainham with Shane. It was breezy and mostly cloudy but we had some bright moments at the start and end. Many, many photos were taken - mostly of Swifts. We started out with a walk along the river (as we were there an hour ahead of opening time) and this was also peak Swift time - lots of them low-flying between the river and the reserve. Sadly not a lot of sun at this time though. Shane now has a DSLR and so joined me in trying to get pics of the nippy little blighters.

Here are some of the successful Swift shots. Many more were failures.

Other fly-past things included a lone Common Tern, a few Shelducks heading river-wards, and a smattering of House Martins. For the record, there were also a few Swallows about but I didn't get any pics of them.

Also along the riverside was this Whitethroat, taking a break from song-flighting.

We decided to walk round anticlockwise. This Whitethroat and Sedgie were both right by the Purfleet hide.

From the hide itself there was not a lot to see, though inside it was a great exhibition - very detailed insect and other invert illustrations by Carim Nahaboo. Have a look here if you'd like to see examples.

At the MDZ, the Kingfishers were not home (as usual, in my experience) but we did find this stumpy-tailed little Reed Warbler fledgling, just about discernable through a wall of reed.

At the far end, sky-scanning produced no Hobbies, while loitering at the Dragonfly Pools produced some pings from deep in the windswept reeds but no Bearded Tits. The Redshanks were still much in evidence, as were Lapwings and Skylarks.

Over the Target Pools (which are, incidentally, looking very dried out at the moment) wheeled this Common Buzzard, first and as it turned out only raptor of the day.

 Meanwhile, these two Linnet juvs sat on the railing by the Tower hide.

From the Tower hide were the usual mass of common waterfowl, with the usual bad lighting. I looked out of the left-hand side window in hope of seeing the Linnets again but instead found this Wren, collecting feathers for its nest.

The return walk wasn't terribly exciting. I include this pic of a Cormorant because it shows quite a wide Rainham view that's miraculously free of tower blocks, pylons and flyovers.

We checked all the ditches and dykes for Water Voles but found none. There were plenty of Coot families with various-aged young. It's a bit grim but Coots practice brood reduction, killing off some of their own chicks at a very early stage, so a brood of six or seven tiny Cootlets usually becomes a brood of four or fewer adolescents like this. This chick was one of two, each being looked after by one of its parents, and I must say that the constant whining cries the chicks were making was quite annoying enough with just the two of them.

Quite near the woodland, Shane found our one and only Common Lizard of the day. It must have been quite chilled (in both senses of the word) as it put up with us lying down close to it for photos.

On into the woods and we saw very little here, even the Cordite store had scant insect life in evidence. It was now about noon and the cloud was at its thickest.

About the only thing that caused me to raise my camera here was a pair of Collared Doves, looking the picture of togetherness atop a photogenic ivy-covered stump.

A Robin, carrying food for its chicks, landed on the railing of the visitor centre ramp as we walked up, and posed with all the poise and confidence that befits the newly crowned National Bird of the UK.

We had tea at the visitor centre and set off again to walk down to the Dragonfly Pools in the hope of finding the Beardies - and the sun began to come out.

A Magpie enjoying the sunny spell from the ramp up to the visitor centre.

A male House Sparrow enjoying a dust-bath on the path just before Purfleet hide. It's an odd thing about the Rainham sparrows - despite the constant human activity around their preferred spot near the visitor centre, and the availability of crumbs from the picnic tables, they are quite nervy and won't allow close approach.

By the Purfleet hide, we found this Little Grebe with its (very little) little ones.

A closer view of one of the little fluffkins. It would have fitted neatly into a tablespoon.

The family swam under the boardwalk bridge and I took this shot of one of the babes from above. It (the photo) is flawed in many ways but I like the water swirls, the droplets, and the tabby-cat pattern on the chick's back.

 We went into the MDZ again, and for the first time (for me anyway) got lucky - the male Kingfisher was sitting on view (sort of). The people already present kindly pointed out the best gap in the mesh to peer through, in order to see the bird sitting quietly on a very low perch. The pair's last brood fledged about a week or so and they are currently cleaning out all the crap and fish bits from the nest hole ready to start the next brood.

 A little further on, more baby-making - a Moorhen sitting tight on her nest close to the boardwalk.

Carrying on to the Dragonfly Pools, our luck held - two juvenile Beardies soon appeared on one of the metal dragonfly sculptures and struck a few poses. They must have been glad of something to sit on which wasn't being thrashed about by the wind.

In between Beardie shots I photographed this Woodpigeon on the 2 of the shooting range numbers (there were also Woodies on 6 and 7 but those lacked the pretty foreground yellowness of 2).

The Redshanks were also making themselves noticed here, flying about and calling a lot, and attempting (unsuccessfully) to perch on the narrow wire on top of the Fox-proof fence.

All the signs are that both Redshanks and Lapwings are having a pretty good breeding season here.

We headed back after that, via the reserve rather than the riverside, and exited though the lower turnstile rather than the visitor centre. This enabled us to take a look at the swarm of Honey-bees which have moved in here.