Thursday, July 02, 2020

Canvey Island Jewels

June/July crossover, wind and clouds. What a rubbish combination. Nevertheless Mike and I decided to have a go at that ditch at Canvey.

There was limited variety - no sign of any Southern Migrant Hawkers, but we had 100+ Ruddy Darters, and a few Emeralds to brighten up the day.

I took my trusty macro lens to help with the id, although Mike was on the case so we had no issues there. Just one small problem - my iMac has become almost completely useless since I casually and naively clicked on Yes to install the Catalina operating system. However I managed today by judicious Googling to find out how to load photos, so here goes.

First up is local speciality the Southern Emerald. Just look at those bicoloured pterostigma! And on further inspection, yellowish behind the eyes, smooth flank with no mark. Very pleased to have come across this one again.

There were plenty of Scarce Emeralds too - some really nice males. This one had me confused as it have white edges to the pterostimga but I think this is Scarce not Southern as the other features seem to be Scarce - no yellow behind eyes, slight tick mark on the side of the body.

We thought we'd finish off with a visit to Blue House Farm at North Fambridge, but the car park was closed and the alternative parking arrangements were lacking, so that was it. Short, but productive.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Spending Time at His Majesty's Pleasure - Knepp Estate, 23rd June

For those interested in natural history, a visit to Knepp Estate is becoming essential. The story of the Knepp Estate, not far from Gatwick airport, moving from an intensive farm largely devoid of wildlife to a livestock farm offering a haven for all wildlife is well known and is described in detail in the Excellent book 'Wilding' written by landowner and farmer Isabella Tree.

But there's nothing like seeing it for yourself. Still not able to go birding with others I drove down to Knepp, and was delighted when completely by coincidence Mike pulled in next to me. What are the chances of that randomly happening?

We parked at the temporary car park opposite the entrance to the farm (£5) and were given a map (see here) Walked down to the farm and then the fun started. We took the white path round to the SW corner where the UK's first nesting White Storks for years were present in a large tree in a field. Two good size young and an adult on a neighbouring branch and a good crowd. As we walked on we saw a flock of 12 Storks in the air, an amazing spectacle for the UK. We walked on up toward the west side where the white and purple walks meet, and there spent a couple of hours watching Purple Emperors. We eventually settled on a total of 11 individuals, mainly flying round the tops of oaks and then perching. Once a lower trip gave us decent views. We didn't get any on the ground but were very happy with the views we had seeing these magnificent creatures establishing and protecting their territories.

If you are going, I would suggest going to where white path meets purple at the NW corner of the white walk, from there carry on a hundred meters clockwise until there is a branch off left in the path. Take this and you will see the path extending ahead with a long open strip, a mass of sallows on the left and oaks on the right. You can see it on the aerial photo on the map as a vertical strip. Walk up to where two dead trees have fallen over, and there look into the oaks.

The story is that these butterflies suddenly and unexpectedly appeared here. But to my eye, this is a massive area of perfect Emperor habitat. The many enormous oaks are decades old, and I suspect there were sallows here for a while, so my guess its the old story that they were there all the time, but unless someone who knows their stuff goes at the right time of year on the right day and looks in the right place at the right time, no-one sees them.

This general area gave us the best wildlife sightings. In addition to His Majesty we had Silver Washed Fritillary (two distantly), White Admiral (two close up), and a variety of other more common butterflies including many Marbled White. Best for me was a male Beautiful Demoiselle that settled on a bramble - a first for me. A stunning creature, all metallic blues. And a Turtle Dove singing unseen in the distance.

We headed back to the farm, with a few Storks feeding in a field, and then just by the farm stopped at a brook and saw Large Red Damselfly and Mike picked up a slightly odd blue damselfly in flight which when it settled was clearly a White-Legged Damselfly.

The farm-related wildlife is present too - Fallow Deer, Tamworth-like russet piglets, Horses, Cattle, but not everywhere.

All in we spent about 4 hours plus walking round. It is an impressive place, and quite big. Apparently a Red-Backed Shrike spent some weeks there a couple of years ago - well there could be several pairs there and you wouldn't know. The many Turtle Doves were well hidden and of the Nightingales there was unsurprisingly no sign. But nevertheless, it is a fascinating look into the natural environment, what it might have been in centuries past, and what it may become in the future.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Saved by Insects - Weeting on Bank Holiday

Travel relaxations implemented, so blew the dust off the scope and headed off to Weeting for some summer sun and birds. By sheer coincidence Mike was there too! I had a target list of Stone Curlew, Tree Pipit, Turtle Dove, and coincidentally so did Mike.

We knew the reserve would probably be closed, and it was. We had hoped Stone Curlews would be in the field opposite but they weren't, or at least not visible to us. I assume we were a bit early, in that the Stone Curlews are probably still happily raising chicks on the reserve, blissfully unaware they are not raising young birds to fly back to wherever next year, but simply spending all their time and energy making a snack for Mr Fox. Soon the inevitable will happen and the birds will spend the rest of the summer in the field over the road rooted to the spot in a state of catatonic existential misery. 

We got Cuckoo, Lapwing, Curlew, and loads of Rooks, but nothing else. We then headed up the path in the woods north, and soon had a dragonfly. Clearly a Chaser, I went through my mental check list - four spots on the wings? No. Broad depressed body? No. Well I guess that just leaves Scarce Chaser. Fortunately Mike was on the case and was soon confirming that wow yes that absolutely was a Scarce Chaser! Long story short there were quite a few, over 10 in total across the woods. We did get some great views of those chevrons down the spine and the clear yellow flush at the base of the wings. I even saw one 'breathing' in that the two halves of its abdomen rhythmically slightly separated. No idea what that was about. (From twitter it seems Monday was the day when lots emerged).

A little further on we saw our first Green Hairstreak. We went on to see a further ten or so, with some nice views of closed wings on broom. Another first for the year. Smashing butterflies.

We walked over to Hockwold Heath which looked splendid but in the heat the birds were hard to come by. We had a nice pair of Stonechats and more Curlew, and were pretty sure we heard a Stone Curlew but couldn't see one. 

We walked back with Mike picking out some Roe Deer hiding on the wood - very hard to see - to complete an excellent list despite not having seen any of our target birds.

We though we would try Santon Warren, and to our surprise found that whereas in March you more or less have the place to yourself apart form a handful of birders, on a May bank holiday it is heaving.  We parked (luckily just two spaces), dodged the picnics, walked out our usual walk west and found a Tree Pipit immediately flying up and doing its song flight. Hard to come by now in the south we were very pleased. That was just about the last decent bird we saw, but we to a Broad-bodied Chaser perching nicely, showing us the clear difference in shape to Scarce, and a nice row of yellow flank spots. Then on the way back a Light Emerald Moth, which I think is quite common but was nevertheless a nice surprise for us.

So, that was it. Great to be out and seeing nature in full flow across many different classes. Birding is back!

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Schrodinger's Birdwatch.

One of the philosophical conundrums that Quantum Mechanics raised when it first appeared was on the nature of light. Is it a wave? Is it a particle? And the answer, roughly, is that if you are looking for it to be a wave, it's a wave, and if you are looking for it to be a particle, it's a particle. Waves and particles are concepts, and reality is under no obligation to exactly line up with your concepts.


Off I went for my daily patch watch today. Overcast, dull, overnight rain, surely some migrants? Well, no. The pair of Mandarin in their usual place, some Blackcaps and Chiffchaff singing, a Whitethroat, then over the railway line and up to the fields. The usual Yellowhammers and Linnets, then a stop to scan the horizons noting a Red Kite and a Sparrowhawk over, then four Fallow Deer marching out of a hedgerow, giving me a look up and down, and slowly trotting off. A pair of Red-Legged Partridges, the solitary bird now having found a mate. Then back down past the scrape and home with a stop to look for a singing Sedge Warbler from the river-side by the scrape.

Now Steve Gale, over at the excellent North Downs And Beyond, doesn't think birding the patch is really on at the moment. Or rather, he says the lockdown law says it isn't on. The guidelines are for exercise only, not to carry on birding.


Off I went for my daily exercise today. Overcast, dull, overnight rain. The pair of Mandarin in their usual place, I heard some some Blackcaps and Chiffchaff singing, a Whitethroat, then over the railway line and up to the fields. The usual Yellowhammers and Linnets  then after what was a decent stretch of walking up an incline, a brief rest during which a Red Kite and a Sparrowhawk flew over. Then four Fallow Deer marching out of a hedgerow. Clearly I had to stop then to avoid spooking them, and I watched as they looked me up and down, then slowly trotted off. A pair of Red-Legged Partridges, the solitary bird now having found a mate. Then back down past the scrape and home. I stopped for a brief rest opposite where a Sedge Warbler was singing and stepped back into the wood to let a jogger past and maintain distance.

So. Birdwatching? Exercise? I guess what you see is up to you.

Friday, April 17, 2020

a Spring in my step

8:30 and I'm out on the patch again, and there's nowhere else I'd rather be*. First up is two Sparrowhawks displaying over the village. I have a feeling they are nesting along a tree-lined brook as I frequently see them in this area. They both look like females to me so maybe they are marking the edge of joint territories.

Down by the river and the first Lesser Whitethroat of the year bursts into song just a few feet from my head. I peer through the foliage trying to see it, and see a bird fly off after which there is no more song ...

Then its business-as-usual, singing Blackcap, Chiffchaff, and a Whitethroat, all down by the river area. Then up the path toward the farmland and its Yellowhammers and Linnets and a very distant Red Kite, and then as I'm having my umpteenth scan of a ploughed field Boom! There, about 100 yards away, is a male Wheatear.

Wheatears are on the patch list, but not for about ten years. There was a distant spring when a pair were on an adjacent field for a few days, and another spring day a couple of years later when there was one by the river, but then nothing. I've had them over the other side of the valley at Tharbies on a few occasions, and Mike had one up there yesterday, and top local birder and photographer Jason Ward had one a few miles south at Latton Common, but here, up to now, nothing. Not a peep. Or a chackk.

It just sat there for a while. It looked cold grey colour. Now I'm no expert as you will have gathered by now, but it looked the normal type, not one of those Greenland varieties. I looked a way for a few minutes whilst I sent a quick text to Mike to gloat inform him, and when I looked back it was sat there again, but a metre or so to the left.

After a while of this I wondered if there were any more Wheatears. It was a heavily ploughed field, and after some scanning another male revealed itself. They were soon running around, and I left them feeding. I had spent so long watching them I think I may have gone over my government-mandated hour so hurried on home.

It's the kind of sighting that makes you wonder how many you've missed. It was hard work, a lot of scanning, and they could easily get in a rut left by the deep plough. Anyway I didn't miss them. And they are on the patch and year list. Fantastic.

* This is a lie. There are a lot of places I'd rather be.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Do You Really Know What a Sedge Warbler Looks Like?

Or, more correctly, do I?

It was towards the end of a reasonable but unspectacular patch walk. Three Redwings the highlight, perched quietly in some trees, possibly the last of winter. But other decent sightings; a Jay in a tree giving that Buzzard call, some nice Yellowhammers, good views of Linnet, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker, distant Red Kite, then on the home stretch along the navigation a lady pointed out a pair of Mandarin under the opposite bank (from a safe distance), and then a Willow Warbler singing unseen from the middle of a thicket, probably the same bird I heard yesterday.

I noticed a movement down by the water's edge. A Chiff. And a second one. Oh hang on...

The two bird were silently picking their way through a mass of twigs all just coming into leaf. The second was a Sedge Warbler. Normally, Sedge Warblers are easy, bursting up from bushes giving their distinctive rattling churring song, but this was the first for a few months, and wasn't singing. In the end it was reasonably straightforward; heavy eyestripe, which was what first gave it away, browner and dumpier than the chiff, rusty rump, slight streaking on the back, and a stout tail. But it was good to have a decent look at it. It is seeing birds in unexpected places at unexpected times that makes for mistakes. Now, I obviously have no independent adjudication to point out that its was something else, but it was nice to slowly unpick this bird and get all the features. And that Chiff? The supercilium was quite strong continuing well behind the eye, longish primaries and pale legs, so if I had to guess I'd say Willow Warbler. But I don't have to guess, I can leave it as a Chiff.

This lockdown lark is making me think again about our birds. The everyday birds, the Blue Tits, the Linnets, the Mallards, are all spectacular in their own way. With nothing else to do it's a pleasure to spend time enjoying them.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

We'll be a long time in lockdown ...

A slow steady rise in the numbers of Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Whitethroat. Some Fallow Deer showing well. The Mandarin around again. Quite nice all in, which is just as well because we birders are going to be here for some time. Possibly the rest of this year and into next. Here's why I think this.

There are two ways out of this pandemic; Vaccine or Herd Immunity. We'd all prefer a vaccine, but there is a long period of testing of any candidate, possibly (I believe) up to two years. We could shorten it, but that is risky as that testing period is there for a reason. Meanwhile, our economy will slide into depression and life will become more difficult. A prolonged shutdown will cost lives as we will be unable to look after everyone who needs it. If you thought being unable to get your hands on toilet roll was frustrating, wait until we start running out of food. So we will have to open up the economy at a point where we don't have a vaccine

That points to some kind of herd immunity strategy. The Herd Immunity strategy is based round the notion that there are vulnerable people who if they get the virus may die, and there are less vulnerable people who will nearly all live if they get the virus. If we can keep the vulnerable ('old') people isolated whilst we get the proportion of the population who have had the virus to over 60%  then the vulnerable people could be let out again as the level of immunity in the community means the virus is unlikely to spread.

Optimistic calculations say we currently have around 20% immunity currently. So we need to go through what we have been through another three times.

A managed Herd Immunity has always been the underlying principle of the government strategy because of the sheer practical impossibility of the alternative. We are currently trying to 'flatten the curve'. That means get the demand down and the capacity of the health service up to a point where it can manage the demand. We are likely to achieve that in the next few weeks.

Hence, by the end of April we will be looking at lifting the lockdown in some way. The strategy will be, I think, to get the economy moving, allow the virus to spread amongst the younger section of the population (because we cannot realistically prevent that), which will increase health care demand, and keep the vulnerable people isolated.

I think this is going to be the way of things for a few years. We will evolve into a society that lives with the virus, rebuilding our businesses and social lives in ways the avoid close contact.

During this phase it will be important to keep the demand on the health service as low as possible, and keep vulnerable people locked up. I wouldn't be surprised if families are allowed to go on holiday, for instance, but not with old people.

Where does that leave birders? Well, isolated at home I fear. Most birders are over 50, myself included, and enough people my age have had very bad experiences, not just Boris, to make me think getting it would not be a wise move. So I think the government will say that trips that are not work related or involve taking young people on holiday or out socially will remain banned. And that means most of our birding trips.

I think there's also a problem for nature reserves building. Take Minsmere, the gold standard of bird reserves. Most people who go there are over 60, never mind 50. They spend much of their time sat in hides. It isn't possible to socially isolate in a hide, so they will be shut. It's going to be pretty hard to watch the scrape, or scan for Bitterns from the Bittern hide, if we can't go into hides. So if reserves do open up, I think there will be new ways of allowing people to see the key areas, eg long screens with gaps and people moving freely behind.

But that's a while off. Meanwhile allowing pensioners to all head off on a day to the coast adds potential strain on the NHS, exposes NHS staff to more virus, and for that reason it isn't going to happen.