Sunday, May 28, 2017

Chiltern Orchid safari pt III. Red Kites at Watlington Hill.

We ended up at Watlington Hill, famed for its Red Kites. Prior to arriving at Watlington we must have seen over a hundred, including having two tussling over our heads in Goring. So I was slightly alarmed to walk out onto Watlington Hill with just a few distant Red Kites visible. We walked along the path just under the peak of the ridge for a few hundred metres up to an area where the scrubby trees parted and we could see both sides of the ridge. Kites were patrolling here and we managed to get some decent views of birds coming over our heads and patrolling each side. Inevitably most of  my photos were out of focus or blurry. I've cropped the best below, but if you want better then there's David's or Alan's

I used to watch this area casually in the late 80's when my in-laws lived in the area. I still remembering returning to their house saying I thought I'd seen a Red Kite but surely that was impossible, and my father in law saying they'd been reintroduced. Now of course they are everywhere, and I cannot help but wondering how the local area can support hundreds of large carrion-eating birds. I cannot recall the countryside being strewn with dead rabbits prior to their arrival, so I'm intrigued how these birds are apparently taking large amounts of calorific value out of the area without any other apparent changes to the environment.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Chiltern Orchid Safari part II - Hartslock

If you are going to drive for a couple of hours, then take a long walk on the hottest day of the year, then climb up a slope to see some orchids, you might think it a good idea to have done your research on what you are about to see before you go. For some reason I don't do this. I turn up, have a look, take lots of photos, then go home to find out what it is I've seen. Despite the obvious flaw in this approach, it seems to work for me.

And so to Hartslock. We parked in the centre of Goring. If I was doing this again I'd park on Manor Road which runs south from the village and has an area where you appear to be able to leave a car. It is away from houses, quite wide, and seems to be free. Anyway, we made our way along to Hartstock and up the slope to the mass of orchids.

Hartslock is famous for Monkey Orchid, Lady Orchid, and in particular  a successful hybrid of the two. After consultation of the identification board I realised that the small pale orchids were the Monkey Orchid.

"The Monkeys often look as if they have been thrown in a heap."

The hybrids are extremely impressive plants. I guess they have the "Lady" sepals and the "Monkey lip. They would not look out of place in a garden, centre-piece of a border.

We were told the Lady Orchids had all gone over, but looking at the photo below I think this may be one of them. There are two lips visible, and both these are the flatter wider lips of Lady Orchid not the longer spindly legs of the Monkey Orchid. 

Otherwise we had a Dingy Skipper on the surrounding plants, and lots of Brimstones, but not much else. Nevertheless, a special place with a very picturesque view over the Thames Valley. Apart from the mainline railway going through it. 

Looking up the Thames from Hartslock.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Chiltern Orchid Safari part I - Homefield Wood.

With Summer arriving in a rush and migration fizzling out attention turned to a day in the Chilterns visiting some will known orchid spots. Setting off round the M25 post-rush hour with David for company and photographic expertise we first went to Homefield Wood near Marlow.

The Military Orchids were looking in terrific condition in the famed meadow with lots of heads. I'd been here about 20 years ago and seen one of the two spikes, so to come back and see so many heads was quite something.

Also here a couple of Greater Butterfly orchids in suitable deer-proof cages. We met another wildlife enthusiast and asked about Fly Orchids and were directed up into the adjacent woodland where we found a few spikes. My photo doesn't do justice partly because it was quite dark so the exposure time has magnified my camera shake. also here were White Helleborine, lurking under a metal sheet a couple of Slow Worms, and unexpectedly near the entrance two juvenile Ravens giving unfamiliar high-pitched gronks whenever one of the many kites came too close.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Hatfield Forest Cuckoo Bees.

A walk round Emblems Coppice in Hatfield Forest, partly to see if I could hear the Nightingale recently heard by local birder Laurence, partly to catch up with some woodland birds, but also to look for bees.

No birds, partly because a dull cold mid-day trip is not the best for singing Nightingales. Much more success with the bees mainly on a line of what I think is Houndstongue.

There were Early Bumblebees - I see them everywhere now of course - Common Carder Bees, Tree Bumblebee and a white-tailed/buff-tailed bee. And then there were what I think are cuckoo bees. Slightly larger, a bit more relaxed and plodding in behaviour as befits a bee that is letting other bees do the work, and some details that are beginning to become familiar.

First up was this.

I think this is a female Vestal Cuckoo Bee (Bombus Vestalis). My guide book (Falk and Lewington) says "Females ... when fresh have a ginger rather than yellow collar and the yellow patches at the side of the tail are sulphur yellow.". The picture below shows a sulphurish patch.

Then another one I think is male Forest Cuckoo Bee (Bombus Sylvestris). It seems to have a break between the white bands on the abdomen and the gingerish tail, and looking at the chart from the NHM it matches this best. If you look at the photo below there are four colours - yellow, black, white, ginger, hence matching another name for Sylvestris - Four colour cuckoo bee. 

Shows the hard shiny exoskeleton which is indicative of cuckoo bee.

Finally a third candidate cuckoo bee. I'm confused here as it has the same ginger collar as the first bee but my book says "there is never any hint of a midriff band" and you can just see one here.  so maybe its a male, but it has a ginger collar and only females have a ginger collar.

I will post in an ID site and see if I get guidance from people who know their bees, so watch this space!

And finally a day-flying moth. Looking at the illustrations in Waring and Townsend this would seem to be a Pretty Chalk Carpet Moth. Habitat: woodland. Status: common.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Early Bumblebee

Starting on a new class of creatures is like learning to birdwatch all over again, and finding that birds like bullfinch, Swift, Goldfinch, can all be seen from your garden.

Today it was Early Bumblebee (Bombus Pratorum) on the patch.  Needless to say a "very common bumblebee" but the first time for me I've looked at one knowing what it was. Very yellowish bees, with yellow hairs on their face. The ones with the yellow bands on the abdomen are males I believe. It seems a bit early for males, but I guess there's a clue in the name.

a female worker here - no thorax abdomen band, just a top yellow band on the thorax and a red band at the tail.

Finally a Common Carder Bee in classic pose hanging off the comfrey flower. The Early Bumblebees were on flat flowers and the Carder Bees were on the bell-shaped flowers of the comfrey. Wikipedia tells me Early Bumblebees have short tongues, which makes sense.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Patch update

So, its 12th May, approaching the end of spring migration. How is the patch doing?

By this time last year I'd seen 85 species. So far this year I've seen 79. Birds I saw last year that I haven't seen so far this year are Pied (and White) Wagtail, Lesser Redpoll, Siskin, Lapwing, Green Sandpiper, Black Redstart, Egyptian Goose, and Cuckoo. Birds I've seen this year but not last are ... Ring Necked Parakeet.

So on the face of it this year has been quite dismal. Basically, its the birds I saw last year, minus some interesting ones. However, as all us birders know, the list doesn't tell the full tale. In my view, its been a good year.

Part of the deal when you take on a patch is that the local is more important than the wider or national. It is a commitment to look out and record the ordinary. Every bird has the same status, irrespective of whether its an everyday commonplace or a national rarity; they are all unique on the patch.

Take today. I will admit I had high hopes; don't we all have every time we go out? but today in particular after seeming weeks of cold northerlies had produced a late and sporadic migration, finally the wind has turned and damp southerlies looked set to ring migrants flooding through. I set out mid -morning and headed for the pond where the recent lack of rain has produced some muddy fringes. No waders here but there was a Little Egret picking its way through the shallow edges, and a Reed Warbler finally showed itself after singing half-heartedly away.  a Male Reed Bunting sang. Over head there were, for the first time this year, good numbers of Swifts - about 50 over the full panorama - and about 10 House Martins slowly drifting south.

Down to Feakes Lock, a small oasis of rural perfection, and once again it delivered; a pair of Grey Wagtails on the lock fence, a Buzzard drifting overhead, and a Cetti's Warbler singing from the undergrowth. Back along the path via an active Blue Tit's nest and home.

Other times this year I've had Barn Owl and Little Owl much more frequently and with better views than last year, Kingfisher around more often, more Cetti's Warblers, more Buzzards, more Shovelers, and a new place for House Sparrow, a species whose movements round the patch are intriguingly mysterious. So it has maintained interest on almost every visit.

I popped out shortly after to the Park to walk the dogs and of course birds that avoided me in the previous walk now came out; a Jay flew over, Willow Warbler and Garden Warbler sang and a Lesser Whitethroat rattled from a distant hedge. Of the Swifts and Martins, however, no sign. Birds riding the winds on their route to some distant place, just passing through.

From this point on last year there was not too much to add. Turtle Dove undoubtedly the highlight, and then a quite poor autumn. So there's still plenty of time.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Where are the bees?

Spring birding is the best. All the birds look like they are dressed up going out to a party. A couple of trips recently had some cracking birds even if there are no major rarities on the list.

Firstly up to the North Norfolk coast with David. I glimpsed a Ring Ouzel at Burnham Overy Dunes but we couldn't find any others, but there were lots of Wheatears and a Whinchat, some nice waders around too - Common Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Knot, Grey Plover, Barwit. then Titchwell and some Velvet Scoters mid-range from the beach, some Sanderling, a Little Tern and a couple of Med Gulls, Ruff, Turnstone, three Marsh Harriers doing the talon-grappling thing and a close-up male Whinchat. A nice day with some sunshine and excellent company

Yesterday I popped down to Rainham Marsh. A fantastic selection of waders on the Target Pools (3 Wood Sandpiper all sparkling elegance, a Greenshank, another Turnstone - what fantastic birds they are in spring -  2 Little Ringed Plover, 2 Ringed Plover, and a Common Sandpiper). A couple of small parties of Whimbrel too picking their way through the grass. Then from the riverside path a female Ring Ouzel seen well but distantly in the middle of the reserve (sorry David).

On both occasions I was keeping an eye out for bumble bees, and there were very few. Perhaps I'm being premature and we wouldn't expect to see anything but a few queens, but I fear the cold spell may have really set them back.

I'm not sure if problems now correct themselves later. Dave Goulson in his book "A Sting in The Tail" says 50% of bee nests fail every two weeks, so at the end of summer its a case of many queen bees being produced from a few nests. If lots of bee nests fail now, does that mean the other bees have an easy ride as there is lots of food for them? Or is there another limiting factor? Do they get predated more than they would otherwise? I've no idea, but I am a bit concerned how the rest of summer is going to pan out for these splendid creatures.

Commonly Spotted Orchids

We are fortunate in the UK in that the commonest orchids are also amongst the most beautiful. I spent a morning photographing some on the lo...