Thursday, May 30, 2024

Bird's Nesting in the North Downs.

Ever since I got keen on orchids one species in particular has provoked particular interest; Bird's Nest Orchid. It's not particularly photogenic, but it is a particularly interesting one by virtue of it being saprophytic, hence having no leaves or chlorophyll. 

I've tried a few places, but north of the Thames its a hard species to find. Typical is the ever-excellent Orchid-Hunter, who, even with directions, had a hard time finding just three specimens in Bedford Purlieus woods and was very pleased with them.

South of the Thames it's a different story. At one location in particular, thanks to the work done by the National Treasure that is Steve Gale in finding, counting, and publicising, they are so common they are basically a weed. That place is the Mickleham Downs near Dorking. It's a bit of a trek from here but I go further on a regular basis so why not? Hence Mrs D, myself and Derek the dog set off on a day out.

We pulled into the small car park at Cockshott Wood, and started to scale the steep bridleway from the east end of the car park. After a few yards there was a small clearing on my left; a quick scan and boom, twenty spikes. I scrambled over for the obligatory photos, very pleased. Mrs D was slightly bemused we had come all that way for a desiccated ghost of a plant, but I explained its parasitic lifestyle and she was suitably impressed. 

We didn't go any further. I had seen what we came for, and not having packed crampons, ropes, axes and helmets progressing further up the slope seemed foolhardy. 

After that we had a wander round Denbies Hillside (White Helleborine) and then Dorking for a coffee and panini. Mrs D was impressed, as was Derek, so we will no doubt be back.

I picked up a couple of other first-for year orchids in a traditional place; motorway verges. Common Spotted from a queue in Kent where you have to turn off the M25 to stay on the M25, and Pyramidal from the M25 onto the M11 in Essex. 

Not visible on this but this one was under a cloud of tiny insects. Not sure what their interest was.

Obviously I completely screwed this White Helleborine photo up. It was dark in the wood and I just tried a few things and then did a lot of editing. But I quite like it.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Rarity chasing in Cambridgeshire part 2.

Last post left you on the edge of your seats as your intrepid birders ticked off the first of three potential rarities and headed off in search of the second. We left Ouse Fen and drove down to Fen Drayton for the first-summer male Red-Footed Falcon.

We arrived and on consulting birdguides realised we were at the wrong end so set off on the old gravel lorry path to the southern-most pit. It was for exactly this scenario I bought a 4x4 several years ago and it worked out fine. It wasn't just that the path had many pot holes, its that they were very deep. Fortunately we navigated the path without incident, found a few parked cars and fellow birders soon had us at the viewpoint watching the target bird in the distance. The bird slowly came nearer and flew over our heads. The heavy grey sky meant we couldn't get great visibility on it but the underside was clearly finely barred, quite dark, and had red feet. Slightly longer tailed than a Hobby (there was one around too) and without the scythe wings. Very nice. There were a couple of Cuckoos including a hepatic bird, a few terns and plenty of warblers too. 

Two down. We headed off to Berry Fen following instructions we had been given by a helpful local for a sighting of the Black-Winged Stilt, our final target bird. We were unable to find any sign of it, so decided to call it a day and arrived at the A14 services for a relaxing coffee just as the forecast rain started. We were very happy with two out of three.

I checked Birdguides again just before we left and the Stilt was at Ouse Fen! Seemingly on the huge pit we had casually looked over. What to do? Were we really going to drive back just to pull up at the gate and tick it in the rain? Well why not? It's not as though we were just going to turn up, pile out of the car and ask someone to set my scope up on it. Surely there would be some birding skill involved.

We arrived, pulled up at the gate, piled out of the car and found a helpful RSPB ranger. It was raining, there was a lot of water to look over, so why waste time? "Would it be possible for you to just put my scope on the Stilt?"  And there, in the far distance, was a Black-Winged Stilt picking its way through some distant vegetation. Even at that range it had that distinctive jazz ion the bird, and a nice clean white head. Fantastic. Three out of three - how often does that happen? We set off home, wet but happy.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Great Reed Warbler at RSPB Ouse Fen

We had pencilled in Tuesday for Minsmere, but with cloud and then rain on the schedule and a trio of notable birds the other side of Cambridge we had a change of plan, so just before 9 we pulled into the car park at RSPB Ouse Fen for our first visit with Great Reed Warbler the target.

It wasn't long before we were at the mound listening to what sounded like an old diesel car slowly getting started. Finding it was another matter, but David got us onto it near the top of a reed and we had a good half hour or so of fantastic views. I'd seen one many years ago, but not like this. I even managed some photos down my scope. The views were so good this wasn't just a matter of getting it on a list, it also crossed it off a list. I'm not going to get views like that again unless someone puts a bird in my hand. It's unlikely I'd go for another one unless it was very near or there was something else on the day. What would be the point?

We carried on round the reserve. It's an excellent place and we resolved to come back, not imagining that our second trip would be the same day. Nevertheless we got great views of Cuckoo, Bearded Tit, Marsh Harrier, Great White and Little Egrets, heard several Bitterns booming, and lots of other fenland stuff too. We gave a large pit by the entrance a quick going over but saw only Redshanks and Oystercatchers.

Odonata started to come out and Mike identified many of the blue damselflies as Variable Damselflies. Mike explained the key is the segment just behind the head S2. On a Variable it has a U shape with a couple of blue spots each side but it is variable. You can see that on the photo below;  also shown is an Azure from a later visit on the day with a very different S2 with a narrow black line.

But back to that Great Reed Warbler. Two things strike me.

Firstly, hands up everyone who has seen a male GRW in the UK? That's both most of you I would think. Now hands up who has seen a female GRW in the UK? That's none of you I would guess. There's an obvious reason - most GRWs are picked up on song. But does that mean that at this moment there's a few females going unseen in reed beds? How do we know they aren't breeding somewhere? That a singing male doesn't manage to attract a female and breed? Or can females give a song too when they need to?

Secondly, why is there a GRW at all? Birds in reedbeds all seem to be the same size; the many varieties of acrocephalus warbler, bearded tits, reed buntings, all the same size. I assumed because reeds can only sustain birds or bird nests of a certain size. But then there's a bird the size of a song thrush that lives in reeds. So why aren't there lots of birds the size of song thrushes that live in reeds? Or is that why they don't breed in Britain - because we don't have the right reeds to support a nest?

GRW was only the first item on our list. Would we be as fortunate with the others? You'll have to wait for the next instalment.

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...