Showing posts from May, 2017

Every cloud has a purple lining

The weather for the next three days here at Dungeness looks very promising indeed for the appearance of an overshoot - whether that be a bird or a moth - I may have to stay until Friday evening! The observatory MV has been switched on each night, but the number of migrants recorded has been low. The instances of 'nearby' successes has been frustrating, but they are also fuel for optimism. This morning the trap was once again disappointing, but when south-London lepidopterist Bod Arnfield dropped in with a Purple Cloud, all that was forgotten. He had been trapping at the northern end of the recording area. Photos will follow in a few days time. My past two May DBO visits have coincided with a Dusky Hook-tip and Ni Moth, so this continues a most satisfying run. So, a final push before I return home (most probably on Friday). If I were being greedy I'd like a Red-footed Falcon or an Alpine Swift please. Either would do... or both. I'm not fussy.

Raptor burst

A quiet morning on Dungeness peninsula was turned on its head by a sudden burst of activity mid-morning. I was on the RSPB reserve with Mark H and Colin T when a call from Martin C (who was sky-watching from the Plodland front garden) alerted us to a Red Kite, present in the air space between the airport and ARC water tower. We gathered by the Dennis's hide view point, but Martin's kite was a no show - however, I picked up another kite, coming from the NE and straight towards us. It started to circle above Burrowes Pit and Mark H was first to call it as a Black Kite - the bird was good enough to then head west, being seen by Martin C who was able to add it to his ever expanding Plodland list! Within half an hour up to 12 Common Buzzards and seven Hobby had moved through, four Mediterranean Gulls appeared out of a blue sky, and the first-summer Iceland Gull that had been on a Burrowes Pit island appeared to leave the area in a purposeful NW bearing. With the wind turning to the


I've fallen into a most agreeable state of 'being', here at Dungeness. The warm weather invites the donning of shorts and t-shirt, a symbolic farewell to the cold spring. Birds may be the primary target, but the vegetation is growing before our very eyes and new species are flowering on a daily basis; a good number of butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies are taking to the air to grab our attention; smells and sounds, sights and sites manoeuvre aliteratively for control of our senses. It might be a dramatic sky with puddle formations in the clouds, accompanied by thunder and lightening; maybe the gentle fragrance of the Nottingham Catchfly in sudden, sensory wafts; or a Bee-eater, silhouetted by the morning sun as it circles the old lighthouse, before gaining height to head back out to sea - all seen, heard or smelt over the last 48 hours in the company of others who also seek such things. These are some of the reasons that I return to Dungeness. Its magic continues.

Wrong notebook

My late-May Dungeness break really took off on the birding front yesterday. Shortly after dawn a singing Icterine Warbler was located, and nearby up to seven Marsh Warblers competed for attention. The Serin that flew over calling barely got a look. A small area of reed/scrub was then checked, where three superb Bluethroats entertained us for half an hour, one of which stayed in view, singing away, for at least 10 minutes. After finding a small flock of Hawfinches, an area of wetland was scoped, yielding a Garganey, Ruff, a pair of Black-necked Grebes and 14 loafing Spoonbill, whilst the nearby beach, apart from breeding Little Terns, hosted up to 10 Kentish Plovers, including three chicks. And there were plenty of Turtle Doves on show.  It is rare indeed to have had such a fine day at Dungeness... ...oh, hold on... wrong notebook. All the above was in Northern France, all within a 20 minute drive of Calais. The French birder is spoilt for choice as our day trip yesterday showed. With

Porpoise show

It is a rare thing at Dungeness to be able to stand at the very point, in t-shirt and shorts, and feel too hot. Even mid-summer can see you putting on a jumper, and then adding a fleece. However, this afternoon was that rare beast, when the sun shone, the temperature rose, and the wind went elsewhere for a change. It was glorious. Mark H and I stood on the shingle bank above a millpond sea, with not a wave to be seen. A distant mist obscured all but the top of container ships and any sound carried great distances across the water. Small black shapes kept surfacing before us, compact cetaceans - Harbour Porpoises. Conditions allowed us to estimate at least 30 being present, maybe 15 of them close inshore. We could hear the muted splashes as they dived, at times four or more surfacing together in a gentle huddle. It was altogether magical. I returned an hour later with Dave W, but they had mostly gone - a nearby Grey Seal was to blame, maybe the same one that has preyed on porpoise c

Spring Sooty

A warm, dry and sunny day at Dungeness. With the spring passage all but over, we are now entering the time of the 'overshoot', whether that might be a Bee-eater, Swallowtail or Death's-head Hawk-moth. Time spent in the field becomes less of a concerted effort on birding, more an all-round immersion into the additional bounteous supply of plants and insects. After a day spent mostly chasing butterflies and watching a family party of Stonechats, I arrived at the sea for an evenings watch. No expectations at all, but we are not too late for a tardy Pom or two. After half an hour little had happened, but then a close, tight flock of 40 Sanderling passed by, all smart summer-plumaged adults. After watching them leave eastwards through the scope, I was more than a little surprised to find a close Sooty Shearwater in my field of view when I returned to scanning the sea straight ahead. It was very leisurely, mooching about rather than moving through, but eventually left eastwards

Subbuteo show

I'm walking across the open shingle and a Hobby comes into view - low, quick wing-beats, intent on prey. It brushes the top of the Broom and then pirouettes higher before snatching at prey. Dragonfly? Moth? Butterfly? It's hard to tell, but it's been successful as it eats on the wing, feeding itself with brief offerings from talons to beak. A quick break is taken, perched on the skeletal remains of a bush. No real rest though, it fidgets, looking around, weighing up the options, then it's off! Another winged morsel has broken cover, more energy to consume. It takes it with ease, consumption in the air, digestion at rest. I try to hide and hope it comes closer, but of course it knows I'm there. After five minutes the show is over. I lose it heading westwards. My treading of the shingle resumes. Minus a Hobby. The loss keenly felt.

Squeaking skull

I seem to have arrived at Dungeness at the same time as Hannibal Lecter's favourite moth - The Death-head's Hawk-moth (Acherontia atropos). It was found resting on the wall of one of the beach dwellings and brought along to the observatory for safe keeping. They are impressive beasts that carry with them a folklore and fear, mainly due to the obvious 'skull' like marking on the thorax (image to follow). I was lucky enough to have seen one here in the early 1990s that emitted a squeak when handled - this one has kept quiet, at rest on leaves, in a Tupperware box, awaiting release. It was good to reacquaint myself with a number of plants, especially the shingle specialists and Dungeness notables, such as Yellow-vetch and Sea Pea. Up to 16 Hobbys hawked around the RSPB reserve between Dengemarsh and the Oppen Pits, with a host of accompanying 'mini-me' Swifts.

A train, a bus and some mud

Part 10 -   March 1976   Pagham Harbour became a frequent place of ornithological pilgrimage. Conveniently, a train ran from Sutton to Chichester, where a bus would then take you to Sidlesham Ferry, a virtual gateway to the harbour and coast. The only downside to this method of transport was that the first train from Sutton did not leave until 09.00hrs, which meant a lunchtime arrival at Sidlesham – this restricted birding time, especially in the winter months. The southbound train journey was enjoyable, as the route passed through picturesque countryside   - including the levels at Arundel – where the odd good bird, such as Short-eared Owl and Bewick’s Swan were seen from the moving train. Once on the bus, expectation levels steadily grew, and by the time that Sidlesham Ferry came into view I was practically beside myself with excitement. I would normally take the same route. An initial scan of the ferry pool would be a lengthy affair. This smallish water body and its accompanying

Kernow interlude

Katrina and I have just returned from a long weekend at Bude, in Cornwall, courtesy of her sister Fiona and brother-in-law Bill. As much as most of our time was centred around good company, food and drink, plenty of room was made for walks along the cliff tops and the observation of the natural world. It is an area that we all love and know quite well. My botanical highlight was the Spring Squill (above), being found on the cliff tops either side of Bude's sandy beaches. Efford Down was home to tens of thousands of plants, all in flower. They shared the turf with Thrift, Kidney Vetch and Scurvey-grass (I didn't specify the latter), and the photograph below illustrates just how they coloured the ground. Navelwort Rock Samphire roots exposed but clinging on There are even breeding Wheatears!

Euphorbia whatsthisthen?

A few plants from Priest Hill. First up is a showy spurge, about knee-high and clearly originally from cultivated stock. I cannot identify it, so if you are reading this and think that you know what it is, please let me know! The second species is the blue-flowered form of Scarlet Pimpernel (not the full-blown sub-species). I had not seen this before and was rather taken aback by the intensity of the blue - not quite Alpine Gentian, but not far off! Lastly is Henbit Dead-nettle, a remnant here from the days when it used to be cultivated farmland.

Rescued from the folder

Any wander with a camera results in plenty of pictures being taken - those old enough to remember the days of film will recall how careful we were when taking a photograph, as each attempt was using up a precious exposure on the roll. Now, we can snap away without such fear - hence lots of images can go missing, get forgotten or languish in a folder on a computer's desktop. Here are four I've rescued from the past week... Great Spotted Woodpecker at Canons Farm  Young Robin in the back garden after having taken a bath in the pond Green Hairstreak along Chipstead Bottom, one of several seen Fly Orchids, Chipstead Bottom, more spikes starting to flower

A forest of Green Hound's-tongue

Green Hound's-tongue is a rare plant of restricted range - however, there are a few places where it can be common, such as Brockham, at the foot of the North Downs (not far from Box Hill). Within its range, this species will appear in good number where there has been some woodland edge clearing, and this is the case at Brockham. This morning there were at least 1,000 plants spread along a 100m stretch (and going 15m into the wood). It was the commonest species within this area and boasted some of the largest and most 'flowered' specimens that I have seen. Most of the open ground had individual plants generously spaced out, but in one or two places over 100 plants were crowded together. I do not doubt that a thorough search of the area would reveal many more...

Spectacled Warbler at Portland!

No, of course I didn't...

The North Downs Way

Most of the day was taken up by a Gale family walk, along the North Downs Way, from Denbigh's Hillside to Shere, where a fine lunch was taken at the Dabbling Duck before we retraced our steps. Avian highlights were a singing Common Redstart on Ranmore Common (where I've heard them in song before) and a singing Firecrest on Netley Heath (this species is not as common on the North Downs as they are along the Greensand hills). Plant wise it was wonderful, with the footpath edges full of flower, some of the highlights being a profusion of Sanicle; Bird's-nest Orchid (above, several hundred spikes on White Downs, much more advanced than last year and possibly in larger numbers); White Helleborine (a few in bud, none yet in flower) and a single Green Hound's-tongue on Ranmore Common (below), the furthest west that I've seen this species. West of White Downs was virgin territory for me, and some of it looks tremendous, in particular the open slopes of Blatchfo

The Robert De Niro of birds


Fly Orchids

May 4th? It feels more like March 4th, all low scudding grey clouds with a definite chill to the air. I did attempt a bit of birding, but apart from a handful of 'scratchy' Whitethroats it was all quite poor. However, I had something up my sleeve just in case the birds were being difficult - a local colony of Fly Orchids. In the Banstead area it is not a common plant by any means. I have been told of a 'sizeable' colony that I have searched for, but yet to find (I know the wood, but it's quite large), so I stuck with my regular patch which are in Chipstead Bottom, tucked away under a Yew tree. I counted 23 spikes (the most that I've seen here), and two of them had started to flower.

Of sludge beds, Jack Snipe and Water Pipits

Part nine: January - March 1976   The year started in the company of Barry Reed, who I had met on the Scottish bird watching course the previous August. I stayed with him at his home in Ware and we spent three days birding across a number of sites – The Blackwater Estuary, Tollesbury and Abberton Reservoir (all in Essex); Stoke Newington Reservoir (north London) and two of Barry’s local Hertfordshire haunts – Amwell and Rye Meads. Although a year younger than me, he was a far more experienced and confident birder, with boundless enthusiasm. Together with his friend Tim Andrews, we spent every minute of daylight looking for birds. We travelled on foot, by train and bus, and, when he could persuade his Mother to give up her time, by car. I was inundated with new species. On New Year’s Day alone, thanks to the Essex estuaries and reservoirs, we recorded Great Northern Diver, Red-necked, Black-necked and Slavonian Grebe, Bewick’s Swan, a dodgy triple of Egyptian Goos

Change of scene

I needed a change of scene - all of this dry inland patch bashing might be terribly worthy, but it's a hard slog. But, being obstinate, instead of rushing to a coastal hotspot I ambled down to the most coastal of inland sites - Pulborough Brooks. During a wet winter it resembles an inland sea, but today it was largely dry. The hedgerows and copses that run down the hill from the visitor centre towards the flood plain were alive with warbler song - mainly Blackcaps, Whitethroats and Chiffchaffs, but also 5 Lesser Whitethroat, 3 Willow Warbler and 2 Garden Warbler. A special mention must be made for that Pulborough icon, the Nightingale. Being the middle of the day, they were not at their most vocal, although three birds did deign to have a bit of a sing-song. Little Egret (6), Common Buzzard (15), Red Kite (2), Hobby (2), Lapwing (30), Redshank, Cuckoo, Sedge Warbler and Raven were additional highlights. A visit to this RSPB reserve is never a chore, always a pleasure, and th

Whitethroats in the rain

I arrived at Priest Hill by 05.30hrs, full of hope for migrants seeing that the wind and rain had got together to promise us birders some action. To cut along story short I left the site by 07.30hrs sans passage migrants... BUT... it was an atmospheric couple of hours. The low cloud and calm conditions gave everything a slightly 'cotton woolly' feeling and the stillness was dominated by the scratchy warble of Common Whitethroats. There was barely a moment that I couldn't hear at least one in song, and at times up to four were assaulting my ears. I reckoned on a minimum of 32 present. Trying to gatecrash in on the act were four rattling Lesser Whitethroats. It was all quite delightful. I ventured over to Canons Farm (09.30 - 12.30; 14.00 -15.30hrs) where a further nine Common Whitethroats were recorded (including the individual above). However, they were upstaged by a mid-morning female Ring Ouzel, that flew out of the hedgerow by Canons Farmhouse and crossed the field