Wednesday 29 June 2011

High Brown Fritillaries (and some pubs) in Devon

Once again, apologies for the lack of recent updates: just not been out and about very much lately! However, Suzanne and I returned to London on Sunday night after an excellent weekend away in one of the few National Parks that I’d never visited previously: Exmoor, and the North Devon coast.

We set out early on Saturday morning, heading along the predictably tedious M4 in rather murky conditions, to arrive in a drizzly Lynton by about 9am. (Hmm… not really selling this yet, am I?) Undeterred by this typical English summer weather, we headed out for a walk through the nearby Valley of Rocks, with wildlife starting to feature in the form of two screechy young Peregrines, Stonechats and lots of feral goats! Fulmars wheeled around the cliffs below us and a few Gannets sailed past further out… definitely not in London now!


The major target of the trip for me was to catch up with High Brown Fritillary, an increasingly rare butterfly in the UK, which only has a patchy and localised distribution. As well as Devon, they only remain in pockets of South Wales and southern Cumbria. One of the best sites is the Heddon Valley, west of Lynton, in a large area of National Trust land. Access is by minor roads, north from the A39 near Parracombe, or east from Combe Martin. Parking, unusually for an NT site, is abundant and cheap, and even more happily, adjacent to a decent pub: the rather impressive Hunters Inn. When we arrived, there was still rain in the air, and besides, we were getting peckish… only one thing for it!


One very large jacket potato, and one local cheese Ploughmans later, we (st)rolled down the valley to Heddon Mouth, through oak woodland beside the river… quite idyllic (though still lacking in sunshine). In brief bursts of sunshine, a few fritillaries appeared over more open areas of bracken, but too far away for an ID – Dark Green and High Brown are very similar in pattern, and pretty much identical in structure. Down at the mouth of the river, seabirds were to-ing and fro-ing from breeding colonies on the cliffs: Guillemots and Razorbills in particular. A couple more young Peregrines chased overhead, giving superb views.

Feeling pretty tired after the early start, we checked into our luxury accommodation on Exmoor:


… before heading out to pub number 2: the Royal Oak, in Withypool. Pork Belly with a Cider Cream sauce… mmmm!

As we’d hoped, the next morning dawned–crystal clear, with deep blue (almost!) cloudless skies. We returned to Heddon Valley, and I’ll let the pictures tell the story for a while…


A rarity.


Not too terrible a place to spend an hour or two…


The target – will have to return for better photos!


Dark Green Fritillaries


… and finally some coastal scenery.

Oh, and there was a third excellent pub on the way home: The Rock, in Georgeham. I was most disappointed to see Doom Bar on draught, and Roast Beef on the menu.

Monday 13 June 2011

Tick ‘n’ Roll

If ever a photo utterly failed to do justice to a bird, this is it.


But photography aside: Roller – what a bird! I’ve wanted to see one of these in the UK for ages, and the lure of one in Suffolk on a sunny summer evening was way too strong to resist. Messrs Hawkins and Monkey felt the same way, and we were on our way by just after 5.30, for once with the A12 traffic on our side. Little more than an hour later, we arrived, and the Roller showed non-stop for a couple of hours, never particularly close, but giving excellent scope views… perched and preening for long periods, then spectacular in feeding mode as it sallied high and low after insect prey. Simply awesome – could’ve happily watched it all day, no exaggeration.

As the light started to fade, we too sallied high and low for food (of the Woodbridge fish-and-chip variety) and, like the Roller, met with considerable success. Near the end of our al-fresco dining, Paul got buzzed by a rather spectacular stag beetle, which landed on the house opposite. I happened to have a macro lens with me, and I think it’s fair to say that the following result is slightly better than the previous shot…


PS – the beetle was a lifer as well!

Sunday 12 June 2011

Dainty Damselflies, Isle of Sheppey

Paul W and I made a successful trip down to Kent yesterday lunchtime for another new species of Odonata: Dainty Damselflies, which were only rediscovered in the UK last summer after going extinct here in 1953. They were located in three sites, and since one of these has public access, details have been released.

The site involves a few small pools underneath the new Isle of Sheppey high-rise bridge (the A249), surrounded by rough grassland. Turn off just before the start of the new bridge, go over the old bridge, and aim to park in a gateway on the LHS after about 150m – there’s room for about four or five cars with care. Once you drop down a short but steep bank, you’ll see the pools about 50m ahead of you. The Dainties seem to be favouring the area around the second pool from the left. This map might help…


On arrival, we heard that up to four males had been seen earlier in the morning, but had disappeared with the arrival of thicker cloud and a few spots of rain. Fortunately, this soon cleared, and we could start searching through the relatively small numbers of Blue-tailed and Common Blue Damselflies. After about 30 minutes, Paul located a smart female Dainty in grass NE of the pool, which showed well for photos – click to enlarge:


The first image is the best one, and shows a number of distinctive features:

  • rather long, pale pterostigma (longer than they are wide)
  • thin black spur on the side of the thorax forming an inverted exclamation mark
  • relatively thin antehumeral stripes, compared to Common Blue
  • extensive black on segments 3-7 tending to a point at the top: ‘rocket-shaped’
  • very pale off-white legs – not sure if this is significant or not?
  • small size compared to Common Blue also noted

A short while later, a male was also located. My shots of this aren’t quite as good, but (hopefully!) still leave no doubt, illustrating:

  • almost entirely black segments 6 & 7
  • pattern on S2 is usually like a wine-glass – a U shape connected to a black band below (similar to Variable Damsel). On this individual, there was no connecting ‘stem’… though this feature is apparently very unreliable
  • mushroom shaped pattern of black on S3
  • black H pattern on S9, like that on an Azure (but where a Common Blue should be plain blue)



Finally, by way of variety, here’s an impressive cricket of some kind… waiting on an ID for this one!


Friday 10 June 2011

Race for Life

Suzanne here, I’ve hijacked the blog for a good cause…

A couple of years ago I completed the Race for Life to raise money for Cancer Research UK and this year I’m doing it again. However, as an additional challenge I’ve undertaken a logistical nightmare and registered 60 Brownies, Guides and Guiders from the Buckhurst Hill District to do it with me. Next I have to ensure that amongst thousands of pink clad women in fairy wings we all manage to meet up and stay together! I really can’t think about that yet, for now I’ll concentrate on fundraising…

Please visit my page and compensate all of my stress by supporting a fantastic charity and don’t forget to GiftAid it!

Sponsor me!

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Tuesday 7 June 2011

White-throated Robin, Hartlepool… on my list!

Irania … a Latin name that appears to spark quite some excitement for a lot of British birders. There’s only one member of that genus: Irania gutturalis, the White-throated Robin, a summer migrant to Turkey and areas to the east, with two previous records from the UK. Neither were twitchable. And with the spring apparently going out with a whimper, I certainly wasn’t expecting to see one any time soon.

Happily, I was wrong, though – birding’s constant ability to deliver massive surprises is one of its many attractions, and the pager message early yesterday is a classic example. I imagine a fair number of people suddenly got taken very ill on their way to work just before 9am… though not me. (Maybe I have too many principles to be a top notch twitcher?)

It sounds like yesterday’s events in Hartlepool were bizarre yet entertaining: although the bird was generally showing in a garden enclosed by 3 metre-high walls, this was nowhere near enough to deter a few hundred rabid enthusiastic twitchers! Check out a couple of videos that set the scene:


And the photo on BirdForum of a guy standing on his mates’ heads while he leans on the wall is absolutely priceless!

Anyway, despite the prospect of mad shenanigans, I managed to provisionally secure a day off… and then upgraded it to definite when positive news came through early this morning. I really hadn’t been expecting the bird to stay, but no complaints! Drive up was very straightforward (250 miles @ 50mpg in just over 4 hours, for those who care about such stats), and we were delighted to find the infamous Doctor’s Garden was open for visitors – many, many thanks are due to the local birders for getting this organised. What’s more, the bird showed almost immediately on the lawn – never really close enough for my 400mm lens, though:


It was very charismatic as it moved around – considerably bigger and paler above than the Bluetail which was originally advertised, with a rather long and strong bill that reminded me of Isabelline Wheatear. I enjoyed a chat with Ash Fisher of Scilly pelagics fame, as the bird flicked in and out of the adjacent Allotment Garden, and motor drives periodically fired. The Doctor’s Garden was easily big enough for the crowd of less than 100 birders to spread out around the edge, and with the bird showing regularly people were coming and going throughout.

After about 90 minutes, we’d enjoyed excellent views and, in the absence of anything else noteworthy nearby, opted to head back home – very well pleased with a completely unexpected mega bird. I hope it’s still around for a few more days so others can catch up with it… but given that there appears to be no access to the favoured garden tomorrow, it might be a struggle to connect! I’d also be surprised if the bird lingered much longer, but then again I’ve already said that birding throws up surprises pretty regularly, so who knows…