Monday, 18 July 2016

Quick New Forest trip

My housemates have been busy obsessing over Pokemon Go, but I've resisted the temptation to download it myself and instead decided to pop down to the New Forest on Monday morning to 'catch' a couple of real-life organisms instead: Bog Orchid and Silver-studded Blue. Having not tried for them before, the former was a new orchid for me and it was several years since I'd seen the latter.

First stop was a small, boggy slack not too far from the A31. Among the many sundews (Drosera rotundifolia?) and other interesting plants I eventually got my eye in and started to pick out my first Bog Orchids. I'd heard that these things are notoriously difficult to see as they tend to be absolutely tiny but there were several well-grown and robust specimens that positively towered at around 15cm! The closer I looked, the more these dainty orchids became apparent - I counted at least 30 without too much effort. Photographing such a tiny plant among dense, grassy vegetation wasn't such an easy matter, and you have to be extremely careful here to avoid trampling the orchids and other plants.

Bog Orchids are tiny and can be extremely difficult to see among the vegetation

An impressively sized and photogenic specimen - just a shame it was a little over

Another sizeable specimen and in better condition

Close-up of the above individual

There were several robust specimens 'towering' at over 10cm tall, but this was a more typical spike (with 20 pence piece for size comparison)

I then headed over to Ocknell Plain and spent about half an hour chasing the hundreds of Silver-studded Blues around, trying for nice photos. A hard species to do justice to once they've warmed up!

The only individual I found with its wings still closed on what was a very warm morning 

 A delightfully fresh male sunning itself

On my way back to London I called in at Alice Holt Forest, near Farnham, and spent a little over an hour walking up and down the ride at Straits Inclosure. It was a gloriously hot and sunny morning and therefore flummoxing to learn from all the butterfly-ers returning along the track that no-one had seen any Purple Emperors! Plenty of butterflies were on the wing, though, including several Marbled Whites and some beautiful Silver-washed Fritillaries. I hung around at the second observation tower for a while and was rewarded with a flyover Purple Emperor at 11:18 - it did a couple of loops, attacked a Brown Hawker and then disappeared in to the treetops. Despite my best efforts to lure it down, I didn't see it again - or any others for that matter.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

First shot at His Majesty

My UK butterfly list is still riddled with gaps that need plugging, and until Tuesday the celebrated Purple Emperor was one of those. Fondly dubbed His Majesty, it is one of the largest and most spectacular of our resident butterflies. It also exhibits some unusual habits - though spending most of its life in the trees, males regularly descend to ground level to extract nutrients from, ideally, faeces or a rotting corpse (though the ground will do if neither are available).

It's not a rare butterfly, at least in the south of England - it is found quite widely in deciduous forests - but can be quite tricky to see well. However, when the males descend to earth they can be delightfully confiding, calmly feeding for minutes on end and allowing thrilled observers to approach to within inches.

My visit to Fermyn Woods on Tuesday morning came during a limited window of opportunity, and I was banking on at least some sunshine. The forecast had changed repeatedly over the previous few days and it really felt like a lottery as to whether the sun would come out - as it transpired, there was only a 20-minute spell of sunshine during which I didn't see any Apatura iris.

For the rest of the morning it remained frustratingly dull and cool, the conditions evidently having an effect on iris - Fermyn is arguably the best site in the country, often producing huge counts of over 50. I was struggling to see one - a couple of brief glimpses flitting around the treetops, but little more. At least there were plenty of commoner species on the wing - particularly Green-veined Whites and Ringlets - and I also had singles of White Admiral and Purple Hairstreak.

Eventually a Purple Emperor decided that it could resist the lure of the main track no more, descending to land by my feet and presently beginning to extract whatever nutrients it could from the ground. The cool conditions meant His Majesty kept his wings firmly shut, and I had to settle for a selection of underwing shots and close-ups. I hope to try the species again this summer but the forecast continues to look underwhelming (and sun-less!) - let's see how it pans out.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Chlorantha Bee Orchids

I've been wanting to see the beautiful white form of Bee Orchid - chlorantha - for some time, and they really didn't disappoint. At least seven seen, along with three 'normal' Bees, at a site to the south of Norwich at the weekend, the chlorantha including a particularly robust specimen which towered well above all others in the vicinity.

And, just for the sake of comparison here's a regular, run-of-the-mill Bee from the North Norfolk coast a little later in the day.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Great Knot at Titchwell

Absolutely brilliant scope views on Titchwell beach - so, so much better than the Breydon bird. If this bird hangs about, someone with a big lens is going to blow it away. I had views down to about 50m and could have got far closer; some of the Knot were half that distance from me. Unfortunately the tide pushed it off before that could happen - my feeble efforts with the 400mm lens below:

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Brown Bears in Finland

One of the aspects of our Finland trip that I was looking forward to most was a night in a hide on the Russian border, from which our primary hope was to see Brown Bears. Late May isn't the best time to see these beasts as it's the mating season, but the chance of sightings nevertheless remains high. We enjoyed two encounters during the night - the first of which was by far the most memorable. Quite early on (around 20:00) a nervous-looking female tentatively made her way through the bog, her hesitation becoming clear when three tiny cubs appeared around her feet. They were on show for about 10 minutes before disappearing off in to the forest towards Russia, but not before I'd taken several hundred images. Our second sighting came in the twilight at about 01:00 - a brief male that lingered only for a matter of seconds.

There was plenty to see from the hide while waiting for the bears, including at least three White-tailed Eagles and displaying waders such as Spotted Redshank and Wood Sandpiper. A handful of supremely elegant Baltic Gulls also popped in and out.

adult Baltic Gull 

Spotted Redshank in breeding finery

Calypso Orchids at Oulanka NP

Calypso bulbosa is arguably the most stunning of all Europe's orchids. Known more widely as the Fairy Slipper or Calypso Orchid, the flowering plant is a perfect design of nature. Exhibiting one or two rounded green leaves at the base a deep red stem that reaches heights of around 15cm, its appearance is one of uncluttered simplicity. This ensures that the plant's crowning glory, its sole pinkish-purple flower, enjoys undivided attention.

It's impossible not to admire this species in full fettle. It is a genuine work of art - delicate, intricate and exotic, the amazing flower of Calypso bulbosa looks like it belongs in the tropics rather than the taiga - yet it thrives in Finland's boreal forests.

At 66 degrees north, among the decaying pine needles that litter the forest floor of Oulanka National Park, excellent numbers of flowering Calypso Orchids can be found in late May and June. We were fortunate to find several tens of this spectacular species about a kilometre east of the visitor centre, some right by the main path - many thanks to the help and expertise of Sean Cole, who was back home in the UK at the time.. Here are a few photos.

Siberian Tit

After having had pretty poor views of this species on the Ural Ridge west of Severouralsk, Russia, it was nice to watch a pair attending a nest box near Kuusamo on our final morning in Finland. A few shots below.

Siberian Jay

I was previously quite surprised that we didn't see Siberian Jay on our trip to the Urals in June 2014. Having spent days walking around seemingly perfect habitat up on the Ural Ridge, and having recorded other tricky species such as Siberian Tit during that time, it seemed unfortunate that we'd not seen any. However no other team has yet recorded the jay there and having now seen how inconspicuous the species can be in the summer months, I take the surprise back!

We were in the fortunate position to be taken to see what may well be the most southerly pair of Siberian Jays in Finland (or at least the most southerly known pair), not far from Parikkala. I knew this species was tame, but I wasn't expect them to respond to whistling and subsequently exhibit such a soft spot for cheese that they'd happily take it from the hand! Given that I was keener to actually feed the jays myself, I didn't manage any decent shots of them at this site. Had we not been shown them in an entirely innocuous looking patch of forest, we'd never have known they were there and would undoubtedly have driven straight past - a fine example of the 'needle in a haystack' situation when searching for boreal specialities in Finland, and illustrating why local knowledge is essential in these endless forests.

Hannu Siitonen, Olympic javelin silver medallist at Montreal 1976, feeds one of the Parikkala jays

Siberian Jay, Parikkala

Further north we encountered a family of confiding Siberian Jays at Valtavaara, at the traditional Konttainen layby site. Though they didn't succumb to the lure of cheese like the pair at Parikkala did, they were fantastically showy and afforded great photo opportunities.

Finland's owls

One of the main attractions for wildlife enthusiasts and photographers visiting Finland is the range of boreal owls that can be seen in the country. In late spring and early summer these birds are breeding, which makes locating them a difficult task. Although it's possible to locate some of the more conspicuous species with a lot of luck and graft, using a local guide is the most sensible option as others such as Great Grey and Tengmalms are otherwise more or less impossible to see. We were indebted to Harri Hölttä for his help in seeing Ural, Tengmalm's and Great Grey Owls around Joensuu; further north we were fortunate enough to locate our own Pygmy and Hawk Owls.

Ural Owl
Single birds seen at two different nestboxes around Joensuu.

Great Grey Owl
Two nests visited (Parikkala and Joensuu), both revealing little more than the head of their respective occupants.

Tengmalm's Owl
A single individual at a nest box west of Joensuu.

Pygmy Owl
A vocal bird showed well to the south of Kajaani in the early hours of 25th.

Hawk Owl
Single individuals seen at two sites to the south of Taivalkoski, one of which proved extremely confiding.