Friday 29 July 2016

Gulling in Chiswick

After my walk along the Thames in Chiswick today, I'm slightly embarrassed that I've never bothered to look at gulls here in the summer months before. There are never that many large gulls full stop (normally just a few tens) but, inspired by Rich Bonser's ability to pick up regular michahellis and even the very occasional cachinnans among similarly small numbers on the Thames near his Rotherhithe flat, I decided it was worth a shot today. All I can say is I can't believe I hadn't tried before!

While hardly ground-breaking stuff, I was pretty chuffed with two Yellow-legged Gulls among 60-70 large gulls on the Thames between the Fuller's brewery and the Black Lion pub, a few hundred metres to the east. In fact, I had my first  - a second-summer - within moments of arriving.

Second-summer Yellow-legged Gull, Chiswick, 29 July 2016

Unfortunately it didn't come in to the near-whole loaf of bread I lobbed out, although there was a nice selection of fresh juvenile Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls to admire among the c.25 large gulls that joined the melee.

Walking west up to the brewery revealed about 40 further large gulls loafing just west of Chiswick Eyot, including a couple of adult Great Black-backed Gulls. Here I found a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, which went on to show considerable interest in my bread and showed really well. Sadly I only had a couple of slices left so didn't have much time with it cruising around my head, but I intend to reload on the bread front and head back down at low tide early tomorrow morning.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Chiswick, 29 July 2016

So a great way to spend to an otherwise sleepy Friday. Suddenly, birding in Chiswick actually seems quite appealing! The only drawback to the gulls here, which give great views, is that you're viewing from the north bank of the river - so on a bright day, light will inevitably be a bit crap. But it's otherwise great - and with Common Terns drifting past, Little Egrets fishing and the usual array of Egyptian Geese to keep you entertained, it's not all that bad for Central London.

The next generation :-)

Thursday 28 July 2016

Fair Isle's summer wildlife

Back in late June I was invited up to Fair Isle by the RSPB to have a look at their new Puffin project. Due to fog we ended up getting stuck on the island for a couple of extra days but were well looked after thanks to the great generosity of David, Susannah and the team at Fair Isle Bird Observatory. Of course there are much worse places to be 'stuck' in mid-summer than on Fair Isle, and the wildlife did not disappoint.

  • You can read my article on the RSPB's Puffin project here.

Quite a few Arctic Skuas around; most are dark morph birds on Fair Isle. One or two pairs had very young chicks.

Angel of Death aka Bonxie - 2016 looks to be a record year for them here

Puffins are just brilliant

Northern Wheatears are breeding everywhere on the island

I walked for ages looking for Heath Spotted Orchids before I realised why I had been missing them - they're absolutely tiny on Fair Isle, as the 10 cent coin demonstrates!

Plenty of Common Snipe displaying around the island but not often this photogenic

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. Thanks, as ever, to Sean Cole for his handy gen.

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.