The Large Heath – Butterfly No. 46!

We headed off again on Saturday in search of our next butterfly species – the Large Heath. Whixall Moss is a peat bog on the English/Welsh border and the only place anywhere near us where we might see this increasingly rare butterfly. The bog has the beautiful Llangollen canal running along one side of it. We had to stop and wait for the bridge over the canal to be hand-winched back down as a narrow boat passed through.

We’d seen reports a mere 4 days before of sightings of upwards of 30 Large Heaths at Whixall Moss, so we’d set off with high hopes of nailing this one easily. These hopes were slightly dampened almost as soon as we left the carpark when we met an exhausted looking lady (carrying her even more exhausted little dog) who’d been searching in the scorching heat for 5 hours and not seen a single one. Undeterred (while slightly deterred to be honest) we carried on, following the walk described in the Butterflies of the West Midlands book.

We’d been walking for about an hour and a half and it was starting to look as if we’d draw a blank, although we had seen lots of other lovely wildlife. But then finally, just as we were about to head back, I spotted a butterfly dancing about the path. Initially I wasn’t sure what it was as it didn’t look like I’d expected. Turns out the Large Heath would struggle to pass the trade description law – it is actually really small! It was a raggedy little specimen and it insisted on hiding behind bits of grass, but at least we’d found one. It proved to be the only one we saw that day, but after a 2 hour drive and an hour and a half walk, we were grateful just to have found one. So here it is – our one and only Large Heath.

It looks a bit like a Meadow Brown but smaller and with spots like a Ringlet.

Whixall Moss is also well known for its population of White-faced dragonflies. Despite taking lots of dragonfly photos, none of them turned out to be white-faced. But we did get a new one for us – the Black Darter. Here is a male (top) and female (bottom).

There were blue and red damselflies everywhere and love seemed to be in the air for many of them, including this mating pair of Azure ones.

Aside from the whirring of insect wings in the air, there was the chirping of grasshoppers in the undergrowth. This one hopped obligingly onto the path in front of me.

The final insect of the day was a day flying moth and a new one for me – the Common Heath. As the Large Heath wasn’t particularly large, so the Common Heath didn’t seem to be particularly common, but I did manage to chase one down to get a photo.

As we’d walked along the path, something had scared up a pair of ground nesting birds. They took to the air for a few minutes until the danger had passed. We didn’t know what they were at first, but working on our usual principle of snapping anything that moves, we took some photos. Turned out they were lapwings.

A bit further on and we found more of them – this time looking a bit more relaxed, nesting by a pooled area. Lapwings have suffered major declines in the UK in recent years, so it’s always nice to go somewhere that has them.

So it was a long hot day at Whixall Moss, but the success of seeing the Large Heath and the bonus of the lapwings, made it all worthwhile. Butterfly species no. 46 ticked off the list – only another dozen or so to go!

Buntings, Warblers and Fishers

Last year for my birthday we had an amazing day at some local Nature Photography Hides. As part of the deal we were entitled to a return visit to one hide this year. So a couple of weeks ago we headed over there for another lovely peaceful day – this time at their reed bed hide. This provided pretty much what it says on the tin – a hide in the middle of a reed bed.

Not knowing much about the ecology of reed beds, we weren’t sure what we would see, but as soon as we got there we could certainly hear plenty. Lots of small birds were clearly hiding in the reeds and singing their socks off. Much more visible and considerably noisier was a small flock of Canada Geese which flew in almost as soon as we got settled in the hide.

They are noisy, boisterous birds and seemed to be constantly squabbling with each other, although there seemed to be plenty of room for everyone. While they jostled for position a lone coot sailed serenely around, unfazed by their kerfuffle.

Another small water bird also emerged periodically from the reeds. We didn’t know what it was at first, but the good people of the iSpot website identified it as a Little Grebe. It was a fairly dumpy little thing, but was clearly very good at diving. Sadly it didn’t ever really come close enough for a very good photo.

Another species which arrived in a small flock was Black Headed Gulls. At least half a dozen of them would appear and hover over the water before diving for small fish. They are beautifully sleek looking gulls, with perfect delineation between their black heads and white bodies – as if the heads had just been dipped in black ink.

Several other species put in fleeting appearances. Swallows skimmed the water for insects, but were way to quick to catch on camera. Buzzards soared above us, but were too high and silhouetted against the pale sky were also too hard to photograph. A heron did flap lazily by a couple of times, flying slow enough to get recognisable shots, but sadly not landing anywhere within sight of the hide.

Aside from the distractions of the larger birds coming and going, the most common birds proved to be the buntings and warblers that we’d heard in the reeds when we first arrived. As usual we took literally hundreds of photos, which I’ve gradually whittled down to a few half decent ones. The willow warblers were singing all around us and often obliged by landing photogenically on reeds near the hides.

While scanning through the warbler photos, I found one that looked a bit different – it had more of a white stripe over its eye. Turns out this one was probably a Sedge Warbler. Shame there was only the one slightly blurred photo.

The reed buntings were as abundant as the willow warblers and also had a penchant for posing photogenically on the reeds. The males are more distinctive with a black head and white collar above a mottled brown body.

The people who run the hide site, supplied us with mealworms to attract the birds. This one is feeding from a tiny pot, camouflaged and stuck to the reeds.

The females are a bit plainer, without the black and white headgear, but beautiful nonetheless. They also seemed a bit bolder than the males, often coming onto wood near the walkway quite close to the hide.

We even got to see one of the female reed buntings gathering nest material, although we never saw a nest.

There is always the hope whenever you visit a hide near water of seeing a kingfisher. The site we were on has a dedicated kingfisher hide and last year we’d spent a very happy couple of hours with amazing views of one right in front of us (see https://toolazytoweed.uk/2017/01/16/wildlife-hides-part-2-the-king-of-fishers/ for last year’s blog post)  After a few hours in our reed bed hide though we hadn’t been so lucky. Chris decided to get up to stretch his legs and as he put his camera down said “this will probably make the kingfisher appear”. Unbelievably as he turned his back on the reeds a kingfisher did just that – flew right past the hide and way up onto the power lines above. Grabbing the camera quickly again he managed to get at least a recognizable shot.

The power lines were a long way up, but incredibly the kingfisher could still look down and focus on the fish in the water below. We watched amazed as it dived straight down to catch them.

After a few dives the kingfisher flew off, so Chris again decided to go stretch his legs. Although my short legs would benefit from stretching, I stayed put and continued trying to get the perfect shot of a reed bunting. I was so focussed on this that I initially missed the fact that the kingfisher had landed on a perch just feet in front of me. I got so flustered when I did see it that I couldn’t focus in time, so only managed this blurred shot of it flying off. But at least it proved to a disbelieving hubby when he returned that I had indeed seen the king again!

So I guess the moral of this story is that once you’re in a hide, never lose sight of what’s in front of you, never leave your chair and never turn your back to the view!

30 Days Wild – Day 19 – Upton Warren Wetlands

It’s Day 19 of 30 Days Wild and after yesterday’s lethargy, I was determined to get out and about. So I headed out to Upton Warren Wetlands Reserve. For some reason I thought it might be cooler near water and I fondly imagined bird hides would also be oases of calm in the heat. How wrong can you be? It was of course hot and humid there like everywhere else and the bird hides were more like ovens than fridges!

Chris and I had been to Upton Warren a couple of months ago, but we’d only had time to visit the Moors section of the reserve. So this time I headed for The Flashes, which are saline pools and so attract an interesting array of birds, especially for such an inland location. Since I was expecting to photograph birds, I left the macro lens at home – with hindsight another error of judgment for today! Fortunately the lens I did take, wasn’t too bad for insects (although I couldn’t get as close as I would have liked), because the place was alive with damselfies, demoiselles and dragonflies.

The sailing pool was absolutely awash with Common Blue damselflies – they were everywhere. They certainly lived up to their name today – they were very common and very blue. There were so many I was afraid of treading on one.

Then I spotted something bigger, which fortunately settled on a landing platform. I think it is a Black Tailed Skimmer. It was certainly skimming low over the water.

Next up was a Banded Demoiselle; my second demoiselle species of the year.

The final one was this huge dragonfly I spotted as I finished up for the morning. I say spotted, but actually I heard it first. It was so big that when it flew off, its wings made such a noise, I actually thought I’d disturbed a small bird and turned round to see what it was. I think it is some kind of hawker dragonfly.

Anyway on to the birds – there were of course plenty there, despite me being distracted by the dragonflies. First happy sighting was this mother duck with her ducklings.

Moving on, probably the most common bird I saw this morning was the Black Headed Gull – again it does what it says on the tin – a gull with a black head! This one is an adult in breeding plumage.

Although this one looks completely different, I think it is also a black headed gull, but a juvenile this time.

And to confirm the difference in plumage, here is a poor photo of an adult feeding an even younger one.

My favourite bird from today, and the one I went hoping to see, was the Avocet. Absolutely stunning black and white birds with long curved bills. I couldn’t help but take loads of photos! They seemed very territorial, chasing off anything that came within their patch, regardless of size of the intruder.

And this I think is an avocet chick. It’s not got the adult plumage yet, but the beak is the same and it was behaving the same.

Both adult and young avocets behaved the same way – poking about through the water with their long bills looking for food. I managed a couple of shaky videos of them doing this. You can tell from the noise in the background, just how many birds were around today.

Avocet feeding

 

Avocet chick feeding

There was a real cacophony of bird sound all morning, most of which was unidentifiable to me, although I did think that perhaps there were some warblers near the hides – something definitely seemed to be warbling! Although there were birds everywhere, the only other species I really took photos of were this Shelduck and some Canadian Geese.

I no doubt missed lots of other species. Someone in one of the sweltering bird hides told me they’d seen a Mediterranean Gull from the next hide. I don’t think I saw one of those, but then I’m not sure I’d have been able to tell the difference if I did! Although it would be nice to be more knowledgeable about the birds, I don’t really mind going to places like Upton Warren as a novice. Just seeing so many birds, species I’d only ever seen on the telly (thank you Springwatch), is glorious. Upton Warren is a delight and I’m already looking forward to going back so Chris can see it too – although we might wait for a cooler day!

 

Out and About – Grimley Brick and Gravel Pits

The weekend brought some gloriously sunny weather – forget spring, it felt like we had skipped ahead to summer. So we ventured forth, if not very far, to Grimley which is just north of Worcester. Grimley has several old flooded gravel extraction pits, which now form important wildfowl sites for the county. There are 2 main areas – each situated conveniently next to a pub!

The first pit we went to was off Wagon Wheel Lane. The Worcester Birding twitter feed had been full of news that an American wigeon had been spotted amongst our British wigeons. Having never seen a wigeon of any nationality, we hoped to see some. Having said that, it would probably have helped if we’d googled what a wigeon looked like before we set off! All we really knew was that they were ducks, so we snapped photos of anything vaguely duck like.  Fortunately when we got back and studied the photos, it turned out we had seen some of the British ones, although no sign of the elusive American. As with so many birds the male (top) is flashier looking than the relatively plain female (below).

Of course while chasing anything duck like, we inevitably got pics of a few other species. This lucky female Northern Shoveller was accompanied by at least 5 males.

Tufted ducks were bobbing about everywhere. I love the clean lines of the black and white plumage and the bright golden eye of the males.

Another species that was new to us was the Common Teal. We didn’t manage to get very close and from a distance we thought initially these were just mallards, until we spotted the creamy yellow rump. From our distant viewpoint it hadn’t been possible to make out the beautiful red and green plumage on the head, but thanks to the power of the zoom on the computer we could appreciate it back home.

Possibly the stars of the show for us on this trip were the exotic looking Great Crested Grebes – birds that we’d only ever seen on Springwatch before.  We got a fairly close up view of this one, although as with most birds it hid behind twigs to avoid decent photos.

There was a pair though doing what looked like a courtship display on the far side of the lake. They bobbed up and down facing each other. If they’d been a bit closer I’d have tried videoing it, but they were just too far away for that.

Love seemed to be in the air for a pair of swans too. One was already on the lake when another one landed further away. The first one spotted it and hurtled across the water – I thought at first it was an aggressive or territorial thing, but then they started entwining their necks around each other, so I guess they had other things in mind!

After a short pit stop at the Camp House Inn, we headed to the other set of pits nearby. First sight was this heron – I’d never studied one before and hadn’t realised just how large they were. We tried creeping closer to get a better shot, but as we were going across an open field, he spotted us straight away and flew off when he considered we were too close for comfort.

These lakes were clearly popular with a group of cormorants that were perched on fence posts in the middle and in trees. I still find it hard to get my head round seeing what I think of as sea birds this far in land!

As we headed back to the car we spotted some smaller birds. The first is definitely a reed bunting (which proves we are learning something as we didn’t know this before we went to Upton Warren a few weeks ago).

The second is either a chiffchaff or a willow warbler – you can apparently only differentiate them confidently by their song. We weren’t paying attention to the song, but having listened to both of them on the RSPB website, the chiffchaff song seems the more familiar, so this is maybe what we heard. Either way it was a very cute, tiny little bird that bobbed up and down wagging its tail a bit like a wagtail does.

As always while Chris concentrated on the birds, I kept getting side tracked by the insects. There were quite a few large bumblebees buzzing around and the pussy willow was provided much needed sustenance to several, like this Red Tailed Bumblebee.

While trying to get a decent photo of a buff tailed bumblebee, I spotted (no pun intended) this pair of 24 spot ladybirds. They were very small and the grass they were on was waving around in the breeze, hence the less than perfect photo. They were slightly less shiny than other ladybirds and look as if they have a fine covering of downy hairs, which would make them the 24 spot ones  – a new one for me.

When I was looking at the red ladybirds above, I hadn’t noticed at the time that there was a pile of creamy coloured ones right next to them. Again they are not perfectly in focus, as I obviously wasn’t focussing on them as I didn’t know they were there! These ones turned out to be 16 spot ladybirds – another new species.

And finally, because I can never resist a comedy photo – here is the very rare 4 winged duck and a rather splendid pair of owls on top of the Wagon Wheel Inn’s thatched roof.

Out and About – Upton Warren Wetlands

It’s March and we ventured Out and About properly last weekend for the first time this year. We’d joined Worcestershire Wildlife Trust a few months ago and decided to take advantage of this by visiting the Upton Warren Wetland Reserve.  It was so nice to get some fresh air and explore somewhere new. The reserve has a mixture of freshwater and saline pools (the result of previous brine extraction work), which attract a wide variety of birds. The reserve is pretty big, so we only managed to do about half of it on this first visit. It’s a fantastic site though, so we will definitely be back soon to try out the other half.

At the first hide, the Trust people had hung out a few bird feeders and we noticed a lot of small brownish birds that looked a bit like sparrows. Being novices, I had to ask the helpful gentleman who was in the hide with us what they were – I was a bit worried he might just say that they were sparrows, then I really would look clueless, but fortunately it turned out they were reed buntings. I had sort of expected reed buntings to hang about in the reeds and be difficult to see, but I guess why would they do that when there were easy pickings from a feeder?  Top one here is a male and the bottom is the female (at least I think it is, unless it turns out to be an embarrassing sparrow).

reed-bunting

reed-bunting-female

The reed buntings weren’t the only ones using the bird feeders; they had stiff competition from the bullfinches in particular, who in turn had to contend with the greenfinches.

bullfinch-bunting-2

bunting-and-bullfinch

bullfinch-greenfinches

All the dropped seed of course attracted the inevitable rats, including this particularly bold one. Not the most welcome visitor to a bird reserve, but it was interesting to see a rat that close up in broad daylight – a first for me.

We may have been watching the birds, but we were definitely being watched too. This Canada Goose seemed particularly interested in us and came right up close to the hide.

A portly looking moorhen was lazily scanning around for bird seed, while a coot cruised the nearby inlet.

There were quite a few regular mallards about, but then we spotted a duck that looked a bit different. Umpteen blurry photos later, we finally got one good enough to identify it as a Shoveler Duck. Turns out they are fairly common, but it was new to us.

There were a few cormorants about – weird looking birds. Even the RSPSB website describes them as reptilian looking, which seems a tad unkind!

By far the most common birds we saw were these black-headed gulls. At first we thought there were 2 species; but it seems the one with the full black head has already got its summer plumage, whereas the one with just a dark spot behind the eye is in his winter plumage still.

One species we were really pleased to see was the lapwing. We’d only ever seen these on TV (Springwatch most likely) and they are such characterful looking birds, we were really chuffed to find a small flock of them. They were a bit far away to get really good photos, although when they all took off we got a slightly better view.

It was only when we got back home and I was going through the photos of the lapwings that I realised Chris had accidentally caught some snipe in some of the photos too. I’m not sure we can really claim to have seen them, as we hadn’t noticed them there at the time, but at least we’ll know to look out for them next time.

Having lived by the coast for many years, one bird we were familiar with was the oystercatcher – never imagined we’d see them in the middle of Worcestershire though! We heard them at Upton before we saw them – that distinctive, fairly shrill call. A pair landed on a small island in front of us, easily recognisable with their bright red beaks and legs (I do like an obvious bird!) Again they were a bit far away to get really good photos, but later as we walked back to the car, there was one just standing in the field!

Without doubt the most beautiful bird we saw was this Little Egret, which Chris spotted as we walked between hides. Almost ethereal with its pure white plumage, we watched it for a few minutes before it disappeared into the reeds.

All in all we had a great afternoon and although we were only there for a few hours, we still clocked up 18 species of bird, several of which were completely new to us. We heard another birdwatcher commenting that there was “nothing much showing” – he was no doubt much more experienced than we were and probably hoping for something unusual. Sometimes it’s good to be a novice, as we were absolutely delighted with everything we saw – lots of the birds were new to us, so it was all exciting and we were happy just watching what was there. For us there was plenty showing.

In The Pink

This week I managed to combine a visit to Slimbridge Wetland Centre with meeting friends for lunch – a win-win day out in my book! Slimbridge is only an hour’s drive from us and is the most amazing wetland reserve, overflowing with birds both native and from abroad. If you’re into bird watching, it must be one of the top UK sites to visit. In the few hours we were there, we only managed to get round maybe less than half of it (probably due to too much time scoffing sandwiches and yapping in the café!)

I was trying to take photos as we meandered around, but there’s almost too much to take in and I kept forgetting to actually snap away. For some reason, when I got back and looked at the photos, I appear to have got a bit obsessed by flamingos! Nearly half the day’s photos seem to feature them. There are apparently 6 species, although I think I’ve only got 3 here (which vaguely irritates my OCD that having unwittingly got a bit obsessed, I didn’t then photograph them all!)

These first ones are Caribbean Flamingos – the brightest pink ones we saw. The colour always seems unnatural to me, but logically I know that it’s due to their food and that Slimbridge aren’t dying their flamingos for our gratification!

caribbean-flamingos

This next one is an Andean Flamingo and possibly my favourite of the ones we saw. The feathers are absolutely stunning. Unfortunately this species is classed as Threatened – mainly by hunting, mining activities and habitat loss.

andean-flamingo

The next two photos are of Lesser Flamingos. In the upper photo you can see the teeth or serrations along the edge of the beak that it uses to filter the food out of the water. The lower photo I included just because I like the way they sinuously wrap their necks around – it’s hard to tell where one bird ends and the next begins.

flamingo-head

flamingo-knot

Besides flamingos, there were birds everywhere – particularly geese and ducks. Many had clearly learnt that visitors = food, but this Bar-headed Goose was way too dignified for that and just sailed serenely by.

barr-headed-goose

There were lots of quite showy birds, but for some reason I really liked this South Georgian Pintail Duck. Nothing flashy, just quintessentially ducky!

south-georgian-pintail

Probably my favourite photo of the day is this seemingly two headed duck! (Ruddy Eider Ducks I think)

two-headed-duck

We listened to a very interesting talk by one of the WWT volunteers, all about the Great Cranes. Slimbridge has been heavily involved in a project to reintroduce these majestic birds into Britain. It’s hard to believe but these huge birds were once common here until they were hunted to extinction. Fortunately they survived in Europe and thanks to the efforts of the WWT, they have got a toehold back in Britain.

cranes

It’s not all birds at the wetland centre though. They have several mammals, including otters, a beaver, voles, shrews and these adorable harvest mice – the only ones who would pose nicely for photographs. Unfortunately they were behind glass, so the images aren’t great, but they were wonderful to watch – such quick inquisitive little creatures.

harvest-mouse

harvest-mouse-2

Final bird of the day though was this Spoon-billed Sandpiper – made entirely of Lego. They were setting up giant Lego animals while we were there for a children’s trail opening this Saturday. The lady who gave us the Crane talk had told us about these little birds (in non-Lego reality they are apparently tiny) and how the WWT is doing such valuable work to try and save them. This was the closest we got to seeing one though!

spoon-billed-sandpiper

You don’t have to be into birdwatching to enjoy Slimbridge, although it is obviously a bonus if you are. I’d definitely recommend it as a day out for anyone even remotely interested in wildlife and conservation. For more information go to: http://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/slimbridge/