Welcome to the Buteo Wildlife blog, a record of some of the wildlife that we have been seeing and occasional identification articles that will hopefully be useful for those trying to learn about wildlife.

If you enjoy reading this blog, join us on one of our tours - days and weekends looking for wildlife. Visit our website for details: www.buteowildlife.co.uk
Note that tours with clients may not always feature prominently on this blog because we are unlikely to have time for photography when out with clients - and walls of text don't tend to make the most interesting posts. If there is time for a few snatched photos they may not always be of the highest quality - but we'll use them anyway!

To try and keep posts in chronological order they may sometimes be given earlier dates/times than when they are actually posted. Apologies, for this - it's not meant to mislead anyone (and we will try to avoid this happening too often).

10 December 2012

South Essex (9 December 2012)

For the last ELBF trip of the year we set off from Waltham Abbey on a blustery Sunday morning. An hour or so later we arrived at Canvey coastguard, wrapped up against the stiff south-westerly wind and went up to the watchpoint to see what we could find on the River Thames. There were a lot of Black-headed Gulls but, despite careful scrutiny, there did not appear to be any Mediterranean Gulls with them. A few Turnstones, an Oystercatcher and a Curlew flew past, and a distant diver was seen by one person but no one else managed to get onto it and its identity remained a mystery. a couple of small groups of Dark-bellied Brent Geese were seen in the distance but little else of note so we made our way back to the cars where there were Pied Wagtails flying over the car park.

We drove to the RSPB reserve at West Canvey where a single Fieldfare perched in a bush beside the car park but most passerines were keeping their heads down in the strong wind. The most obvious birds by the flash were a flock of Canada Geese but a bit of careful scanning turned up Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler, several Lapwing and Curlew in the fields and some Rabbits. A Little Grebe proved somewhat elusive on the flash but the Tufted Duck and Pochard were quite prominent. In view of the weather and the fact that the morning was nearly gone we decided to move on to Two-tree Island.

On arriving we made our way to the western end of the island, noting scattered Grey Plover and Ringed Plover, Redshank, Curlew, Turnstone and Dunlin on the way. On going into the hide at the end Avocets were quickly added to the day's list with twenty-one scattered around the pool. A Little Egret was seen at the far end of the pool and there were four Common Snipe dividing their time between sleeping almost hidden in the vegetation and feeding on the mud. There were a few more Grey Plover on the pool but we couldn't find any godwits anywhere. On the way back to the cars a Sparrowhawk flew across in front of us and a Kestrel was seen hovering over some of the scrub. We drove the short distance to the car park in the middle of the island and walked along to the eastern point. The scrub in this area was sheltered and we finally connected with some passerines. Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches were all noted, there were a few Fieldfares and plenty of Blackbirds and, at a feeding station in the middle of the reserve, we added Great Tits, Blue TitsLong-tailed Tits and Robin. There were no water birds on the reedy pool halfway to the point but we did hear a Dunnock. Arriving at the point we checked the mud looking towards Southend and quickly found a flock of Dark-bellied Brent Geese which numbered about a thousand birds. There were Oystercatchers out on the mud as well. As we began to head back with the light starting to fade Little Egrets began to fly in towards the island from the east and as we got to the area of the old sewage works there was a group of ivy-covered trees which was obviously the roosting point for the egrets as we watched about twenty come in and perch with much grunting and squawking. Unfortunately the hoped-for Short-eared Owl failed to show but on reaching the car park the light had faded enoough for Jupiter to be glowing brightly over Southend and, with the aid of a telescope three of its moons could be seen.

1 December 2012

Swan Lake! (25th November 2012).

With a couple of hours to spare I took the family for a stroll around Connaught Waters in Epping Forest.
It was a cold but sunny day so there were quite a few people making the most of opportunity to get out.
Just as we left the car park past the site information board Grey Squirrels and Wood Pigeons were foraging in the trees and on the ground for berries, and for scraps thrown down by the visiting public.
Woodpigeon -waiting to be fed!

Tufted Ducks, Mallards, Shoveller and a few Teal were on the main body of the lake along with some Black-headed Gulls, with the latter taking advantage and plunge diving for the bread being thrown for the ducks and resident Canada Geese.

I know there's some bread here somewhere!
A little further round I came across what I believe to be a Mallard X Gadwall hybrid which looked quite smart with it’s green and brown head shimmering in the light. I also got some good views of the escaped female Hooded Merganser that has been in the area for a over a year now.
Hybrid Duck - probably Gadwall x Mallard (or possibly x Teal?).

Female Hooded Merganser - an escape from a collection.
The forest was a little quieter than I thought it would be but the lake did make up for this and we spent a fair amount of time watching a lovely cob Mute Swan bathing in the sunlight.

30 November 2012

Skulking stars! (18th November 2012).

After a meal with family, I made the most of what remained of a sunny afternoon by spending a couple of hours in the River Lee Country Park.

A search of likely areas in the hope that I might find a late Common Darter or Migrant Hawker dragonfly still flying was unsuccessful, but I did have good views of a Chiffchaff and several Goldcrests. Both of these species manage to get through the winter by finding insects and other invertebrates that are still active - or are trying to 'hibernate'. Goldcrests, the smallest of UK bird species, are more common and widespread in many areas during the winter, with thousands crossing the North Sea to over-winter here, despite weighing little more than five grams.

Most of my time was spent in the 'Bittern Information Point' hide on Seventy Acres Lake, and it turned out to be very successful. The more obvious bird species included Cormorants, Great Crested Grebes, Gadwall, Grey Herons, and a variety of other water birds, as well as a Great Spotted Woodpecker visiting the feeders in front of the hide.

Perhaps of more interest though were the species that are usually present in the area during the winter, but which can easily go unnoticed. Common Snipe can usually be found hiding in the vegetation on the islands, and this was the first of the more secretive species that I managed to pick out. I had very little time to get others in the hide onto the two snipe feeding, quite openly for a change, at the edge of one of the islands, before I was distracted by the explosive "pik" calls of a Cetti's Warbler at the nearest edge of the reedbed. This showed really well for a surprisingly long while as it moved along the edge of the reedbed, before moving back into the reeds - out of sight but still calling frequently. Later on it also gave a couple of brief bursts of the better known song.
A Little Grebe came out from the edge of the reedbed to feed in open water in front of the hide, and as the afternoon progressed Water Rails became more vocal, with their pig like squealing calls, before one showed very well right at the edge of the reeds. Finally, to end the afternoon, a Bittern showed very well at the edge of a line of reeds further round the edge of the gravel pit - stretching up to its full height as if alarmed by something. It was a little distant, but with a telescope views were very good.

The country park is a good area to see all of these species, but you don't often get to see all of them so well within such a short period of time.

Chingford Reservoirs (17th November 2012).

The monthly Wetland Bird Survey count at the reservoirs found last months drake Long-tailed Duck still present, along with 23 Black-necked Grebes, and a noticeable increase in Goldeneye numbers. In addition, two Common Scoters (usually found offshore like the Long-tailed Duck), which had arrived during the previous week, were on the King George V Reservoir. Seabirds like these are most at home on open water so naturally head for reservoirs or the largest gravel pits when they find themselves inland.

Night-time Migrants (13th November 2012).

Many passerines (perching birds) migrate by night, and this means that they pass overhead unnoticed. Sometimes though they can be heard calling as they pass overhead.
I have regularly been hearing Redwings over the last few weeks, and tonight I heard the distinctive chattering calls of Fieldfares as well as the thinner "Tsseeep" calls of the Redwings.

Reservoir Ducks (14th October 2012).

WeBS count day again (Wetland Bird Survey), so Dave and I found ourselves at the Chingford Reservoirs.
A Rock Pipit was a scarce migrant, but far from unexpected on the reservoirs at this time of year, and the first of the wintering Goosander, a few Goldeneye, and a handful of Wigeon were also right on time. Far more unexpected was a superb drake Long-tailed Duck, a species that is more typically found on the sea than inland, and which is generally scarce around the coast in the south-east. Long-tailed Ducks are also unusual in that unlike the majority of duck species they have clearly different winter and summer plumages - this drake was largely in its winter plumage.

Beachy Head (9th October 2012).

A visit to Eastbourne provided a good reason to spend some time on Beachy Head to search  for migrants. I chose to try the area near the Belle Tout lighthouse, where a small patch of mainly Sycamore woodland was a likely location for Firecrests, and perhaps even a Yellow-browed Warbler.
The Belle Tout lighthouse - no longer a working lighthouse, but still a land mark.

On arrival a Peregrine gave a close fly past soon after we got out of the car, and a Common Whitethroat gave a brief burst of song from nearby scrub - I have no idea why it chose to sing at this time of year on a rather overcast and breezy day, but migrant birds do occasionally sing during the autumn!

House Martins had gathered to feed in the more sheltered area around the woodland, with more House Martins, large numbers of Swallows, and much smaller numbers of Sand Martins also heading east along the coast. We later found out, after walking towards the cliff edge, that they were also passing by out to sea, again heading east. Meadow Pipits, "alba" wagtails (Pied and/or White Wagtails which could not be identified to subspecies), and Skylarks were also visibly on the move, again mostly heading east, and smaller numbers of Siskin, Lesser Redpoll, and Chaffinch also passed over.
A view towards the newer Beachy Head lighthouse (the black specks towards the right hand side of the photo are Swallows heading east along the cliff edge).

Goldcrests were very easily found in Belle Tout Wood, and it wasn't long at all before we found the first Firecrest among them - a much brighter, stripy headed gem than the accompanying Goldcrests. In total we probably saw about eight different Firecrests and several dozen Goldcrests in, and around, the wood, all feeding actively, hovering to pick at the underside of leaves.

Good numbers of Chiffchaffs, a Willow Warbler and a couple of Blackcaps were also present in the woodland and nearby scrub, as well as large numbers of Robins and Dunnocks

Countryside Live (29-30th September 2012).

This has been an annual event in the Lee Valley for a the last few years, with a mix of family entertainment and groups representing countryside activities. This year the event was held at the Waterworks Nature Reserve, and the East London Birders Forum were there again to take people on short walks to see some of the birds present, as well as pointing out birds of interest at other times. Dave was on site on both days, I was there all day on the Sunday.

In total we recorded 51 species (49 on Sunday), which isn't bad for a small nature reserve in a built up area of East London - especially as the event was held in a grass field so we were only in the best habitats when we took people on walks. The complete list of species can be seen on the hastily put together 'sightings board' seen below:
It can be surprising how many species can be seen in a relatively small area!

The highlights included the first Redwings and Fieldfares of the autumn, a Hobby, and a constant stream of hirundines (Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins) which were heading south and south-west in small flocks.

A sunny autumn day (29th September 2012).

Twelve people joined me for this walk round the RSPB and Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust Reserve at Rye Meads. It was a nice sunny day so insects were very active, with Red Admiral Butterflies, and Southern & Migrant Hawker, and Common Darter dragonflies seen right from the start of the walk. One of the Southern Hawkers showed very well perching up and allowing the identifying features to be described and pointed out while it was in view.
Male Southern Hawker - note the broad stripes on top of the thorax, green sides to the thorax, and blue spots joined into 'bars' at the end of the abdomen.

The Water Bison and Konik Ponies used to graze the water meadows for management purposes provided a brief distraction, before we continued to explore the reserve.

Chiffchaffs were fly-catching for insects in sunny spots, and one was even tempted to sing for a while. A Cetti's Warbler also gave a couple of brief bursts of song but remained hidden. From the first hide we were able to find Shoveler, Common Teal, Gadwall, and other more common duck species, although most were still largely in their duller eclipse plumage. A male Sparrowhawk also showed very well perched for a while on a tall stick protruding from the reedbed.
Walking round the reserve we saw quite a few more Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers, as well as a couple of Brown Hawkers and a handful of additional butterfly species including Large White and Peacock. One of the Migrant Hawkers posed well to give a good comparison with the earlier Southern Hawker.
Male Migrant Hawker - the stripes on top of the thorax are very short (almost absent), and the spots at the end of the abdomen are separate. The sides of the thorax can't be seen in this photo, but are yellow with a black dividing stripe (see the Rainham visit toward the start of September).

The lagoon hides gave good views of a few Common Snipe, and distant views of Green Sandpipers, as well as Wigeon and a sleeping Garganey, among other species, unfortunately the Garganey barely raised its head while we were in the hide.
Kingfishers breed on the reserve, but had already fledged their final brood this year, so it was a bit hit and miss as to whether we would find one. We were in luck though, and a female Kingfisher showed well 'plunge bathing' by frequently diving into the water, between bouts of preening, when we visited the Kingfisher Hide. A Common Buzzard also showed from here, with a couple more seen later when we took the back route out of the reserve.
A couple of Comma Butterflies were sunning themselves near the turnstile leading out of the reserve, and to finish the day off we had good views of a Water Vole feeding in front of the Water Vole Hide (accessed from outside of the reserve).
A Comma butterfly, displaying the typical 'ragged' rear edge to the wings, and the white 'comma' mark on the underside of the hindwing which gives it it's English name.

On the move (19th September 2012).

Dave and I visited the Chingford Reservoirs (King George V and William Girling) today for the monthly Wetland Bird Survey count. Considering the time of year it wasn't surprising to find passage migrants moving through as summer migrants headed south for their wintering areas in Africa, as well as the first winter visitors.
A Northern Wheatear was on the banks of the KGV Reservoir, along with at least half a dozen Yellow Wagtails. More Yellow Wagtails were feeding around the edges of the William Girling Reservoir, as well as quite large numbers of Pied Wagtails, and a few Grey Wagtails - it is likely that some of these two species were also passage migrants, even though both species breed at the reservoirs.
Yellow Wagtails on the banks of the reservoir - the amount of yellow on the underparts can be especially variable at this time of year.

Swallows, and House Martins were also moving through in small numbers.

The wetland species that we had come to survey included 25 Black-necked Grebes and the first two Goldeneye of the winter on the William Girling Reservoir, as well as increasing numbers of Common Teal, and a few Green Sandpipers and Little Egrets.

Waterworks Nature Reserve (15th September 2012).

"Wild Place, Your Space" - a joint project created by the RSPB and Lee Valley Regional Park were having an event to mark the 'official' opening of the community wildlife garden at the Waterworks Nature Reserve, and I had agreed to attend the event to help to show people  some of the wildlife present on the reserve.

The event was well attended by members of the public, including members of the local community who had helped with the work involved in creating the garden - and a good selection of local wildlife attended as well!
A turf dragonfly created as one of the features in the wildlife garden. The plastic mesh making up the wings consists of plant pots intended to be planted with flowering plants that will attract bees and other insects.

The reserve is based around the old Essex Filter Beds, which are no longer used for their original purpose and are now managed for the benefit of wildlife. Introduced Edible Frogs are usually to be found in the filterbed's well-head and today was no exception, with at least three lurking amongst the floating duckweed. The wetter filter beds attract a variety of waterbirds, with Little Grebes among the most obvious of these today. At least two pairs have bred on the site this year, and both pairs still have chicks from late broods. Coot, and Moorhens, with young chicks were another favourite with some of the children who showed interest. Other birds included a Little Egret, Hobby, Sparrowhawk, and at least 12 noisy Ring-necked Parakeets - the later have been spreading into the area from their strongholds in south and west London in the last couple of years, and are now resident locally. 

Birding luck (8th & 9th September 2012).

During the afternoon of 7th September, a visitor hoping to connect with a Southern Migrant Hawker (or Blue-eyed Hawker), one of which had been photographed at Rainham Marshes RSPB reserve two days previously had seen, and photographed, a Baillon's Crake - a very rare bird in the UK, but possibly overlooked to some degree because of their very secretive nature. News was released late on Friday evening after arrangements had been made for volunteers and staff to open the reserve at dawn.

I arrived at the reserve at about 7 am on the Saturday (8th), but unfortunately reached the hide from which the bird had been seen too late after it had shown well first thing. Despite the fact that the hide remained full of hopeful birders all day, the crake was not seen at all after the early morning sighting.
It was a sunny day though, and even though the crake didn't show, there were plenty of other birds, and other wildlife, to see.
From the Shooting Butts Hide (built on the site shooting butts from the sites previous use as a Ministry of Defence firing range), which was where the crake had been seen, Little Grebes were feeding a late brood of chicks. The chicks did try and dive occasionally, but mainly waited for the attending adults to come up with small fish or aquatic invertebrates and then hurried over to beg to be fed!

Hobbys appeared early on, and as the day began to warm up slightly were soon snatching dragonflies from the air as the latter started to become active. Some came very close to the hide in pursuit of their prey, paying no attention to those gathered inside.

The majority of the dragonflies present were Migrant Hawkers and Common Darters, although there were also a few Brown Hawkers, Southern Hawkers, and Ruddy Darters around, as well as a few Common Blue Damselflies, Blue-tailed Damselflies, and Emerald Damselflies. The highlight among the dragonflies though was a male Southern Migrant Hawker which was briefly over the rushes at the edge of the water in front of the hide.

A handful of Sedge Warblers and a couple of Reed Warblers were seen in front of the Shooting Butts Hide, as well as a Water Rail, while elsewhere on the reserve Marsh Frogs posed for photographs at the dragonfly pools, waders including Black-tailed Godwits were on the pools, and Water Voles showed very well at the Marshland Discovery Zone (although they wouldn't come out of the reeds to allow a decent photo!).

I returned before first light the next day, and after picking up a volunteers radio to help keep staff and volunteers elsewhere on the reserve informed about what was happening in the hide, I made my way to the Shooting Butts Hide hopeful that I would have better luck this morning. A fair number of birders were already there, and I joined them to watch the sun rise, and scan the edges of the stands of rushes for signs of our quarry. Before it was properly light I picked up the shape of a crake creeping along the edge of the rushes. This has to be the Baillon's Crake, but unfortunately the light wasn't really good enough to confirm this, and all that I could really say was that I had seen a species of crake. Most of the other observers who managed to get onto the bird at this time said the same thing, although one or two were convinced. Fortunately though, the crake showed several more times during the day today, although usually only briefly, or obscured by vegetation
Hobbys were again hawking dragonflies in front of the hide, and Sedge Warblers were flitting about in the emergent vegetation, including one quite pale juvenile. Water Rails were more in evidence than yesterday with at least three seen, including a fully grown juvenile, and a Marsh Harrier and a couple of Yellow Wagtails also put in an appearance.

Elsewhere a Cetti's Warbler showed briefly and one of the resident Peregrines put in an appearance.
The Baillon's Crake continued to show on and off for about two weeks - but it was always pot luck as to whether it would show at any particular time.

26 August 2012

A brilliant day at Rainham (26th August 2012).

A day with no rain in the forecast so I decided to head over to RSPB Rainham Marshes. The pools held a good selection of the usual waders with Ruff, Green and Common Sandpipers, Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwits and Little Ringed Plovers. There was a juvenile Marsh Harrier patrolling over the marsh and four Hobbies. Four Whinchats dotted along the fence of one of the fields were a sign that autumn migration is well under way. An adult and a juvenile Water Vole were feeding in a couple of the ditches.

After lunch the idea of a bit of skywatching seemed appealing and turned up another Marsh Harrier with Hobbies feeding on dragonflies. Then at about 3 o'clock I decided to check what I thought at first was a juvenile gull flying towards me from the centre of the reserve only to realise that it was an Arctic Skua which flew over my head, past the visitor centre and out to the river. I and another birder made our way through to the river wall to try to relocate it only to see a ringtail Montagu's Harrier drifting along the south side in company with two Marsh Harriers. A short time after that Arctic Terns started drifting upriver, there were ten in all and then someone picked up a Spoonbill also flying upriver on the south side. The Arctic Terns kept going through until about 4 o'clock when it all went quiet again. Quite a good afternoon!

25 August 2012

Cliffe Pools (8th August 2012).

Another trip in search of waders, travelling a little further from East London this time for a longer day in the field - not much further as the birds fly though, we were more or less just across the Thames at the RSPB reserve at Cliffe.
It was high tide when we arrived, which meant that large numbers of Black-tailed Godwits and Common Redshank were roosting on some of the islands in the freshwater pools, or feeding in the shallow areas. Scanning through these soon revealed small numbers of Dunlin and, seemingly tagged on to the largest group of Dunlin, a single juvenile Little Stint. The stint could seen to be clearly smaller than the Dunlins that could be seen in the same telescope view, and with the obvious pale 'braces' on the back that is a plumage feature of juveniles of a few similar wader species.
Several Greenshank were also found, including a colour ringed individual, although most of these seemed to be keeping separate from most of the other waders. By the end of the day we had probably seen a minimum of 30 on the various pools. All of these species were seen before we had even passed the first pool, and we added Common Sandpiper and a Spotted Redshank, which flew over calling, before we continued. On the other pools the waders kept coming, with Avocets, Green Sandpipers, Common Snipe, and at least three Wood Sandpipers. The latter were a 'lifer' for Chris, who was with me, and the presence of both juvenile, and breeding plumaged adult Green Sandpipers nearby allowed a good comparison of the identification features - breeding plumaged Green Sandpiper in particular can often be quite noticeably spotted above, and are sometimes mistaken for Wood Sandpipers.

We diverted our attention briefly from the birds to have a look at some of the invertebrates on the site, in particular looking for some of the dragonfly species that were present, although (as always) other invertebrates were also of interest.
A Migrant Hawker dragonfly landed not too far away, but on the other side of a ditch, and stayed long enough for some good 'scope views and a couple of 'phone scoped' images, and a few Scarce Emerald Damselflies were to be found in the same ditch, as well as more widespread damselfly species such as Blue-tailed Damselflies. We also found a Short-winged Conehead (a type of cricket) at the edge of the ditch, and found both Ruddy Darters and Common Darters.

Back to the birds, Reed Warblers, Sedge Warblers, Blackcaps, and Common Whitethroats were lurking in the reed edges and in bramble and hawthorn scrub, and a couple of Stock Doves also put in an appearance. When we reached the Thames foreshore there were Grey Plovers, Avocets and Shelduck present as well as a variety of gulls.

A prolonged sunny spell brought Marbled White Butterflies and Large & Essex Skippers out, and also seemed to entice many of the ant colonies to fly. Warm sunny days are what the newly mature virgin queen ants, and the flying males, require at this time of year before they leave the nests in which they were raised and mix with ants from other colonies on their mating flights. After mating the females will lose their wings and seek out somewhere to start a new colony and the males will die. The precise environmental conditions that lead to these mating flights do not seem to be fully understood, but whatever they are they tend to trigger the emergence of flying ants from all of the nests in a given area. Birds quickly learn to take advantage of events such as this, and within minutes large numbers of Black-headed Gulls had gathered, milling around in the sky as they snapped up as many ants as they could. Once the first gulls had begun to gather, others made a bee-line straight for them, with the result being that all those that had been foraging on the foreshore were soon over the land and trying to catch ants. In excess of 200 Black-headed Gulls were soon in the air over the reserve, as well as a handful of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a single adult Common Gull (scarce in the region at this time of year), and surprisingly at least 5 Common Terns - I have never seen terns feeding on flying ants before but these were clearly doing just that. It was quite surprising how quickly the gulls dispersed again a while later when it clouded over again.
Later sunny spells, one of which happily occurred as we were passing some Buddleia bushes, brought numerous butterflies out, including a single Painted Lady (perhaps a newly arrived migrant?), and a Common Lizard also showed itself briefly. A mouse, presumably a Wood Mouse, was seen briefly running down the trunk of an Elder bush, where it has presumably been feeding, and rustling noises in the bushes almost certainly indicated the presence of other rodents which remained unseen.
A final highlight was a juvenile or female Common Redstart which showed itself briefly at the edge of the path as we passed through an area of bushes on our way back to the car park.

Larkswood Invertebrates (12th August 2012).

I had been invited to attend a work party meeting of the Friends of Larkswood, who do some conservation work in Larkswood, an area of woodland in Chingford. The aim of todays task was to improve the habitat around one of the woodland clearings for invertebrates, and while this was going on we were going to try some invertebrate sampling to see what sort of species were already present, and show those involved with the work party some of the wildlife that was 'hiding in the undergrowth'.
We found a good variety of species present, with some of the more noticeable including Roesel's Bush Crickets, Speckled Bush Crickets, Field Grasshoppers, and Forest Shieldbugs.
Roesel's Bush Cricket (top) and Speckled Bush Cricket, both females as shown by the long ovipositors - photos taken with a camera phone!

The difference made by the work party was clear to see as well, despite them only working for a relatively short period of time, and they, and anyone else involved with practical conservation work in their local area, should be congratulated for taking the time to get involved.

17 August 2012

Waders on the move at last (15th August 2012).

There was certainly some evidence of Autumn migration at RSPB Rainham Marshes with good numbers of waders around. Up until now there have just been a few Green Sandpipers and Snipe with the occasional Black-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel. Today those four species were all present with 6, 25, 4 and 1 respectively. There were, however, several more species of wader on the various pools with single Greenshank and Common Sandpiper, 4 Ruff and the star bird of the day, a juvenile Wood Sandpiper which was alongside a juvenile Ruff at one stage providing an excellent comparison between the two. There were also at least 4 Yellow Wagtails flying around and I counted 27 Little Egrets.
Before I arrived there had been Black and Sandwich Terns seen on the River and a Little Stint in Aveley Bay.

15 August 2012

An Introduction to Dragonflies (4th August 2012).

As I, and the first of the attendees, arrived at the Denham Country Park visitors centre ready for the introduction to identifying and recording dragonflies and damselflies which I had been asked to give, the heavens opened - not the ideal conditions for going out to search for odonata! The intention was for me to give a short talk about the behaviour and identification of dragonflies before we headed out into the field, so we crossed our fingers and hoped that the weather would improve.

Thankfully the rain had stopped, and it had brightened up somewhat, by the time that we went out in search of some live dragonflies and damselflies, and we were soon finding numerous Common Blue Damselflies, and the larger, more spectacular Banded Demoiselles. One or two Brown hawkers also showed well, although only in flight, and Red-eyed Damselflies again showed well on the Grand Union Canal. It took a while to find the first Red-eyed Damselfly, but after I had found one we went on to see several, both perched on floating vegetation and skimming low over the surface of the water, and I think that most of the participants were soon confidently picking them out from the Common Blues by themselves - even in flight.

A single Emperor Dragonfly was found hawking over a small field in a wooded area as we walked back to the visitors centre, and while watching this we also had good views of a Kestrel, which kept returning to its chosen perch on a dead branch high up a tree. A few butterflies, including Speckled Woods, also caught peoples eye while we were out.

We avoided the rain and managed to find a reasonable number of species despite less than ideal weather conditions, and hopefully everyone enjoyed the event (feedback certainly seemed positive).

I didn't have a chance for any photos today, so here's one from the talk - a Four-spotted Chaser covered with early morning dew:

In search of waders (2nd August 2012).

Today I spent the morning and early part of the afternoon by the River Thames, not far outside of London, at East Tilbury. I was with someone who wanted to try and find some waders and other wildlife, and had suggested that this would potentially be a good site to try, especially as the tide times were advantageous with high tide at around midday.

As soon as we arrived by the riverside we found good numbers of Black-tailed Godwits, with a flock of over a hundred, in various stages of moult, feeding on the exposed mud at the edge of the water. Excellent 'scope views were very easy to obtain, and as the tide came in the feeding flock was gradually pushed closer to the riverside path. Several birds in the flock had been colour ringed, some with 'leg flags' (coloured rings with projections to make them even more visible), and it will be interesting to discover where they had come from.
A group of Black-tailed Godwits including one of the colour ringed individuals (I will post details about the origins of these when I know them).

Nearby a Whimbrel was feeding near to the path, and both Curlews and Oystercatchers were around in small numbers. Away from the waterside Starlings, House Sparrows, Greenfinches, and Linnets, the later including a couple of cracking males with extensive bright red breasts and foreheads, were among the resident bird species feeding on a variety of plant seeds. Small numbers of Common Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs, and Blackcaps found in scrubby areas probably including both some which had bred locally and migrants passing through from further afield.
Juvenile House Sparrow and Starling - the Starling starting to moult into first winter plumage.

Walking a little further east along the riverside meant that we came across more waders, including somewhere in the region of 500 Avocets, which included quite good numbers of juveniles. These probably included birds from breeding areas in north Kent, as well as other nearby parts of Essex (none breed at East Tilbury). A few Grey Plovers, Dunlin, and Redshank, and a single Turnstone, mostly in breeding plumage added more variety.
The sunny weather meant that there were some interesting invertebrates to see as well, and we had an interesting conversation with a ranger working on improving habitat for Sea Aster Mining Bees (Colletes halophilus - a bee species which is restricted to coastal parts of the UK because of it's habitat preferences. It was a little early in the year for them to be flying, but apparently the habitat work has so far proved very successful in improving the numbers of the species at East Tilbury.
One of the bees that we did manage to find (I haven't yet checked whether it can be identified from the photo!).

A couple of European Stonechats showed very well to finish off the morning, with this bright male posing well for extended viewing and some photos:

Amwell (28th July 2012).

Twelve people joined me for this walk, at Amwell Nature Reserve at the north end of the Lee Valley Regional Park. Most of the participants met me at Stanstead Abbots railway station, a short walk from the reserve, and we started to see interesting wildlife on our way to the reserve, including Blackcaps and Sedge Warblers as we walked along by the New River (not particularly 'new' now, the waterway was opened in 1613 after being constructed to supply drinking water to the people of London).

We met a few more people nearer to the main viewpoint over the reserve, and then quickly made a start on finding out what the reserve had to offer.
Late summer can be one of the quietest times of year for birdwatching because for many species the breeding season is starting to come to an end, and they are often moulting worn feathers in preparation for migration or the forthcoming winter. This means that there is little bird song to be heard, and the birds are often secretive. Autumn migration has already commenced by the end of July though, and the Common Sandpipers that were feeding on the muddy edges of islands in the gravel pit that the reserve encompasses were a sign of this. Common Sandpipers don't breed locally so these were among the first migrants on their way back south.

Other birds were still busy trying to raise broods of young, including Reed Warblers and Reed Buntings seen carrying food, and Great Crested Grebes with their stripy 'humbug' youngsters. Others had clearly already fledged their young, and we saw quite a quite a few fully fledged, and independent, juveniles, including Grey Herons and Green Woodpeckers. We were lucky with the weather, considering how the British summer can be, and the frequent sunny spells suited the resident Common Buzzards well - we had superb views of them overhead. A Hobby also showed very well above us, as it hunted flying insects.
A 'phone-scoped' Green Woodpecker - this one an adult male.

Warm, sunny weather meant that insects were active, so we found far more than we would have otherwise managed. Dragonflies and butterflies tend to be the insects that attract most attention and we found a good variety of both, including Emperors, Brown Hawkers, Common & Ruddy Darters (dragonflies), Red Admirals, Gatekeepers, Peacocks, and Large and Green-veined Whites (butterflies). Other interesting invertebrate finds were Dingy Footman moths, Cinnabar Moth caterpillars, and a variety of hoverflies.
Dingy Footman.

Cinnabar Moth caterpillars on Ragwort.

We found plenty of other interesting birds as well, in addition to those already mentioned, with Kingfishers, a less than cooperative Marsh Tit (perhaps more than one?) which was calling frequently but gave only glimpses, and Little Egrets, among the highlights. More commonly seen species weren't ignored though, with Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Cormorants among the species that showed well from the main viewpoint.
All together, a very enjoyable day.
Cormorant in a well known pose!

31 July 2012

Dragonflies at Denham Country Park (26th July 2012).

I had agreed to give a talk on the identification and surveying of dragonflies and damselflies, followed by a short walk, for the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust at the Colne Valley Visitors Centre, Denham Country Park, on 4th August, and visited today to have a look around the area.

Very good numbers of Banded Demoiselles were present on some of the rivers in the area, with (Large) Red-eyed Damselflies and a single Small Red-eyed Damselfly on the nearby Grand union Canal, and several Emperor Dragonflies and Brown hawkers around, as well as my first Migrant Hawkers of the year. Hopefully the weather will be as good on the day!
Red-eyed Damselfly (or Large Red-eye).
This one was photographed during my recent trip to France. There is less blue at either end of the abdomen than on the similar Small Red-eyed Damselfly (compare with the photo in the 'Hunting French Dragons' post).

A walk through the Lee Valley (9th July 2012).

Leaving my car at the garage for a service and MOT gave me a good reason reason to visit some sites in the Lee Valley which I don't regularly get to...

In a year when I have heard many people speculating that it has been a poor breeding season for many species because of the wet weather, it was nice to see a lot of family groups, of tits and warblers including many with very recently fledged young. Other adults were still obviously feeding young in the nest, and I had to move away from where I was watching from on a couple of occasions because a Common Whitethroat and then a Chiffchaff were reluctant to take food to their nest because they had decided I was too close, and potentially a threat!
Passing the King George V Reservoir I found that very large numbers of Common Swifts had gathered to feed. I estimated that at least 300 were present over the northern end of the reservoir, along with smaller numbers of House Martins, Sand Martins, and Swallows, and more could be seen further back. In this case it seemed likely that the majority of the Swifts were adults because the young don't tend to fledge until around mid month, and I certainly couldn't see any obvious juveniles among them - but close views are usually needed to see the scaly plumage and more extensive white faces that identify the young ones.
Pyramidal Orchids, and Common Spotted Orchids were in bloom at a nearby site, along with a lot of Tufted Vetch, and I managed to find a few spikes of Bee Orchid flowers, but the later were well passed their best now.
Pyramidal Orchid

Bee Orchid (past its best).

Tufted Vetch - growing far more prominently than the orchids!
Further up the valley, a Cuckoo flew across in front of me, near the White Water Centre at Waltham Cross - where spectator stands for the Olympics were rapidly being put together, and at another sport orientated site a Common Tern posed on a buoy in Cheshunt Gravel Pit, which is the site of the Herts Young Mariners Base, so is used by for sailing, canoeing, and other outdoor pursuits.
Common Tern.
Not the best of photos, but taken by holding the camera on my mobile phone to the eyepiece of my binoculars - so it shows that you don't always need to carry cameras with big, heavy lens to photograph birds!

Garden Wildlife (8th July 2012).

It's not always necessary to go out to find interesting wildlife, especially if you take an interest in some of the smaller creatures than can be found. These are some of the insects that were found in a Hertfordshire garden during a brief sunny spell between showers:

Dragonflies in the Lee Valley (1st July 2012).

I had been asked to lead a walk for the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, which was intended to look at some of the wildlife at Cornmill Meadows - concentrating on the dragonflies in particular. Unfortunately, as can be the case during a typical British summer, the weather wasn't ideal for dragonflies, with largely overcast weather, with only brief sunny periods, and a cooler temperature plus little more wind than is desirable. Nether the less, around a dozen people turned up for the walk so we set off to see what we could find.
We did struggle to find any of the larger dragonfly species, but a good variety of their smaller relatives, the damselflies, were found including the Banded Demoiselles (one of our largest damselflies), and White-legged Damselfly (a scarce species locally). The people who attended the walk were thankfully not only interested in the dragonflies and damselflies, so I was able also able to show them a variety of other species, mostly relatively common, but interesting enough for a short local walk.
The shallow wader scrapes had a number of Lapwings on them, and a Hobby was hunting over the meadows - perhaps as disappointed as us by the lack of dragonflies! Butterflies were also not particularly active, but walking through areas with longer grass disturbed Meadow Browns, Large Skippers and Ringlets, and Peacocks, Red Admirals, and a few 'whites' were also seen. Field Grasshoppers and Roesel's Bush Crickets were also found in the meadows.

The Brecks - Thick-knees and Goat-suckers! (30th June 2012).

Dave and I took a small group on an afternoon and evening tour of some of the sites in "The Brecks", a patchwork of mainly conifer plantations and sandy heathland sites on the Suffolk and Norfolk border.
The main targets for the afternoon were Stone Curlew (one of a group of waders known as "Thick-knees"), and Nightjar (a species which folklore would have us believe feeds by sucking milk from the udders of goats - hence the strange archaic name!), which meant that we planned to stay late into the evening with the hope of seeing Nightjars when they became active at dusk.
As we wouldn't be finishing until late we had also arranged a late meeting time, beginning the days bird and wildlife watching with a visit to the RSPB reserve at Lakenheath Fen soon after midday.
The weather conditions at Lakenheath were not ideal as a relatively strong wind meant that the birds in the poplar plantations and reedbeds were keeping low. Bird of prey put on a good showing though, with Marsh Harriers quartering the reedbeds and nearby farmland, Kestrel and Hobbys overhead, and a Common Buzzard perched on a tree in a hedge by an arable field. A pair of Kingfishers flew in and landed for a while at the edge of a reedbed pool - which was appreciated by the group and others who were present, and a few Reed and Sedge Warblers and Whitethroats also gave good views (eventually!).
The brown lower mandible shows that this is a female (males have all black bills).
Sheltered areas also produced a good variety of other interesting wildlife, starting off with a Lesser Stag Beetle found on the path near the visitors centre. A few butterflies, including Red Admirals, CommasGatekeepers, and Meadow Browns were active, and later on Sunny spells produced some activity from a few dragonflies and damselflies, including a Four-spotted Chaser and a Red-eyed Damselfly, both of which provided exceptionally good views when I was able to set a telescope up on them.
Lesser Stag Beetle.
A stop at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust Reserve at Weeting Heath provided our first views of two Stone Curlew (which some of the group hadn't seen before), but they weren't particularly active and soon walked off over the brow of the hill from where others could be heard calling. We were left watching the numerous rabbits which help to keep the site grazed, and therefore suitable for the Stone Curlews to breed, and a large feeding flock of Rooks and Jackdaws.

Nearby there were Coal Tits and at least one Willow Tit in the small area of woodland, between the hides and car park, as well as many other small birds such as Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Goldcrests, and various finches.
Although the views that we had already had of Stone Curlew had been good, we visited another site nearby with the hope of seeing a little bit more activity, and it was pleasing not to be disappointed. We saw several more individuals, including some that flew past not too far from us, and were again able to listen to their somewhat eerie calls. One pair showed exceptionally well, and we were able to spend some time watching them feeding.
Other birds were also very evident, with male Yellowhammers and the Green Woodpeckers which were very noticeable here being favourites of some of the group. A feeding Hobby, which passed close to us several times, apparently feeding on beetles which were caught and eaten on the wing, was also greatly appreciated.
After stopping for a fish and chip supper in Brandon we headed for an area of young conifer plantation that had reached the right age to be attractive to Nightjars. As we waited for the light to fall to a level at which the Nightjars would hopefully show, we were a little surprised to find very large numbers of Summer Chafers, fairly large beetles similar to the larger Cockchafer, taking flight and headily off noisily, and clumsily, to other parts of the clearing. Quite a few moths, of various sorts, were also seen - but not well enough to be identified in the rapidly failing light.
Woodcocks appeared while it was still just about light enough to make out some detail on the plumage, and we were treated to several passes as they flew over just above tree top height on their 'roding' display flights. The sharp, whistled "Ts-wick" calls, audible from quite a distance, were usually the first sign of one approaching, and we were also able to hear the curious croaking call which is rarely heard because it is only audible at close range, usually when they pass almost directly overhead. A few Tawny Owls  were also calling, but could not be seen.
Unfortunately we didn't see any Nightjars until later in the evening when it was too dark to see much detail, but after being heard calling a few times a female did give very good silhouette views as it flew slowly past parallel with the path we were stood on. At one point it passed within about six feet of Dave, while he was looking in the other direction - much to the amusement of the rest of the group, all of whom watched this from just down the track!