Saturday, 24 December 2016

November & December Round-up

I start with my usual excuses... it's been months since I last posted; a combination of being very busy with a new job and having found little interesting to report on. However, before I review the year in full I thought I really should make time to log all of the late Autumn months' findings.

The large ox-bow lake has not proven to be very fruitful at all; certainly for waterfowl - it did turn up some awesome ticks for passerines this year. The only waterfowl I've recorded there have been mallard, tufted duck, moorhen and teal. The latter have steadily built up in November over the summer and the photo above shows a small part of a flock 100 strong that I kicked up in late October.

Swans are largely absent from the patch and I've only recorded them flying through this year. This mute swan in early November is only my second sighting of the year.

More reliable are the traditional farmland birds. I don't know what it is about the area, but birds that are declining nationally are doing very well here. I feel truly blessed that I can count yellowhammer and tree sparrow as regular garden birds

The hawthorn was absolutely heaving with berries early this autumn, more so than anytime I can remember, and this proved a huge draw for many birds. Flocks of redwing and fieldfare blackened the skies on occasion; so much so that the trees have been decimated and the thrushes have mostly moved on. Attempts to photograph these birds feeding proved largely fruitless; this was the best I could manage of a redwing.

Other birds drawn to the berries included blackbird, bullfinch, woodpigeon, buntings but no waxwing. The commotion attracted other birds too: sparrowhawk have been very common this autumn, and feeding groups of tits and warblers have centred on the haw where the thrushes feed.

I don't recall seeing warblers in the winter months before. This year, chiffchaff have held on and will probably over-winter. This bird was seen sunbathing in early December before it narrowly avoided the attentions of a brilliant male sparrowhawk. The following weekend, four were seen at the same spot near the waterworks.

Other sightings of note include oystercatcher, little egret and an increase in snipe numbers (they seem to emerge from every grassy puddle). Fingers crossed I can add jack snipe to the year list this week!

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Last of the summer whine

It's been a long time since I last posted; time has escaped me in recent weeks both in terms of freeing me to explore the patch and finding a moment to sit down and look through my notes. It's been driving me mad!! However, I have no plans this next weekend so I thought I would catch up on goings on in advance and post some of my favourite photos.

Autumn is definitely here; the colours are incredible this year and I'm hoping that any strong winds hold off until the weekend so I have a chance of capturing the woods in their full majesty. But it's not just the colours, the wildlife is changing too.

I spotted (or rather heard, then spotted) my first redwings on 17th September; six birds moved from tree-top to tree-top, North along the Swale at Warbler corner. I was particularly pleased as mine was the first inland record I could find this year. Since then, numbers have swelled considerably and these thrushes have been joined by hundreds of their feeding companions, fieldfare.

The little egrets are back after a summer long absence and I've counted them along every stretch of the river this Autumn. I wonder where they go...

Greenshank passed through in record numbers. A brief, lone sighting under the riverine wood was trumped over the following weekends with small groups in flight and a very vocal group of birds that could be heard throughout the North of my patch.

The osprey too returned through the patch and hung around for nearly a month; my last sighting being on the 20th September... the same day I saw my first ever Swale otter!! Not the greatest of views, it tormented me by coming up for air for a fraction of a second before disappearing under the water where I'd lose it. I stood frozen for nearly an hour hoping for a photo-opportunity but it never came.

Starlings have begun gathering in large numbers and at roughly the same time each evening, large flocks head west over the house to roost; to whereabouts I don't now. Here a crow sits awkwardly among an early morning gathering.

Joining the starlings on the ploughed fields have been huge numbers of linnet (I counted upwards of 100 on the fields in the Long River Loop), never settling for long, the birds whirl and rush like a shoal of bait-fish.

An even more welcome sight have been curlew. Last winter felt quiet for waders (other than snipe) but already this Autumn I have counted groups of 50+ curlew and similar sized troupes of lapwing. Against a blue sky they're quite a spectacle when they circle to choose a safe place to alight.

At the other end of the size spectrum, constantly calling, migrating goldcrest have drawn other birds in and the river trees especially seem a magnet to these feeding groups. Chiffchaff and willow warbler are the last hangers-on from the summer breeders and find comfort in the mixed flocks of long-tailed tit, blue-tit, great tit and the aforementioned goldcrest. Occasionally a treecreeper can be spotted in the mix and I'm constantly on the look-out for something more unusual. Having seen one in March, firecrest feel like a real possibility and large numbers of yellow-browed and other leaf warblers have been turning up on the East coast in some number. 

Fingers crossed for this weekend! Even if nothing unusual does show up, I'm happy just to be out and about in the company of the ordinary, especially when that's as grand as this buzzard.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Comb Raiders

Walking through the riverine wood today, I stumbled upon a crime scene. The charges? Breaking, entering and infanticide. In the first picture below, a pit dug about ten inches across, 18 inches long and 12 inches deep. In the top left of the picture, the broken combs that would have contained the larvae of a wasp-nest. In the bottom right of the picture, wasps tightly crowded around the remaining comb and presumably the queen (second picture).

At first I was uncertain what had done this. Was it the work of man? The pit was so perfectly shaped and clean-sided that it looked like it had been made with a shovel. I reasoned that there would be no motive for anybody to do this and suffer the wrath of hundreds of wasps.

I scoured my mind for animals that eat wasps. Twenty minutes earlier I'd watched a buzzard follow an osprey above the wood, so perhaps with this raptor encounter on my mind, I leapt to the very unlikely... honey buzzard! No, it couldn't be... there have been no records of honey buzzard in the area to my knowledge and certainly none so settled that they'd find and excavate a wasp nest.

Then I remembered watching ratels on TV, following honey-guides in Africa to bees nests before plundering them for their grubs and honey (as reward, the small bird picks at the scraps the honey badger leaves behind, unable to break into the nest itself). Then it occurred to me, it was a plain old badger! I know badgers can be found in the wood as I have frequently found there pug-marks left in the wet mud along the river.

Strangely, I got lost in the wood for an hour soon after (I was trying to find a short-cut between one part of my patch and another, but the route was blocked by acres of himalayan balsam!) and in my random wanderings, stumbled upon two badger setts.

Patch Update

A few passing birds are still showing up, though the overall avifauna is starting to feel a bit wintry. This handsome whinchat was working her way along the Long Hedgerow (see patch map). These pictures, though heavily cropped, are an upgrade on the 'little brown blob' efforts of my first encounter with whinchats.

A little further along the hedge in the corner of the field, a scruffy male redstart was seen in a charm of goldfinches atop a hawthorn before flying down to skulk characteristically beneath the hedgerow. I didn't manage a photo as the binoculars were glued to my eyes in a mild disbelief... before this year I'd not recorded whinchat or redstart on my patch and yet here were the 3rd record of each this year alone! Fantastic.

While good numbers of warblers hang on, they've begun to seem inconspicuous in comparison with typical winter residents. A walk through High Field flushed 5 meadow pipits, while goldfinches, reed buntings and yellowhammers are by far the most conspicuous birds, moving about in groups of a dozen or so. The only birds that let me close enough for a photo were a group of typically confiding long-tailed tits.

On the river, the common sandpiper have gone but green sandpiper and greenshank have moved in to replace them. Forty or fifty teal have taken residency on the Large Ox-bow, taking to the air in noisy groups at the slightest disturbance. Water has returned to the Small Ox-bow and a snipe was flushed; the first since early Spring.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Autumn is coming

It’s been a month since I last posted; the weekends have seen me away in the Lake District, visiting parents in Shrewsbury or on holiday in London. Trips away from the patch always turn up encounters I couldn’t expect at home… I’ve seen slow-worms and lizards at Roudsea Wood, green woodpeckers over Ambleside, gatekeeper butterflies on the banks of the Severn and ring-necked parakeets in Hyde Park.

I usually claw to be back in Thrintoft for fear of missing something, but the slow summer months have muffled that calling. So with little expectation I took to the patch this weekend to see what was about.

A very brief window in the rain on Saturday morning allowed me to jog around the short river loop. Most of the crops have been cut to stubble making passage much easier, for which I was grateful. The cattle in warbler corner have kept the sward short and the area looks highly attractive for passage birds (well I think so – I’ve no idea what a passing passerine thinks).

This thought was vindicated when I spotted a female redstart dropping from under the hawthorns to the ground to snatch a morsel before returning back under the tree and out of sight. I was afforded a couple more views before the rain forced me on. As I skirted the fields, sheltering from the downpour, I was aware that the elder were dripping in birds: goldfinch, greenfinch, yellowhammer and most of all the commoner warblers, presumably fattening up before flying South.

While the early bird may catch the worm, the early worm must see the bird, or so I convinced myself as I headed out into the warm morning sun at 7am this-morning. I was right… two chats were working their way along the track that cuts high field in two. They were very jumpy and appeared to be in juvenile plumage, so I wasn’t sure whether they were stone or whinchat. A blown up brown blob on the back of the camera confirmed whinchat, my first ever patch record!

I let Nick know and while I waited for him, checked warbler corner for the redstart. It was dead in comparison with Saturday. It’s notable the difference a day and a change in weather can make. Back on high field I spotted Nick making his way towards me and scanning the horizon spotted another familiar shape… osprey! What a cracking morning. The bird was mobbed by gulls and a sparrowhawk while it appeared to hover over the river. I like to believe it was the same bird that passed through in March and the same bird that hung around for two months last Autumn.

A stroll around the remainder of the patch revealed no further migrants, though I did clock this small copper, another year first and my 20th butterfly species. Butterflies were numerous today and far and away the commonest species was wall; a fantastic sight to see so many of these nationally declining brown butterflies. Painted lady, peacock, small, large and green-veined white were also recorded.

PS. I'm no writer, so try and compensate for this with good images. Today was a failure on both counts!

Friday, 22 July 2016

Purple Hairstreak

Last week, I found a colony of white-letter hairstreaks and was excited to find five individuals in the elm-lined bridleway that leads to the equestrian centre, but was disappointed not to get any photos. So on Thursday morning I returned at 8am for another attempt.

This time I counted at least twenty butterflies, on occasion flying in fighting groups of three or four high above the elms. Indeed, I tracked one butterfly as it flew across the top of half a dozen wych elms, sending up two or three other butterflies from each tree in their territorial spiral flights.

It  must be one of the best colonies of white-letter hairstreak for miles in every direction and certainly the greatest population I've ever seen. The abundance of butterflies made sighting them sat still much easier and photographing them possible. However, they remained high in the treetops so views were distant and frustrating.

On my initial visit the butterflies looked quite fresh, but closer inspection revealed them to be worn, suggesting they've been flying for a week or more already.

The following photos represent the normal view you'll get of a white-letter hairstreak; distant, hidden and cryptic!

Satisfied with my white-letters, and knowing they favour the early morning sunshine, I stopped off at St Wilfrids on my way home from work this-evening in the hope of finding purple hairstreaks.

Within just a few minutes, I spotted one flying from the grass into a large oak tree where I lost sight of it. I was gutted that I didn't see it on the ground as they are notoriously difficult to find at eye-level. Still, it marked the 18th species on the patch this year and a welcome tick. A few more very brief sightings followed as insects briefly flew from leaf to leaf but I was unable to get a photo.

This image was taken at the same spot on this day last year.

Heading along to the un-mowed border at the North end of the organic meadow, I also found large and small white, meadow brown, ringlet, small tortoiseshell and a good number of small skipper. A patch first for me and number 19 on the year list. (NB: I had previously ID'd them as large skipper, but the helpful people at corrected me!)

This weekend I will search for small copper and see if I can't discover another population or two of hairstreaks in Langton Woods. As always, please click on the photos to see them in full resolution and with colours rendered properly.

Monday, 18 July 2016

White-Letter Hairstreak

I wrote in my last post that I hoped to add white-letter hairstreak and purple hairstreak to the patch-list this summer. More specifically, I hoped to add purple to the year-list (I found one last summer) and white-letter to the all-time-list.

I have searched for white-letter locally many times before without success, but my optimism is fuelled by them being found relatively nearby in Nosterfield and by a one-off sighting Nick Morgan made in his garden a few years ago. Motivated by this I have spent hours and hours staring up blankly in to the tops of elm trees. Today however, I finally found one just a few hundred yards from my house in the bridleway that connects Thrintoft to the Northallerton Equestrian Centre.

I nipped out for twenty minutes before lunch as the sun was beating down hard and I figured it was my best chance. I almost didn't believe my own eyes when my perseverance paid off... a lone butterfly performing its spiral dance high in a wych elm. I was rushed for time so headed home and returned later at 6pm. This time I counted five individuals all along the lane, where wych elm makes up the majority of the canopy. I returned at 8pm and though it was still hot and sunny, counted none. This underlies why they are so poorly recorded; they are elusive in the extreme and fly only when it suits them for just a week or two each year.

I didn't manage any photos today, but here is one I took in Leeds a few years ago...

I also caught up with comma; so often one of the first butterflies I encounter each year, I was beginning to think they wouldn't show up at all. Number 17 on the year-list....

It seems this year that whatever I wish for, I get! So I'll mention right now that I'd quite like to add small skipper, holly blue, clouded yellow and a camberwell beauty would be nice!

Monday, 11 July 2016

Purple Emperor

It's been a long time since I've undertaken a 'butterfly twitch', but a family party in the Midlands and a  Monday off in mid July came together nicely for my first attempt at purple emperor.

When I arrived at Fermyn Woods in Northants there were a promising number of cars in the carpark (it's always nice to be shown where to look by other knowledgable enthusiasts!), but the weather was iffy at best. The first couple of chaps I spoke to had given up for the day, so after we swapped good sites for wildlife in Yorkshire (road atlas and a biro) they hit the road, leaving me eating my sandwiches in the rain.

As soon as the rain stopped, I headed into the wood and stopped to chat to two others heading back for their car. They had seen purple emperor that morning, so my optimism grew. Further along the track, I was waved over by an elderly gentleman who put me onto a lovely silver-washed fritillary. Not what I was after, but a nice start. We got chatting and he mentioned that he might have spooked an emperor on the corner so we returned to where he'd been. There on cue was my first ever purple emperor, which promptly flew into the air, circled a few times before settling on his boot! Fantastic.

As the weather improved I was afforded even better views of other individuals, and also added white admiral and white-letter hairstreak, though I didn't manage any pictures.

My mission for the next two weeks is to add white-letter hairstreak and purple hairstreak to the patch list, and hopefully pick up small skipper and comma along the way.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Sunday Blues

As I write this I'm sat watching my kids play in the front garden... the two swifts have just dropped from their nest in our roof and skimmed inches away from Joe and Jessicas' heads, who carry on horse-playing oblivious to these fantastic birds.

Today I made a decision to redraw my patch. I'm not sure of the precise rules of the Patchwork Challenge, but given it's my first year I'm sure there won't be a problem. In my haste to define a patch in January I incorporated a lot of land that is inaccessible. Furthermore, it's been made clear that walkers are not very welcome in certain areas so I've eliminated these too. Thankfully, I recorded no unique birds in these areas so my patch total year to date would remain the same if I'd begun the year with this territory.

The resulting saving means that I've been able to stretch the patch, incorporating all of Langton Woods and the fishing lakes to the North, and all of High Field to the railway line to the South. I attach a redefined map of the patch below, together with labels that I often refer to, as reference.

The Meadow

It wasn't long ago that I was bemoaning the lack of any real meadow in the area, and while this is still true when I consider the meadows I grew up with in Shropshire, Richard's organic farm around St Wilfrid's is starting to spawn some optimism. Grass is forced to compete here with other plants, predominantly red clover...

...and this means that a greater diversity of flowers can be found supporting a greater variety of insects. Here a back-lit meadow brown nectars from white clover...

Beetles are too many to classify. I see plenty of these about but none of my books helped to identify them; I think another expensive field guide is on the cards!

Other flowers that have taken hold in the previous week include this Hedge Woundwort...

...and (I think) Nipplewort....

Ringlet number in scores and large skipper are now turning up in every sheltered corner.

Sunday Blues

I set out before the sun breached the horizon to try and photograph the common blues in Langton Wood. Unfortunately, they've been flying for a few weeks now and the wet and windy weather has contributed to them all looking a bit tatty...

The wind picked up to a bluster, making macro photography impossible, so I decided on a change of plan. Swapping common blue for electric blue, I headed to the Riverine Wood to stake out the increasingly conspicuous kingfisher moving about; I presume due to a newly fledged nest or parents feeding hungry chicks.

Joe and I discovered a messy pile of freshwater mussel shells on the bank last weekend and I wondered who the culprit might be. On my way to the kingfishers I identified a lead suspect in the investigation, caught at the scene of the crime...

After two hours of waiting, my patience paid off and a pair of kingfishers started to hunt near to where I was sat. Unfortunately they didn't show in the open, ignoring what I though was the most likely perch, but I was delighted to get a closer view than I've had for many years.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Six-Legged Centrefolds

I have a soft spot for 'bugs'. I used to collect them as a child, filling jars and tubs with whatever I could find so that I could study them at close quarters. In my twenties I was given a digital camera for Christmas... looking for subjects to photograph I began to capture bugs once again, replacing jars and tubs for ones and zeros.

Though I find all invertebrates fascinating, some are more eye-catching than others. Perhaps they have enigmatic lives or elaborate structures, ornate designs or impressive weaponry. This week I've been out and captured some of my favourites on the patch.

Sexton or burying beetles have a habit of burying small carcases, they have a fantastic sense of smell and are attracted to carrion:

Scorpion flies are so named because of the bulbous terminal sections of their abdomen that the males hold over their back. However, despite their appearance they're completely harmless to humans and are loathe to take live prey; they can often be found removing insects from spiders' webs.

Ruby-tailed wasps are among our most strikingly marked insects, giving them the name of jewel wasps. They're also referred to as cuckoo wasps due tho their habit of entering the nests of solitary bees and laying their eggs in them. The larvae emerge and predate their hosts eggs and grubs.

Before this week, banded demoiselles were the only species of odonata I'd found on the patch this year, so I was pleased to find this male common damselfly...

...and this drab form female common damselfly. The strange light is due to the photograph being taken at the start of a thunderstorm. I suddenly found myself in the middle of a meadow with a 6' carbon-fibre tripod and thunderclouds overhead. Not the safest place to be!

Butterflies-wise, today saw me add three more species to the patch year list: meadow brown, ringlet...

...and this large skipper. 

Amazingly for such a common butterfly, this is a patch first for me. I soon caught up with another. The hay meadows of Richard Fife's farm are maintained organically and as such the wildflower diversity is much greater, giving me confidence that I may catch up with some meadow species I'd given up on, like common blue and small skipper.

I was beginning to make notes of the flowers found here before I was caught out in the storm. Clover does especially well, and the farm is the only place where you can find ox-eye daisy in any numbers (this one is hosting another scorpion fly):

Meadow vetchling is found here and nowhere else (that I've discovered)...

...and the hedgerow roses are a joy to behold. The flowers of these northern dog rose are nearly six inches across!


I've become slightly obsessed with flowers and butterflies (or the lack of) and so popped across to a site I know a few hundred yards outside my patch in Great Langton. Aside from the railway line embankment, which is now monitored endlessly for trespassers, this is the only site I know locally for common blue.

The ground is covered in moss, not grass, which allows plants found nowhere else to flourish. Self-heal is everywhere...

...and eyebright grows in huge swathes...

Purple cranesbill breaks through the margins (here with miniature fly)...

...and there are even local super-rarities, like this Biting Stonecrop. I'm toying with redrawing the boundaries of my patch next year to include less of Thrintoft and more of Great Langton!

PS. The Blogger network does a terrible job of rendering detail and colours in the thumbnails of pictures, so please click to view the image gallery for full res photographs.