Monday, 31 May 2010

Birthday trip

To mark our lass's imminent birthday, I thought I'd take her out on a jolly jaunt to a National Trust property, complete with teashop, restaurant, craft shops, park land and gardens. Pushing all the right buttons, just not necessarily in the right order.

The fact that this particular site was in Buckinghamshire, in a previously unrecorded 10km square for Odonata and that the Admiral and his notebook were in tow, was purely coincidental.

So, shortly before lunch, we found ourselves at Claydon House, wandering around the gardens which included this rather uninteresting-looking pond...

however, it had very recently contained 50, that's five, oh... fifty, of these creatures...

the exuvia (or discarded larval skin) of an Emperor dragonfly. The emerged adults had dispersed to who knows where, because we only spotted one, very briefly, much later on.

There were also a dozen or so pre-emergent larvae, waiting their moment to move from the aquatic world to the aerial one.

After a pleasant lunch in the Carriage House Restaurant, we wandered out into the park and down to the lakes. Here we found several Four-spotted Chasers emerging...

along with a bazillion Azure, Red-eyed and Blue-tailed Damsels. A few Common Blues and Large Reds completed the haul of a successful day's odo-ing, er... I mean, birthday celebrating, obviously.

Back in the garden, a sunny bank full of wild flowers produced several Common Blue butterflies, this male...

and this female.

A pair of Pied Wagtails were busy with beakfuls of insects and dodging tourists to feed their nestlings in the vegetation above a doorway. Which can only mean one thing... Springwatch is back tonight!

Monday, 24 May 2010

It's an Emergence-y

The Admiral suggested a trip to Woodwalton Fen on Saturday. His timing was perfect, as several hundred Scarce Chasers decided that "today's the day", and emerged in a show of solidarity that would reduce your average synchronised swimmer to tears.

As well as these beauties (it's an eye of the beholder thing), there were Four-spotted Chasers, Hairy Dragonflies and a supporting cast of damselflies. Large Red, Azure, Blue-tailed, Red-eyed and a single Variable.

A haul of six raptors was pretty special too, Red Kite, Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Hobby, Kestrel and Sparrowhawk. But the day belonged to the Scarce Chasers...

if only I knew what she was pointing at?

Monday, 17 May 2010

Going for a song

A pleasant evening for a stroll.

As we headed off along the old canal towpath, a pair of Wood Pigeons sat on a neighbour's roof, billing and cooing, in a display of avian romance with only one small downside. Potentially more Wood Pigeons.

Once at Linford Lakes, we witnessed a Barn Owl hunting over grassland near the Grand Union canal, effortlessly gliding across the pasture before diving between the tussocks.

Despite the lack of roosting odos, after sunset we spotted a Hobby hawking for insects over one of the lakes. Wader numbers peaked at one Oystercatcher and one Lapwing.

On the walk home, just before a main road, our ears detected a sweet sound in the gaps between the roar of passing traffic. From the bushes on the roadside verge, a Nightingale sang for all his worth. Taking on all comers, be they cars, vans, motorcycles or even other male Nightingales.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Long time, no see

For the budding odonatologist, no visit to the Gower Peninsula would be complete without a visit to the Broad Pool area to search for damsels and dragons. And so it was that, on Sunday morning, we ventured out of Swansea in appreciably sunnier weather, to try our luck in this sweet spot.

A brisk north easterly breeze was still much in evidence, as was a distinct lack of water bodies. Only Broad Pool itself was holding water, suggesting that there's been precious little rain in these parts or some of the previously-visited ponds were rather ephemeral.

As you can probably guess, these two facts added together meant that we didn't even see a single damsel. Oh dear.

Plan B was the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Llanelli, with plenty of photo opportunities and a guaranteed tea shop, it was almost a Plan A+. I must admit to being a bit of a grouch about the "zoo" parts of some of the WWT sites, though they do bring people and wildlife into close proximity. I guess this is a good thing if it inspires the next generation of natural historians. And anyway, I still couldn't resist a pic of one of the recently-fledged Shelducklings. What a hypocrite!

However, even in the "zoo", there's proper wild wildlife. Which bit of Nature could resist suitable habitat when it's served up on a plate? Mind you, it isn't as easy to photograph, as this tiny Goldcrest  proved.


Moving on to the Millennium Wetlands, we were delighted to see a large flock of Black-tailed Godwits, with several Dunlin in attendance. We would have missed the male Garganey hunkered down on an island, if a kindly birder hadn't pointed him out. By now it was rather warm, and out of the wind there were little sun traps that had us switching on our odo radar. I spotted a damselfly fluttering overhead and we followed it to a grassy bank with nettles and other suitable cover. Our lass pointed out a group of 4 mature Large Red Damsels and as we got our eye in, we found a few immature Azure Damsels too. This was more like it. Still smarting from my previous blank year, I commented that what I really needed my eagle-eyed companion to find was a big yellow one. This a reference to my missing out on Broad-bodied Chaser for the whole of 2009. The words were barely out of my mouth, when she indicated the bramble thicket to my left and said, "What? Like that one?"

Cue much hugging and kissing, before I regained my composure and remembered to take a photograph. We also found a few Blue-tailed Damselflies and two Hairy Dragonflies on our wander around the lakes and ponds. In a month or so, it really will be a cracking site for Odonata and certainly justifies being added to our list of "When in South Wales...".

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Blues evening

Last Thursday, we paid a return visit to Everdon Stubbs to revel in the spectacle of a carpet of  bluebells in full bloom. It had been a cool, dull day, but a little stray sunshine leaked into the early evening, to cheer up the woodland atmosphere.

The wonderful colours, sounds and scents of a wood in Spring washed over us as we wandered the many paths, trying in vain to capture in 2D a little of the vivid, sensory experience.

Whilst we marvelled at the expanse of blue, we were oblivious to the wider political theme being enacted all over England that night. Whatever direction the British government now takes, the bluebells of Everdon have my vote.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Welsh male voice choir

Went to Wales this weekend, with a song in our hearts. It's not unusual, but we hadn't been to The Gower for nearly a year. Drove down to Swansea on Friday afternoon and stumbled to the Mumbles for a latte at Verdi's. The pier was just about deserted in the brisk North Easterly breeze, save for a bunch of Kittiwakes, their raucous cries buffeted on the wind and crashing like waves upon our ears. Having booked into a B+B and regained some semblance of body heat, we wandered to a nearby pub, passing through a small wood, echoing to the sound of a Wren with a distinctive local accent. He certainly appreciated the green, green grass of home.

Saturday dawned cold, grey and wet. After peering out of the window, I reported back that "Baby, it's cold outside." Nevertheless, we donned our thermals and headed for Rhossili, intent on some fresh air and exercise. From the car park, we dragged our weary souls all of several yards to the Bay Bistro, for another fortifying latte, before heading across to Worm's Head.

Not having been to this neck of the woods in Spring, we were amazed at the amount of flora clinging to the cliff tops, Squill, Rock Rose, Thrift, and Milkwort to name but a few. Whilst identifying this lot, we were bombarded with bird song from Whitethroat, Stonechat and Dunnock, using the low Gorse scrub to good effect. As we traversed along the bottom of the cliffs, we were brought to a halt by a distinctive "chow" sound. There, halfway up the slope, was a pair of Choughs, happily feeding and seemingly oblivious to the excited expletives emanating from the rocky shoreline below them. After contouring around Tears Point on the high tide line, we then climbed above Falls Bay and discovered loads of Early Purple Orchid. Descending again, into Mewslade Bay, we watched, fascinated, as an intrepid band of complete and utter nutters set off on a coasteering trip, along the rocks and in the sea.

As it was getting on for half three, we headed back to Rhossili for lunch and some brief respite from the wind and rain. Suitably refreshed, we pottered along the tracks between the patchwork of fields south west of the village. The hedgerows were full of Alexanders and squadrons of Swallows were flying low level missions along the lanes, picking insects out of the air and off the vegetation. By standing up against the verge, we were able to watch them at close quarters, flying past at ankle height. After a brief flirtation with the sun, the clouds returned, so we headed back to the B+B, exhausted but happy. The evening chorus belonged to a single blackbird, perched in the garden outside our window, his soft, lilting song resonating through the now still air. It was beautiful, see.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Scones and the Stone of "He's tiny!"

Hmmm, after last night's thunder, lightning and heavy rain, all thoughts of another cheery, warm day in the bosom of Mother Nature were consigned to the file marked "I don't think so".

I had arranged to go over to The Lodge at Sandy to meet JD for a bit of a natter, before he went off to Craven Cottage to see his beloved Fulham try to claw a result against the Hammers. He agreed that I'd hit the nail on the head reference the weather, but we decided to risk the showers and wander across the heath, along a few of the reserve's waymarked paths. The odd warbler sang, despite the rain, and we spotted several Green Woodpeckers, searching for ants in the sandy soil. That's the woodpeckers searching for ants, not JD and I. We're not formicating stupid, y'know. That's definitely NOT a typo, in case you're wondering, dear reader.

As the skies lightened and we climbed back into the woodland, it was to a typical Spring scene of dappled greenish light and a carpet of Bluebells, all the fresher for their morning wash.

Whilst returning to the car park, I was struck by the incongruous site of a small grey stone sat on top of a felled Beech log. JD helpfully pointed out that the reason for this was because it was a Tawny Owl fledgling, not a rock. Wrong Len then, less helpfully, pointed out that it was too far away. Doh!

Hopefully, this wee, bedraggled bundle of feathers will have the chance to dry out before it succumbs to the cold or predation.

Back at JD's place, the heavenly scent of freshly-baked scones showed that whatever the football result, there'll be crumbs of comfort aplenty.

May Day celebrations

Not having a herd of cattle, or indeed the requisite two bonfires to drive them between as a rite of purification, I decided to give this year's Beltane ceremony a miss. For the last century or so, many cultures have seen the 1st of May as more of a commemoration of workers' rights, but to this scribe, May is all about fresh green growth and abundant birdsong, with its first day being a dead cert for damsels and dragons.

The weather forecast wasn't great, there'd not been a confirmed sighting of Odonata in the county and our pond was refusing to give up its secrets, so I wasn't as chipper about May Day as I could've been. This notwithstanding, whilst my usual partners in crime were otherwise engaged, I decided to head down to the local reserve for some sensory overload of a green and verdant nature.

At this point, I should confess that I wasn't actually alone, as these days when I'm out wildlife watching, Wrong Len always seems to be hanging around. He's not a criminal, he doesn't have an evil bone in his body, he will always try to do what's best, he's just Wrong Len.

To explain, he is the optical equivalent of someone with schizophrenia, a camera with a split personality. Sometimes Len is "normal" (18-55mm) and sometimes he's "larger than life" (70-300mm), but invariably, which ever one he is, it won't be appropriate for the occasion.

All this was far from my thoughts when I arrived at the reserve and stood by the bridge beside the study centre. For there, amongst several manic Crane Flies, was a slightly bigger, fluttering insect with a longer, thinner body and a pale red colouration. My first Large Red Damselfly of the year. Gender unknown, but probably taking its first ever flight after a year as an aquatic larva.

As I walked through the reserve, listening to all the species of warbler to be heard, Blackcap, Garden W, Chiffchaff, Willow W, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Sedge W, Reed W, Cettis' W and Grasshopper W, it crossed my mind that that's "insect-eating warbler", isn't it. Oh bugger, not such a great day to be the only damselfly in the place! Oh well, that's Nature, the food chain isn't a chain if you remove any of the links, a fact that I occasionally regret when Springwatch show footage of "those darling chicks" being fed beakfuls of damselflies. Or as a species, we humans often forget, when we wipe out whole ecosystems for short term gain or illegal purposes.

Let's drag this blog back to a happier place for the time being. The bees were busy amongst the newly-flowering Comfrey and apparently doing stunts for the camera...

Out on the lake, the resident male Mute Swan had his hands, er... wings full with about 35 non-breeding Swans, and he spent the morning paddling furiously up and down trying to persuade them all to leave. It was like the antithesis of One Man and his Dog, trying to disperse as many large white creatures as possible in the longest time. Not great telly, but you get the idea.

After nipping home for lunch, I returned again to record another teneral damsel, this time, fortuitously, in the car park. She was definitely a lady, with many more dark markings on her abdomen, as I spotted her flutter from a nettle bed to some brambles.

Back in the hide, I was watching the continuing battle of the swans, when I noticed a vixen hunting on the bund. Wrong Len then put in an appearance, so all I have to show for it is this...
Once our lass had finished work, she was keen for a breath of fresh air, so I had my third trip of the day to the reserve. Whilst watching a flock of Swifts, which was another first for the year, we were treated to a flypast by a male Cuckoo. Then we had our obligatory viewing of Swan Wars, before Her Outdoors spotted a Curlew, an Oystercatcher and several Little Ringed Plovers.

I love May!