Wednesday, 30 July 2014

In Search of Emeralds

17th July 2014

Another attempt at finding some Emerald Damselflies at the Amwell Dragonfly Trail. They have been very spasmodic over the years and never more than one or two, but were certainly present last year. However today, despite it being well into their flight season, there were still none to be found and you start to wonder whether they will arrive at all.

Luckily other dragonflies were active such as this male Broad-bodied Chaser and Black-tailed Skimmer which, instead of settling on the mud as usual, chose to perch on a small twig low over the mud. Also present was a female Brown Hawker busily egg-laying at the base of a stone. I find Brown Hawkers quite difficult as they tend to perch away from water so ovipositing females are the best bet.

I then moved on to the butterfly meadow between the gate and the orchid enclosure. This used to be a fairly unique habitat in this part of Hertfordshire being a very short sward due to nibbling of rabbits throughout the year and grazing by cattle during the summer months. The short sward attracted good numbers of Brown Argos, Common Blue and even the odd now very scarce Small Heath. Unfortunately, last year only six cattle were put on to graze and not until the middle of July, basically too little too late.

As a result the grass this year is chest-high in places and there were no Brown Argus and only one or two blues. The only grassland butterflies that I saw were a few Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns and a handful of skippers. Fortunately one of the skippers sat up and posed, clearly showing the black tips on the underside of its antennae confirming that it was indeed an Essex Skipper.

However, in one or two areas of shorter grass, Common Centaury and Musk Mallow were at their best.

Today, however, pride of place must go the the humble and totally under-rated Teasel. These plants are totally unique in their flowering behaviour. Whereas most plants with an extended flowering period such as Foglove start flowering at the base of the stem and move upwards, the Teasel starts flowering in the middle and then progresses upwards and downwards simultaneously. Just look at the following sequence.

Now, a lot of people don't know that!!!

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Rainham Marshes Revisited

16th July 2014

One thing that has always puzzled me is why Chicory is so common at Rainham, not only around the cordite stores area, but also on the approach road over the railway bridge. For some reason it seems to be scarce in all other areas of the south-east and you could hardly miss those electric blue flowers. Also along this section there were signs that the Ragwort was under its annual siege from Cinnabar Moth caterpillars looking quite resplendent in their black and orange football jerseys.

On the way to the Barratt Hide I had a quick look for the Wasp Spiders but to no avail. Perhaps not too surprising as they are still very small at the moment and I kept to the path to avoid damaging the vegetation. However, a quick pop into the hide did reveal some superb specimens of Flowering Rush, which has got to be one of my favourite aquatic plants. Another favourite is Goat's Rue, although unfortunately it is very invasive and must be kept under control.

Along the grassland stretch behind the Butts Hide was the usual array of butterflies with several Gatekeepers posing on top of Ragwort. Also deep in the grass it was possible to hear grasshoppers and one or two would obligingly shin up a stem to have their photo taken.

As I approached the dragonfly ponds the fauna changed from butterflies and grasshoppers to, as one might expect, dragonflies. Common Blue Damselflies were particularly common around the large dragonfly pools, but if you peered carefully into the marginal vegetation it was possible to find mating pairs of Blue-tailed Damselflies and Ruddy Darters.

By now I had arrived at the south-west corner of the reserve by the submarine watch-out tower and standing  by the last dragonfly pond. I had stopped in my tracks as amongst all the Reed Warbler young chirping for food deep within the reeds came the distinctive "ping" of a Bearded Tit.  In fact as time went on and after many more calls from different places and a few inflight sightings it became apparent that there must up to 10 birds present. At that moment my attention was diverted to a small face low down on the boardwalk. The small assembled crowd had obviously disrupted the daily life of a family of Weasels and mum had stuck her head out to see what all the fuss was about.

However, at that point my patience was rewarded when this juvenile male Bearded Tit flew across the path and landed near the top of a Phragmites stem allowing a number of reasonably uncluttered shots to be taken. What another great day at Rainham!

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Rye Meads in Mid-summer

7th July 2014

I had gone to Rye Meads in the hope of getting some more photos of the Black-necked Grebes which had now left the nest. Unfortunately, although they were visible from the Gadwall Hide, they were a long way away and far too distant for a photo, unlike these shots when they were still on the nest. I therefore moved on to the Kingfisher Hide to see what the Kingfishers were up to.

The Kingfishers were on their second brood and, although the young were still in the nest, they were about to fledge any day now. Also, a fresh nest had been excavated for a third brood. There were several long waits between the adults flying out to feed and returning to the nest with fish for the young. However, the male in particular had a ritual which made the photography a little easier. On his return, he would land on the furthest perch before then flying to the nest to feed the young. On emerging from the nest he would plunge in the water to wash off the sand and then fly to the middle perch, and would occasionally fly to the nearest perch before flying off for more fish.

Also, knowing that he was going to plunge into the water on leaving the nest, it was possible to focus on the water and get a shot as he emerged from the water.

As I strolled back to the centre I decided to have a quick look at the view in front of the Draper Hide. The habitat looked ideal with plenty of muddy margins for waders, ideal apart from the fact that there were no waders. Then, from the far side of the scrape Green Sandpipers started to fly in, landing in the pools to the left of the hide. Eventually a total of seven birds had arrived and started to feed in the shallows.

One of the sandpipers was sporting a set of colour rings. Green Sandpipers are caught and ringed at Rye Meads and Lemsford Springs and are the subject of a colour-ringing programme coordinated by Barry Trevis. Each bird has a unique combination of colour rings on its legs, which has that advantage that individual birds can be recognised from a distance without the need to recapture them.

The combination for this bird is Yellow left and Blue over Red right. Armed with this information we know that it was ringed as a juvenile at Rye Meads on the 6th August 2013. So if you see any colour-ringed Green Sandpipers contact Barry Trevis ( with the details.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Wagtails on the Layer Breton Causeway

5th July 2014

It is that time of year when everything is so quiet, but could take off at any time. So today's plan was to visit Abberton Reservoir to see if there were any early autumn migrants whether they be waders or passerines on the banks of the Layer Breton causeway. The compulsory Lapwing was present and strutting his stuff at the water's edge, occasionally stooping down to pick up a morsel.

I had hoped that there would be a few pipits or wagtails present as when the water levels are high, as they are at the present time, they can be quite photogenic. No pipits sadly but I didn't have to wait too long for an adult and young Pied Wagtail to appear running around feeding at the water's edge.

But then the moment I had been waiting for, the call of a Yellow Wagtail flying overhead. I eventually tracked it down and started to take some photos. Then another appeared, and another, but what I found intriguing was that they were all bright adults whereas I am normally photographing juveniles. It was only when they started collecting food that the penny dropped. I was here a lot earlier in the year than usual and instead of the usual migrants these were breeding adults collecting food for their young in the surrounding fields.

At that point one of the birds left the water's edge and flew into the vegetation half way up the bank. This was an opportunity too good to miss. I edged closer and to my astonishment the bird flew out of the grass and landed on top of the vegetation. This is what I call cooperative photography!!