Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Rare Dragons in the Lake... Lessor Emperor - Leybourne Lakes Country Park (11 Aug 2020)

New dragonfly species are few and far between for me these days and the list of species I haven't seen in the UK (of those that have occurred) is down to one native species (Northern Emerald), a few regular or recent colonists (Red-veined Darter, Dainty Damselfly and lessor Emperor) and then a whole heap of the super-rare species.

I tried to see Northern Emerald in NE Scotland one summer and, in the process, submerged myself up to knackers in boggy-peat water when I trod on what I thought was firm land - it turned out I had attempted to walk on water, and I couldn't. Trousers and footwear removed, all was well until I needed fuel in Aberdeen and promptly had to fill the car with petrel whilst dressed only in my boxer-shorts. Standing there like a Wally with my petrel-pump in hand, I thought all was well until several hundred pedestrians walked on to the petrel station forecourt, fresh from leaving an Elton John concert nearby...

Red-veined Darter has officially given me the slip on several occasions - and I haven't been 100% of a couple of my own sightings. But they are relatively common for an uncommon species (John has seen them..), so I have little doubt I'll see one soon. 

A colony of Dainty Damselflies was found in 2009/10 under the new bridge that takes criminals back over to the Isle of Sheppey. They were seen for a few years, and are possible even still there, but my two half-arsed attempts were fruitless (or even damselflyless...). But John Clements saw them, so they can't have been too difficult to see... Alas, all I can do is wait for another colony to be found (which it now has - at Sandwich Bay BO).

I had tried for Lesser Emperor a couple of times, once near Cambridge whilst returning from a work trip and a second time at Dungeness - unfortunately, on both occasions either the weather or observer incompetence intervened and I failed in my quest. But, no bother, I'd find one sooner or later - wouldn't I? After all, John Clements has seen them...

My wait to find my own Lesser Emperor ended on 11 Aug, within 10 metres of the house, at Leybourne Lakes Country Park. Sitting on a bench, overlooking the lake, on 10 Aug I thought I saw a blue waistband on a large dragonfly - but then, no further sightings. With only a little more effort the following day I finally relocated my quarry - a rather spectacular Lesser Emperor.

The beastie spent much of the day quartering the nearby patch of dead willow tree in the lake and settling there on several occasions when the conditions warranted such lazy activity...

A Vagrant Emperor (44) last November and now Lesser Emperor (45)...what will my next species of Odonata in the UK be? Dainty Damselfly, surely?

Monday, 7 September 2020

'By-the-wind Sailors' - One of nature's beauties, off the Isles of Scilly

A message on the Isles of Scilly Natural History Group WhatsApp channel (I'd be surprised if you're not already on it...) highlighted a couple of fascinating 'By-the-wind Sailors' that had been found on St Martin's a week or so before my Scilly vacation. I confess, I'd never actually even heard of these strange jellyfish relatives...and, sure enough, initial searches of the beaches on Scilly produced nothing - but I was looking...

On 29 July, my fortune changed and whilst out paddleboarding in Porth Mellon Bay,  I found two of these strange but very beautiful creatures floating about (or so I thought). I assumed they were actually dead as they were the wrong way up and floating about like a couple of bits of plastic. Indeed, when I showed them to Max, he said he'd seen some previously when we'd been paddle boarding in Porthcressa Bay, and had thought they were car indicators!

'By-the-wind Sailor' - dead but floating...

'By-the-wind Sailors' - dead and paddle boarding...!

This brush with something new in the natural world was great - going from unknown to reality in about ten days. 

Finding a 'By-the-wind Sailor' in a slightly healthier state, rather than a 'plastic' cast was the next stage in my quest to finally say I'd seen a proper one.

Back on Porthcressa Bay, my continued beach combing eventually came up trumps...

A few BTWS (sorry, I can't be arsed to write 'By-the-wind Sailers' too many more times...) were found along the very recent high-tide line - they were stunning, they were really quite beautiful, but they really weren't 'quite' alive... Further paddle boarding trips out in the various bays failed to produce the 'live' beasties...

It was on 3 August, that my golden b*ll*cks luck manifested itself once again (for previous examples, scan back to the 30 July entry...). As we set out on another Scilly Pelagic trip with Joe Pender on the MV Sapphire, and with excitement high (us birders do get enthused at the prospect at gazing at waves, hoping for a rare bird to appear), we slowed to see something large breaking the water - the views weren't great and looking back I can't even remember if it was a dolphin or a tuna...oops. But what I did see was my personal Holy Grail at that moment in my conscious - a real, swimming (somewhat lazily, I admit), live, BTWS!!! OK, this wasn't quite up to Mr Attenborough's clumps of migrating Wildebeasts on the Serengeti, or his rather close natterings with Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, but all the same...that wee blue blob of BTWS was just brilliant!

Nature, hobbies, sightings - it matters not a jot what other people think, it's what you get out of seeing in the natural world that's important - and just then, for me, this was very special!

And now, I really, really, really want to see a Portuguese Man o' War in British waters... One day perhaps!

Info about BTWS - According to the WikiWorld: 

Velella is a monospecific genus of hydrozoa in the Porpitidae family. Its only known species is Velella velella, a cosmopolitan free-floating hydrozoan that lives on the surface of the open ocean. It is commonly known by the names sea raft, by-the-wind sailor, purple sail, little sail, or simply Velella.

This small cnidarian is part of a specialised ocean surface community that includes the better-known cnidarian siphonophore, the Portuguese man o' war

Each apparent individual is a hydroid colony, and most are less than about 7 cm long. They are usually deep blue in colour, but their most obvious feature is a small stiff sail that catches the wind and propels them over the surface of the sea. However Velella sails always align along the direction of the wind where the sail may act as an aerofoil so that the animals tend to sail downwind at a small angle to the wind.[5] Having no means of locomotion other than its sail, V. velella is at the mercy of prevailing winds for moving around the seas, and are thereby also subject to mass-strandings on beaches throughout the world. 

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Shark Encounters with Scilly Pelagics

During my various 'Scilly Pelegic' trips out on the Sapphire, with Joe Pender at the helm, over the past 100 years, it has been some of the non-avian sightings that will also vividly remain with me until the days I'm drinking soup through a straw at the cheapest old people's home... Various species of whale have done their stuff in front of me - including the majestic Humpback - while 'By-the-wind Sailors' have fascinated, Tuna have amazed, many dolphins have enthralled and even a Leatherback Turtle has graced my gaze (the latter on one of the original 'Scillonian III' pelagic trips, rather than on the MV Sapphire).

The fun of heading out a few miles off Scilly to see seabirds every few years, should be enough to lure fellow enthusiasts (or nutters as some non-birders may refer them) out on to the open waves. much of watching nature, there is no guarantee a rare seabird on every trip - and if there was, it wouldn't be quite as much fun - honest guv!

One group of animals, though, has always added a real degree of excitement onboard Scilly pelagics - the sharks. Far from being a random coincidence, the average 'shark-seeker' and 'rare-bird-seeker' both go about their hobbies in similar ways...lobbing an onion net, filled with festering fish, overboard (but still tied to the boat) draws in the birds and it draws in the sharks. While the resulting fish-oil slick can be whiffed by the birds from miles away, the same is happening under water with sharks being drawn in by the new oceanic underwater odours.

The commonest species of shark encountered by the fishing folk is the Blue Shark. On a good evening's trip out a few of these fantastic beasts, measuring 3-6', can be hauled out - but that is only a part of the story... They aren't being caught for the benefit of my soon-to-be old-age soup, but rather more - they are contributing to wider studies looking at the annual migrations, growth rates, biometric changes, etc, that only smart 'tag-and-release' projects can deliver. 

The Blue Sharks tagged off Scilly are helping ecologists gain ever greater knowledge about this beautiful beasts - and armed with greater knowledge, we can do more to help preserve numbers for the benefit of a healthy ecosystem. 

The second most common species attracted to the chum, is the Porbeagle Shark - whilst the Blue Shark in sleek and elegant, the Porbeable Shark is a mean-looking member of the 'Mackerel Shark' group. The Mackerel Sharks are also known as the white sharks and they include within their group, the most famous of them all, the Great White. Our Porbeagle is common around UK waters and those that wander off-shore are also occasionally caught and tagged as part of the tag and release projects mentioned above.

The third species of the shark family that I've seen pulled out, has been the Spurdog. Not quite the formidable beast that is the Porbeagle, the Spurdog is, none the less, as very sleek looking member of the wider shark family. The one photographed below was caught off Scilly in August 2018.

All of these beasts have been sent on their merry way - free to roam the underwater routes that take them round our seas. Their brief visit in to our world has been an exciting addition to fantastic trips off Scilly with Joe Pender, aboard the Sapphire, as part of the trips out that Joe and 'Scilly Pelagics' offer to those wanting to see something new and something very special.

Friday, 31 July 2020

31 July 2020: Black Kite, St Mary's, IOS

After the fantastic events of last night, today was taken at a leisurely pace - it is a holiday after all... We walked up to Longstones for an afternoon cuppa. Sat on a bench at 15:58 I found two swifts. At 16:00 I found a Peregrine. At 16:02 I found a large but distant raptor - buzzard? No. Harrier? Possible Marsh, but not right. Kite? Not Red. As time progressed, despite the distant views, it became all the more apparent that this was either a Marsh Harrier or a Black Kite - time to put the news out. A check of the WhatsApp Group said Buzzard spp!!! Must be the same bird, but...

At 16:20 views were improving - surely I'd found myself a Black Kite! A few minutes later I was happy to call it - Back Kite.

All in all, this isn't turning out to be a bad holiday at all!

Black Kite - Longstones, St Marys, Isles of Scilly

30 July 2020: Zino's Petrel - 3mls SW of Bishop Rock Lighthouse

After Monday night's fantastic seabird extravaganza, surely this pelagic trip out to the open ocean could only disappoint...

We had Wilson's Petrels, we had Great, Cory's and Manx Shearwaters, we had masses of Storm Petrels, we caught a Blue Shark, we saw Porbeagle Shark, Sunfish and Common Dolphins - and none of that will be what this pelagic will be remembered for...

Whilst heading back from a pleasant pelagic trip, Higo said to me, "Common on Golden Balls, you're leaving it a bit late." "Don't worry," I replied, "We'll shortly be having twenty seconds of utter madness!"

Ten minutes later, we had over forty seconds of utter madness! As we headed north east, back to the islands, the brilliant Bob Flood picked out a fasting tracking Pterodroma pertrel - his speed at initially calling "Fea's Petrel" alerted everyone on board, to the bird rapidly heading west. 

Watching the bird initially through bins, this bird was light and bright - small bodied and long-winged - and bloody fast! It felt quite different from the Fea's I saw previously out on a pelagic several years ago.

Like many on board, the choice was simply 'watch it or photograph it?' I opted for the latter, always good to get at least something on the camera. Running down to the boat - find the bird, point the camera, press the shutter and pray... To be honest, my pics aren't as good as Zac and Danni Hinchcliffe's pictures (one of which is kindly reproduced below), but it came as no surprise, following the chats last night, that this morning MEGA ALERT would confirm that Bob Flood had sufficient evidence in the pictures to call the bird a Zino's Petrel.

Zino's Petrel, 3mls SW of Bishop Rock Lighthouse, Isles of Scilly

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

27 July 2020: Scilly Pelagic - Seven Tubenoses

Boris said we could go to the Scillies after 4 July - so we booked two weeks, starting 24 July. The first opportunity to head out on one of Joe Pender's pelagic trips was Monday 27th and with strong winds it was surely going to be an interesting one.

The result of this pelagic trip was probably my best set of tubenose snaps I've ever taken - seven species safely in the can. But the trip was much more than claiming digital representation of seven seabirds, the trip boosted seven species at such close quarters, that it times we needed the Wilson's Petrels to move away from the boat to socially-distance themselves from was seriously fun!

Wilson's Petrel

Cory's Shearwater (but see later Cory's pics)

Cory's Shearwater - a 'more typical' example

Great Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater
Manx Shearwater

Storm Petrel

Storm Petrels


Yellow-legged Gull

Friday, 24 July 2020

24 July 2020: Scillonian crossing

A few bits from the Scillonian on the crossing today.

Manx Shearwater

Manx Shearwater



Monday, 20 July 2020

20 July 2020: Dewisk's Plusia - East Malling, Kent

A WhatsApp messagefrom Adam Whitehouse correctly informed me that he had found a moth that wasn't a Silver Y. Too bloody right Adam! That's a Dewick's Plusia you found there... Shortly afterwards I found myself next to Adam and about to start searching the strawberry plants near where the moth was seen, but presumed to have flown away from... Why did I worry? Within a minute of searching Adam refound our quarry - sitting quietly (as moths do) on a strawberry leaf.

Dewick's Plusia, East Malling Research Station, Kent

Sunday, 19 July 2020

19 July 2020: Lammergeier - Peak District

Reports of a second calendar-year Lammergeier in the UK sounded fun - it was the bird previously reported in Belgium, so had seemingly crossed the English Channel on its own, which has to be a good sign. The bird had then toured round before finding an area of the Peak District to its liking. 

Doug had set out the day before and spent much of the Saturday scanning the hilltops with little or no reward - he stayed overnight in the hope of better views in the better Sunday weather... John and I took the more leisurely approach and didn't get in the area until shortly after nine thirty in the morning. A quick call to Doug to say that we were only four minutes away led to the inevitable banter about, "Mr Golden Bollocks arriving so the bird would now surely show." Sure enough, even before we all met up, we stopped by the side of the road and shortly afterwards were rewarded for our laziness by the appearance of the immature Lammergeier. 

Probably from the reintriduction programme in teh Alps - using Spanish birds - or wild Spanish birds from the Pyrenees? We may never know for sure, but what a sight it was!!

Friday, 10 July 2020

Lunar Hornet Moth: 10 July 2020 - Leybourne Lakes Country Park

The arrival of the new Lunar Hornet Moth lure prompted an immediate test...and leaving the pheromone trap out for just a couple of hours (later afternoon) proved sufficient to attract one of these elusive beasts...

The following day I put the lure out at Holborough Marshes in the morning, and attracted seven!!

This is a very accurate pheromone lure which will rewrite the distribution map of this fantastic wasp-mimic. 
Lunar Hornet Moth - Leybourne Lakes Country Park

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Satyr Pug, chalk downland near Sevenoaks: 26 June 2020

Satyr Pug, Nr Sevenoaks, 26 June 2020
Had a walk up the downs with Fred Butcher. Among the many micros we netted was this one pug - initially and with fading eyesight (in naff light), I assumed it to be a Grey Pug. Fred considered otherwise and correctly so. The following morning and with the benefit of my camera, the full beauty of this Satyr Pug was evident.

The true highlight of this evening was this Hypercallia citrinalis. Discovered in 2019 after being presumed extinct in the UK since 1975...!