Monday 28 September 2020

Devil's-bit Scabious at Hothfield Common

Had an hour out at Hothfield Common on 13 September - lots of inverts on the Devil's-bit Scabious (which slightly made up for our lack of mushrooms...).

Friday 25 September 2020

Wilson's Petrels off Scilly: with thanks to Adrian Wander

There can be fewer images that have inspired me more than Adrian Wander's image of a Wilson's Petrel, taken in Aug 1993, that rightly won the British Birds 1994 Carl Zeiss Award. The image of the Suffolk MacQueen's Bustard (Houbara, as was...), photographed by Eric Hosking in 1962, or the Spurn Tengmalm's Owl of 1983, both stick in my mind - but Adrian's Wilson Petrel really inspired me. Far out to sea, he managed not only to see a Wilson's and get a great trip-snap, but as the BB article read, "Dr Adrian Wander's photographs of Wilson's Storm-petrel in flight about 60 km SSW of Bishop Rock showed not only the species' plumage and jizz, but also—astonishingly—the yellow patches on the webbed feet, a diagnostic feature difficult enough to see let alone photograph." A common seabird on its Antarctic breeding rounds, but a mega-rare seabird off UK coastal waters. Every time I saw Adrian's picture, I thought, "One day...".

Wilson's Petrel, Dr Adrian Wander, Aug 1993 off Scilly (by quite a few miles) and winner of the British Birds 1994 Carl Zeiss Award. Copyright: Dr Adrian Wander.

...One day, I hoped to emulate something half a good as Adrian's picture... My initial sighting's of Wilson's Petrel thus far had been on the RMV Scillonian III: rather distant, given the height of the boat and the size of the bird (they weigh a rather slight 30g on average, which is the same as your average House Sparrow), and certainly any snaps I took at the time could easily be mistaken for specks of mud on my camera's mirror...

In recent years I have been fortunate enough to have an occasional July or August holiday on Scilly - and that has afforded me the opportunity to head out with Joe Pender, aboard the MV Sapphire, and see brilliant seabirds at super-close range. Amongst many other pelagic species, Wilson's Petrels have been a regular feature of these evening trips - Bob Flood, of Scilly Pelagics fame, usually being first to pick out this South Atlantic-breeding rarity to UK waters, amongst tens or even hundreds of similar, but relatively local, Storm Petrels. Sightings of seabirds, whilst aboard the MV Sapphire, are brilliant - you are in their environment and the seabirds couldn't care less. Indeed, with the stink of Joe's putrefying fish chum drifting with the wind, the seabirds are most definitely attracted towards the observer.

This year, finally, my Adrian Wander and Wilson's Petrel stars finally aligned... On the 27 July, Joe and Bob took us out in to the stiff breeze and on to some lumpy waters. With the bag of chum tied up and dragging alongside the Sapphire, the birds started arriving... A superb evening with seven tubenoses safely 'in the can'. And finally, finally, finally, I was able get the 'Wander' picture, I had longed for. 

For any sad non-birders still reading this far down this blog entry, you clearly need extra medication to help you nod off. For any birders still awake, the following are 'my' Wilson's from that night. None of them will win the British Birds 2021 Carl Zeiss Award - they'd be too similar to that winner of the 1994 award. However, to me, and unknown to the other observers that night, these pictures are a personal odyssey finally reached - and a lot of pleasure it has been!

Thanks to Adrian and Joe and Bob... for all their contributions (not that any of them knew it) to this fun little 26-year odyssey of mine.


Foot note: Adrian - it would be good to see you off Scilly one summer soon!

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.