Monday, July 20, 2015

Lady's Slippers, Dukes and a Ghost Deer.

In the north of England, on the borderland between Lancashire and Cumbria lies a hidden kingdom rich in strange wild creatures, exotic-looking butterflies and mythical plants. Known only to a few, but passed by many as they journey to the honeypot that is the Lake District. But if the weary traveller heading north to the land of mountains and lakes on the M6 were to accidentally leave the motorway a junction earlier they might discover this hidden land of reeds, mosses and limestone pavements and its abundant wildlife.
Most well-known in this fabulous land is the RSPB reserve of Leighton Moss with its secretive Bitterns, squealing Water Rails and gliding Marsh Harriers. But venture further down the narrow winding roads flanked by dry-stone walls and you will find other natural wonders.
My trip last May was to the Natural England reserve at Gait Barrows; an area of Carboniferous limestone pavement; rock formed before the great age of the dinosaurs. This beautiful area is home to scarce butterflies and some even scarcer plants. Not long ago the beautiful Lady's Slipper Orchid was on the verge of extinction in this country, so close that the only known site where it was found was a closely guarded secret; the site itself being closely guarded as well! But this beautiful plant has been part of a Species Recovery Programme and seedlings from the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew have been planted at various suitable locations, Gait Barrows being one of them.

Gait Barrows' limestone pavement (iPhone photo)
The footpath from the small car park was signposted with images of the orchid so finding them was a piece of cake. Although the first plants that I photographed were a cluster of Herb Paris, an unusual-looking plant that was used by medieval herbalists to ward off witches.

Herb Paris
I hardly saw a soul at this gem of a reserve never mind any witches, but that might have been due to the dull overcast conditions, or maybe everyone had gone to the Lake District that Saturday.
The Lady's Slipper Orchids were an amazing sight, their gaudy yellow "slippers" contrasting markedly with the claret-coloured petals and the dark green leaves. I took many (careful!) photographs and, I although |I know it is impossible to capture the true beauty of such a rare and exotic looking plant with a mere camera sensor, the images failed to do justice to these exquisite yet gaudy rarities. The clouds failed to clear and as I prefer natural light to flash I decided to visit nearby Foulshaw Moss and hope that the weather improved by the afternoon.
Retracing my steps along the footpath I heard the breathless song of a sylvia warbler, and was pleased to confirm what my ears were telling me when I glimpsed a Garden Warbler secreted in the centre of some bushes; its song being very similar to that of a Blackcap.

Garden Warbler
Fowlshaw Moss is an area of lowland raised peat bog and Cumbria Wildlife Trust are doing a sterling jobof restoring this habitat back to its former glory. They have introduced the rare White-faced Darter and Ospreys also nest on the reserve. From the raised boardwalk, with the aid of my 'scope I could see the two Osprey parents in trees near their nest. But what was that ghostly white shape moving through the reeds below the trees? Eventually the apparition moved into the open and revealed itself as a Red Deer, only it was white! I took a few distant record shots of this unusual animal. The warden later told me that this albino deer had been present in the area for a number of years and it had even shocked an unsuspecting motorist by dashing across the main A-road to Barrow; the driver thought he had seen a giant sheep!

Red Deer at Foulshaw

Willow Warbler

"Ghost" Deer
The day was brightening up so after photographing a confiding Willow Warbler, I returned to Gait Barrows to try and photograph the orchids again.
It was well worth the return visit as the sun was now shining and I managed some nice back-lit shots of the Lady's Slipper Orchids. Not only that, it was now warm enough for a few butterflies to emerge from their hiding places and tempt me to break out the macro lens.

Gait Barrows is home to some rare butterflies including the beautiful Duke of Burgundy, which was once thought to be a fritillary but most authorities now place it with a group of mainly neotropical butterflies called the metalmarks. All this is beside the point because the Duke is a stunning little butterfly, and even better a few were feeding on flowers right by the footpath. The areas of the reserve which contained their caterpillars' foodplants were roped off to avoid trampling, and rightly so. But the adults were no respecters of safety and flew jauntily over the tape and gaily flaunted their checkered upperwings at all passers-by.

The Duke
I also found another sadly-declining species hunkered down in the leaf litter, a gorgeous Pearl-bordered Fritillary. It is named after the seven "pearls" that edge the border of its underwing.

Pearl-bordered Fritillary
Pearl-bordered Fritillary's underwing
And after a fabulous day enjoying the stunning wildlife of the area I finished off by photographing a singing Chiffchaff against the now blue sky. A fairy-tale ending after all.



Thursday, July 9, 2015

Snowdon and Conway

In one week's time I will be taking part in the International Snowdon Mountain Race, a fell race that runs to the top Wales' highest mountain via the Llanberis path. Although I have competed in this race twice before I am not a pure fell runner and definitely need to train on the route, so last week I drove to beautiful Snowdonia and ran slowly to the summit.

View from the summit looking towards Llanberis (iPhone photo)
Despite it being a warm July morning there were not a lot of people on the mountain, which at times can be as busy as the proverbial Piccadilly Circus. The summit was shrouded in cloud so I had to pause for a few minutes to take a photograph, that's my excuse anyway! The run down was a breeze, and I was soon enjoying my picnic lunch overlooking the calm waters of Llyn Padarn.
I had a number of options planned for the afternoon, if I had been very warm I had planned a wild swim in the plunge pools on the Watkin Path, but the skies had become overcast and the temperature had plummeted from the mid-week record breaking highs. Likewise, looking for Silver-studded Blues on the Great Orme or Keeled Skimmers near Betws-y-coed were both dismissed due to the lack of sunshine. So I headed for Conway RSPB reserve which is often a good place for seeing Stoats.
By the time that I was pulling into the reserve carpark the wind had strengthened and rain was beginning to fall; not ideal conditions for watching wildlife. Undeterred, I strolled down the estuary path carefully watching for any signs of Stoat activity. The tide was in and there were plenty of waders roosting on the main reserve. From the hides I could see flocks of Oystercatchers and Redshanks waiting patiently for the tide to turn. A few Little Egrets were feeding on the pools; I remember when this bird was a real rarity. I travelled to Fford Bay near Caernarfon, not that far from Conway, in 1987 to see my first ever Little Egret, how times have changed.
I was not successful in my search for Stoats but an afternoon watching the birds was more than enough consolation.
Oystercatchers heading to the estuary

Shelduck (note the rain splashes on the lake)

Oystercatcher acquiring its white winter throat collar

And just to prove there are Stoats at this site, here are two photos that I took two years ago.


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

River Dee Meander

Last week the country experienced some of the hottest days since records began, well, down south at least. So I thought Saturday would be a good day to catch up with some insects on the River Dee in Cheshire.
I drove to Farndon  where the Dee forms the boundary between Wales and England. This area had proved very productive for insects such as the Banded Demoiselle in the past and I hoped to take some photographs of this delicate riparian species.
Unfortunately the weather was having other ideas as a strong breeze was blowing and the sunshine was intermittent to say the least. I struggled to find any damselflies and there were no dragonflies at all. I have seen the scarce Club-tailed Dragonfly at this site before but July is probably past the end of its flight period.
But there were a number of common butterflies on the wing including Small Tortoiseshells, Meadow Browns, Large Skippers and a solitary Red Admiral. I eventually found a few Banded Demoiselles but they were a bit elusive in the breezy and frequently dull conditions. Highlight of the walk was a Spotted Flycatcher with a beakfull of insects that perched on the top rail of a wooden gate; if only I had had my other lens on my camera and not my macro!

Meadow Brown

Large Skipper

Small Tortoiseshell

Male Banded Demoiselle

Female Banded Demoiselle

Friday, June 12, 2015

Llandegla Forest (part 2)

I visited Llandegla Forest in North Wales at the end of April with my girlfriend Jane (see previous post), and although we saw some fantastic birds there were a number of species that we missed so a return visit was definitely on the cards. An early start at the beginning of May saw us walking up the Offa's Dyke path and into the forest not long after sunrise.
It was a great place for a dawn chorus. Common woodland birds including Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Song Thrush, Robin, Wren and Dunnock provided a rich musical symphony as we made our way through the ranks of conifers and up onto the open ground adjacent to the Denbighshire moorland. As on our previous visit the arias of Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs were very much in evidence, along with the fruity songs of Blackcaps. On the open ground Tree Pipits twittered in parachuting display as Siskins and Redpolls flew overhead.

Willow Warbler

We made our way to the hide overlooking the moorland, it was here a few years ago that we were priveledged to see a male Hen Harrier quartering the heather, like some long forgotten spirit of the hills. It's remarkable how once you have seen a special bird in a certain place that you always expect to see that bird in the same place again; but that rarely happens, and today was no exception as far as the harrier was concerned. A Raven cronked in the distance and flapped lazily over a dip in the heather. We were too late in the year for the lekking of the Black Grouse but I did manage to scope two beautiful males feeding on the heather. Another good find was a male Whinchat perched sentinel-like on a small tree among the heather his peachy breast and pale supercilium clearly visible through the telescope, but he didn't come within range of my camera.
A couple of Whitethroats were singing their scratchy songs close by but remained camera-shy. Not so a Redpoll which paused briefly near the hide and allowed a few record shots to be taken.


A very obliging Willow Warbler fed and sang in willows and young conifers near the hide and allowed me to take some photos that illustrate the subtle beauty of this exquisite migrant.

But, best of all, the distinctive disyllabic panpipe call of a Cuckoo had us hastily gathering our gear and marching smartly towards a nearby copse. Through my scope we could see the bird calling in the distance, but if flew into the forest and we could not relocate it. Nevertheless this enigmatic Spring icon was a very welcome addition to our dawn chorus list.
We strolled down to the reservoir were a pair of Canada Geese were busy defending their area of water from another pair.


A large shoal of Minnows was milling in the shallow bankside water, but there was no sign of the expected tadpoles. On the far side of the reservoir a bare patch of rock was hosting some sunning butterflies including Small Tortoiseshell and a few Peacocks.
We continued our journey back to the visitor centre when the unmistakable call of a Crossbill was heard. Scanning the tops of the trees we located a beautiful green female Crossbill perched on the very top a the tallest conifer. A great bird and one that we had failed to see on our previous visit. And there was one last surprise as we made our way back to the car, I heard the fluty song of a Redstart and located this gorgeous bird in an oak by the road. With its red breast, quivering orange-red tail and black face crowned and mantled with a luscious silvery-grey, this is surely our most attractive songbird.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Llandegla Forest (part 1)

At the end of April I booked a day off work with the intention of visiting Bempton Cliffs RSPB in Yorkshire. Unfortunately I was a bit unwell in the morning so I didn't fancy the long drive from the Wirral, but I didn't want to waste my day and decided to go for a walk around Llandegla Forest in North Wales.
Coed Llandegla is a commercial forest that opened to the public in 2005 as a mountain biking venue. But alongside the great biking trails are some fantastic wildlife habitats, indeed 50% of the Welsh Black Grouse population can be found within one mile of the forest, and in the summer the clearfell areas are home to Nightjars. Jane and I were too late in the day to witness the lekking of the grouse but we were happy to stroll around the forest in search of other wildlife.
Warblers were much in evidence as we wandered the trails through the conifers. The cascading song of the Willow Warbler is definitely one of my favourite sounds of Spring and they were probably the commonest songster on our walk.

We walked to the hide that overlooks the moorland where the Black Grouse lek in the early morning knowing we wouldn't see any but Ravens and Buzzards provided some consolation. It was quite a warm day and the willow flowers were a welcome source of nectar for foraging bees.

 Chiffchaffs, Chaffinches, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes added to the mid-morning chorus, and the twittering calls of Siskin and Redpoll reminded us that the forest is a great habitat for these species.
A very obliging Wren perched and sang on some conifer logs and provided me with some memorable images.

Walking up a broad forest track near an area of clearfell we saw a largish brown bird disappearing behind a stand of conifers. "Cuckoo" we both said, more in hope than anything else. We quickly walked to the other side of the conifers only to find that our 'Cuckoo' was in fact a Mistle Thrush! It was a lovely bird but Llandegla is one of our favourite sites for Cuckoo, but maybe we were too early in the season for this African migrant.
We picnicked on a seat that overlooks Moel Famau, the highest hill in the Clwydian range. The hill is crowned with a tower which was built to commemorate the golden jubilee of George III in 1810. The tower gives the hill a unique profile that makes it easily recognised from some distance.
I shared my lunch with an unusually shy Robin and then we set off back to the visitor centre. As we neared the carpark I thought I heard the call of a Crossbill as two finch-sized birds disappeared over the forest canopy. I could not be sure though, so it didn't make it on to the day list. Crossbills used to be a guaranteed sighting a Llandegla, to the point that one area of the forest was nicknamed "Crossbill Corner". But after a cold winter a couple of years ago they have become more infrequent. They are a mobile species anyway so an irruption might boost the numbers here in the future.

Friday, May 29, 2015

London - dinosaurs, wetlands and a marathon!

On the 25th of last month I travelled to London with my girlfriend Jane, to register for what is becoming an annual event for me, the London Marathon. Obviously running is my main reason for visiting the capital but there are plenty of wildlife watching opportunities to be had especially in the Spring.
After registering at the Xcel Centre, we had pasta for lunch (what else?) then headed for one of my favourite buildings, the Natural History Museum. This temple of the natural sciences in South Kensington was designed in Romanesque style by the architect Alfred Waterhouse and is adorned with intricate carvings of plants and animals. But as any child will tell you the star attractions are the dinosaurs, and a new superstar had recently been unveiled and I was dying to make her acquaintance. Her name is Sophie and she is the most complete Stegosaurus skeleton ever unearthed. With huge plates along her spine and her spiked tail raised in a menacing fashion, Sophie dominated the Earth Hall. I fell for her hook, line and sinker and my girlfriend had to drag me away to enjoy the myriad of other fascinating exhibits on show, or maybe she was jealous of the attention I was giving Sophie! To be fair, palaeontologists are not sure of the sex of this 150 million year old cutie, she was named after the daughter of an unknown benefactor who made the acquisition possible.

The gorgeous Sophie.

We enjoyed a long sojourn around the whale hall, but it was soon time for dinner in the shape of more pasta. The day before a marathon is supposed to be one of rest, but London is naturally full of attractions and distractions, and I'm not one to do as I should anyway.
After a good night's sleep I was soon on the train on my way to the marathon start at Blackheath. Many people are inspired to run a marathon by watching the coverage of the race on the BBC. But it is impossible to fully convey in words the emotions involved in this amazing sporting spectacle. The runners, the supporters, the charities, the camaraderie, the fleeting friendships, the noise, the music, the colour, the fancy dress outfits, the struggle, the will power, the support, the shared endeavour; to paraphrase something I heard, if the feelings surrounding the London Marathon could be bottled and shared around the world, life would be immeasurably better for everyone.
I was on the blue start for a change and was able to spot a few celebrities including Jensen Button and Iwan Thomas. But the best sight was the runner dressed as a T-Rex! It was an enormous outfit with working articulated legs attached to the back of his own feet. He deserved a medal just for turning up. Apparently he had even trained near his home dressed in the outfit. Without a doubt it was the best fancy dress I have ever witnessed at a marathon and I was disappointed that there was not more coverage of him on the television.
I had quite a good race and finished in 3 hours and 12 minutes, which means I get automatic entry for next year; maybe I could run as a stegosaurus!
At the start of the race I had ticked off Ring-necked Parakeet for the year flying over the common, and there were plenty more of them to be seen in St. James's Park after the race, along with a motley collection of ducks including Red-crested Pochard. Although a tame Grey Heron was very approachable.

We were up early the next day to visit the Wildfowl and Wetland Centre at Barnes. This is becoming an annual pilgrimage as well; Spring is the perfect time to add a few migrants to my birding year list. We set ourselves the challenge to record as many species of bird as possible in the two hours that we had available to us. But we were distracted by the non-avian delights of this urban wetland. Foremost amongst these was a colony of Marsh Frogs that were calling rapaciously. These are non-native amphibians but are widespread across Europe and are distinguished from the similar Pool and Edible Frogs by their grey vocal sacs.

Other more ephemeral diversions were provided by sulphur-yellow Brimstone butterflies of which we saw at least five different individuals.
But |I mustn't forget the birds. Naturally wetland birds dominated the list including Great-crested and Little Grebes, Common Terns and a couple of Little Ringed Plovers. Another photogenic Grey Heron posed outside one of the hides. Warblers that serenaded us along the lush trails included Willow, Sedge, Reed, Backcap, Chiffchaff and a quite showy Garden Warbler (if you can describe the drabbest-plumaged breeding warbler in Britain as showy!). Which is more then can be said for the Cetti's Warblers exploding into song at every opportunity but as usual remaining completely invisible; I'm sure they employ Klingon cloaking technology!
We recorded a very creditable 50 species of birds in our all-too short time at this urban oasis, but we look forward to visiting again next year to try and beat our target. We celebrated our weekend with a free pint of London Pride given to all marathon finishers by Fuller's in the Euston Flyer pub, before we caught our train back to Chester.

Marsh Marigold

Harry, Paula and me (in blue!)
N.B. all photos either Lumix compact or iPhone.