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Monthly Archives: September 2011

South-west Ireland, 20-25 September 2011

I put away my pooter and trowel for this trip and dusted off my bins and scope. The plan, hatched on Friday night, was to spend a few days birding on and around the Dingle peninsula, Co. Kerry. It’s been a record-breaking autumn for transatlantic vagrants already, following Hurricanes Irene and especially Katia. I was hoping to get a piece of the action. It sounded as though what few birders were out on the west coast of Ireland were finding yanks wherever they looked. Would it be like looking for a needle in a sewing-box?

En route to Luton Airport on Tuesday morning, I got a text that Hudsonian Whimbrel had been found on Three Castles Head, Co. Cork. Drove 2½ hours straight there from Kerry Airport. The bird was quite a way off but I got one clear view of its diagnostic dark rump. A tick!

Hung around birding Three Castles and Mizen Heads until late morning on Wednesday. Rather few migrants in the bushes and gardens (1 Spotted Fly, 1 Reed Warbler and 1 Willow Warbler plus 1 Sand Martin with the other hirundines). Local birders reckoned there’d be nobody birding out on the Beara peninsula so I headed over there for the rest of Wednesday. Firkeel valley is a magical place with an awesome track record including Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Red-eyed Vireo, Scarlet Tanager and Ireland’s first Parula. On this day it held just a Chiff-chaff and a Willow Warbler.

Firkeel valley

It was so windy it felt like I ought to be seawatching so I had a look off Garnish Point. Great views of Sooty and Manx Shearwaters and a lovely flock of 11 Grey Phalaropes bobbing in the surf below me.

After two days spent doing a lot of driving, on Thursday I walked and birded from dawn till dusk, covering the whole of the Inch strand and estuary on the Dingle peninsula. Saw thousands of birds but got the tides wrong and the all-important flocks of Dunlin and Sanderling were too distant. I did pick out a Buff-breasted Sandpiper though, my first yankee find of the trip. Excellent, even though this is a species I have found before on Scilly and Fair Isle.

Quality image of the Buff-breast!

I was back out near Inch Point on Friday, in position for the rising tide and spent hours scoping through hundreds of Dunlin, Sanderling and Ringed Plover as they came closer and closer. Eventually my scope landed on something different – Semi-palmated Sandpiper! The first one I’ve found. A couple of times I suspected there were two birds but it was hard to be sure in the mêlée. Saw the Buff-breast again and at least 10 Curlew Sandpipers. I think this is a top-class birding site but it’s a 1½ hour fast walk from Sammy’s Café at the start of the beach, even if you know where to cut across the dunes. It’s one of the places Jo and I birded on our honeymoon.

You may not think much of this photo but I was Choughed with it.

Spent the last of the afternoon birding Blennerville and Black Rock Strand. Both sites I’ve heard of but never visited before. Had great views of the adult American Golden Plover at Black Rock Strand, albeit in driving rain.

Saturday, my last full day. Planned to bird as many of the bays and beaches of the Dingle Peninsula as I could and really give it socks. Started at Trabeg where the White-rumped Sandpiper was still present and showing well, the fifth species of yankee wader for the trip, so far. Gareth Richards texted some bird news while I was there and said “Keep checking the Ringed Plovers …”. Had a look in Dingle Harbour where I didn’t see much but learnt that Funghi the dolphin is still around 29 years after his first appearance.

Ventry Harbour was next, a pretty uninspiring site for waders, especially with all the loose dogs, horse-riders, joggers, etc. But I walked up to the quiet, seaweedy end of the beach, scoped through a few dozen Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Sanderling and Dunlin, then moved round to Cuan Pier. Looking back from the pier to the part of the beach I’d been at 5 or 10 minutes earlier, I was amazed to see three other birders. And they were sprinting full-pelt along the beach with their tripod legs extended! My first thought was that the only bird I could’ve missed that would be worth more than a gentle trot was Semi-palmated Plover. A few minutes later and I was with them: Dan Brown, Rob Martin and Alex Lees, alpha-birders all of them and three of the punkbirders. They had seen, photographed and sound-recorded a Semi-p Plover and then watched it fly off. The second for Ireland. Totally gutting. There have only been two in Britain and fortunately I saw the one at Dawlish Warren. But I was utterly disconsolate to have walked past such a massive rarity without noticing.

I decided to give up on wader ID and hone my corvid ID skills instead. So 2½ hours later I was chucking cheap white sliced bread around Kennedy Pier, Cobh. The House Crow hadn’t been reported since 6th September but Cork birders reckoned this was just through lack of interest and that the bird would still be around. It didn’t show up in the three hours I was there but was seen on the following Monday morning. ****! I was advised that early mornings are best for this bird. So maybe a Saturday afternoon with Jimi Hendrix covers blasting out from the Bandstand was not optimal! However, an adult Sabine’s Gull made a brief and thrilling appearance attracted to bread. It reminded me that for all its frustrations, birding is always capable of providing unexpected excitement. Night drive back to Kerry, missing a Sika by an antler’s breadth.

Sabine's Gull at Cobh

The Semi-p Plover had returned on Saturday afternoon on the falling tide. So I was keen to see it on my last morning. As I walked down the track to the beach at first light, a dog Otter crossed in front of me a few paces ahead. Great!

Otter prints, seconds old

No other birders present and only 5 adult Ringed Plover at the spot. Working my way up the beach towards the stream outflow, the first juv. plover I looked at was the Semi-p! By this time, a dozen or so Irish twitchers had assembled on the other side of the stream. After about half an hour watching the bird I went round to talk to them and, although they were watching the same bird, they weren’t yet convinced it was ‘the bird’. Which just goes to show how easy it was to overlook and what a quality find it was by the punkbirders. At least I took some consolation from it anyway!

The crowd for the Semi-palmated Plover. In Britain it would be elbow-room only.

A near miss ...

Watched it till 10 and then dashed to the airport seeing my 100th bird species of the trip en route when a House Sparrow flew across the road in Dingle. It had been a pretty hard trip on the hire car and I didn’t let the grass grow under my feet.

Hard miles for the hire car

There are highs and lows to birding and there’s always someone, somewhere, seeing more than you. But I enjoyed myself and saw a lot of good birds in a beautiful part of the world.

Carabid twitching

Yesterday I went to look for a rare carabid Pogonus luridipennis at a site near Skegness where it was discovered earlier this year. The site was visited again on 10th September when at least 6 were seen under a piece of discarded carpet within the first 5 minutes, followed by four hours of fruitless searching. On 17th September I also found a piece of carpet within the first 5 minutes but there were only Pogonus chalceus, Dicheirotrichus gustavi and D. obsoletus under it. Two hours of hard graft later and it was looking like yet another wasted journey. And then I found another piece of discarded carpet with dozens of carabids under it including 5 Pogonus luridipennis!

Pogonus luridipennis from Skegness

Published habitat information for this species in Britain includes “on clayish seashores, mostly in marshes under seaweed” and “coastal habitats, particularly saltmarshes”. The reality for this and several other ‘saltmarsh’ carabids is that they prefer the margins of lagoons which are only rarely inundated by seawater. Pogonus luridipennis seems to be particularly fussy and after a long run of records from Salthouse, Norfolk in the 80s and 90s, it was last seen there in 2001 (and has been repeatedly looked for since without success). The last Norfolk record was from Titchwell in 2005 (Dave Gibbs). It has not been recorded from the Severn Estuary for a few decades now. It still persists on the Dorset coast with a recent record from Eype.

Hopefully, now that we have a reliable site for P. luridipennis, research by John Walters under the Biodiversity Action Plan will be able to answer a few questions about when, where and how to find it, and ultimately how to conserve it.

At Skegness, it looks as though it would be extremely difficult to find if it wasn’t for a few pieces of old carpet that someone has thrown away on the edge of the lagoon. Before I got into beetles, I thought all litter should be collected and disposed of properly. Now I usually regard pieces of litter as valuable refuges for invertebrates and I put them back carefully after looking underneath!

Litter or valuable refuge? The Pogonus luridipennis carpet.

Flushed with success, I thought I’d check out a site near Lincoln where Alan Lazenby discovered Amara nitida on 8th July 1990. Having started my interest in carabids in the Brecks, a hotspot for Amara species, I still regard Amara as the most interesting genus of all. Amara nitida is easily misidentified and is probably not as common as the distribution map suggests. My efforts to see it in Britain have concentrated on sites with definite records. I’ve been to the heathy clearing in Swanton Novers Wood, Norfolk where Bryan Sage discovered one on 11th June 2006. I’ve worked flood debris at Pontrilas, Herefordshire where C.E. Tottenham found it on 29th November 1929 and I’ve looked for it at Lyme Regis, Dorset and Ports Down Hill, Hampshire. It’s always felt like a wild goose chase and I’ve never seriously believed I would ever see this beetle. And now I have! Alan’s site looked unremarkable and I was deeply pessimistic of my chances. But it came up trumps! In a fairly quick look I found one female so there’s probably quite a good population there.

Amara nitida

Can this be the right place? The seemingly unremarkable spot where I found Amara nitida at the base of Meadowsweet and willowherb stems along a tiny stream.

Twitching rare beetles usually requires patience, doggedness and immense reserves of optimism. Saturday was a truly exceptional day. Maybe I should go and look for the real holy grail next?

Have you seen a Hazelnut Weevil Curculio nucum hole?

This is a species I have never seen though the distinctive holes it leaves in hazelnuts were a familiar sight in my childhood in Gwent when gathering nuts in the autumn. I know other coleopterists have encountered this species rarely or not at all and there is a general belief that it has declined severely. Presumably Grey Squirrels are to blame as they have increased in recent decades and most hazelnuts are now eaten by squirrels before they’ve ripened.

Curculio nucum exit holes

Has it declined? Was it ever common? Fowler (1891) referred to it as “local; generally distributed in the London district and the South of England …”, and Joy (1932) gave it as local. Roger Booth investigated this in 2003 by surveying some of the early beetle collections at the Natural History Museum. It is not always easy to interpret such sources but, for example, C.E. Tottenham recorded adults on 9 occasions in a 38-year period (1911 – 1949) totalling only 10 specimens. Roger concluded that the weevil never was very abundant.

Adult Curculio nucum © Roger Key

Nevertheless, it does look as though C. nucum is rarer now. It now seems to be a species that an active coleopterist will encounter about once in every 20 years (or less often than that in my case!).

So, I was really pleased to see lots of hazelnuts with holes in on the Isle of Wight on Monday (12th September). I picked up 141 hazelnuts of which 14 had C. nucum exit holes. The island is still free of Grey Squirrels and maybe the local Red Squirrels are less voracious in their appetite for hazelnuts?

We could get a much better idea of the current status of C. nucum by recording exit-holes in hazelnuts rather than looking for the adults on hazel bushes in May and June. I’m going to start keeping more of an eye out and I’d be interested to hear what others find.

The hole is made by the fully-grown larva as it exits the nut before overwintering in the ground where it will pupate in the following spring. I’ve brought some nuts home from the Isle of Wight in the slender hope that there may be some larvae still to emerge, and in the even more slender hope that I’ll be able to rear them through to adulthood in 2012.