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Micro-birding: 9 years working my patch

I almost never go birding any more but I can’t bear to let myself become a non-birder. So for the last 9 years I have been diligently working my local patch on an almost daily basis: my garden. It’s basically a bog-standard garden in bog-standard countryside but it’s been incredibly rewarding over the 9 years we’ve lived here. I’ll tell you why.

From the start, in August 2004, I’ve followed Graham Hirons’ advice and kept a list for each and every month. It gives me the impetus each month to record all the common species and means that I’ve always got my eyes peeled and my ears tuned. I don’t actually make a special effort to go birding other than to take my coffee-breaks in the garden, with my bins, and always to look out of the window while I’m on the phone in the office, again with my bins handy.

I was woken at a cruel hour this morning by the junior member of the household, so we sat out in the garden together while I drank a couple of pots of coffee. I added 6 birds to the August 2013 list: Bullfinch heard, Raven heard, Herring Gull over, Goldcrest, Chiff-chaff and best of all my second Tree Pipit heard going south. That takes this month’s list to 48, though there’s still a long way to go to match my best ever August tally of 57 in 2009.

Bird totals by month, cumulative over 9 years

The downside of choosing my garden as a patch is that nobody else is really that interested in what I see. Find a Slavonian Grebe at Tring Reservoirs and loads of people will go out of their way to see it. Find a Treecreeper in my garden and a few people will say “That’s nice, Mark”. I’d like to be able to say that the upside is that there aren’t any other birders around to grip me off but that wouldn’t be true. I returned from Papua New Guinea in 2008 to find that Jo had seen an Osprey over the garden! Grrripped. Luckily, I only had to wait till the following year before I saw one myself. On that occasion, I had to drop the phone, and later apologise to one of Britain’s top coleopterists that I’d needed to grab my binoculars in a hurry.

Before we moved here I was incredibly envious of Richard Thewlis’ 100+ garden list in Cambridge with quality birds like Nightingale, Quail, Rough-legged Buzzard and Red-footed Falcon. It seems amazing that I now have a garden list of 109. The rarest birds, all once-only, have been Little Gull, GBB Gull, Kingfisher, Mediterranean Gull, Shoveler, Turtle Dove, Hawfinch, Ring-necked Parakeet, Tree Sparrow, Mandarin, Lapland/Snow Bunting, Woodcock, Tufted Duck, Green Sandpiper, Ringed Plover, Teal, Treecreeper and Oystercatcher. You will realise by now that my ‘garden’ list is a list of everything seen or heard from the garden, even if they are distant flyovers. The point of my garden list is just to keep my birding skills sharp, not to be a meaningful record of the avifauna of the garden. Of that list only two birds actually came and fed in the garden …

Treecreeper in the garden, 16th Feb 2013

We watched the Woodcock feeding in the snow under the willow with the last of the light on 23rd December 2010, then saw its footprints and beakholes the following morning. Pure magic.

Other rarities with two or more records include Greylag (2), Marsh Harrier (2), Wigeon (3), Common Tern (7), Little Egret (3), Lesser Whitethroat (4), Osprey (2), Yellow-legged Gull (4), Merlin (2), Barn Owl (2), Crossbill (2), Whimbrel (2), Waxwing (2), Grey Partridge (6), Tree Pipit (2) and Common Whitethroat (2).

What’s amazing to me is how much I’ve learnt from micro-birding the garden. Nine years ago, I’d never heard of vismigging (visible migration watching), and I was nowhere near as good at identifying birds in flight or on call only. I’ve had to learn to identify birds on whatever calls or views I get. It may seem lazy that I didn’t already know this stuff, but garden birding has spurred me to learn the calls of Corn Bunting, Mandarin and Barn Owl, to learn the difference between Grey and Red-legged Partridge calls, to learn how to identify large gulls (some of the time at least) without seeing the upperside, and to learn the silhouettes and flight actions of the finches.

I’ve also learnt a lot about migration, which is after all the most awesome thing about birds. Somehow, being brought up as a twitcher, I’d always believed that autumn migration started in late September. But in and over the garden, autumn migration delivers surprises from [Raven just flew over!] early August at least. This month has already produced a Crossbill over, a couple of Whimbrel over, a calling flock of Oystercatchers one night, Hobby, a few Yellow Wagtails, Willow Warbler, etc. I’m sorry to see the last of the Swifts (none since 12th) but there’s lots of bird migration to look forward to between now and November.

Sitting in one spot also forces me to look at whatever there is to look at rather than legging around hunting for something rare. For example, until I started micro-birding, I didn’t know whether the wing-clap of a Woodpigeon was made by clapping their wings together over their backs or under their bellies. Now I’ve watched them, I know it’s neither! I’m also fascinated by my resident Woodpigeon (called Woody-Dangler), with a distinctive dangling right leg who is present all year round and I’ve been seeing since about 2007, even on late autumn days when high energetic ‘power-balls’ of hundreds of migrating Woodpigeons are racing southwards overhead. Does totally sedentary Woody-Dangler really share all the same genes with the power-ballers?

Regrets and near-misses: there’ve been a few possibles that I just couldn’t nail. It’s inevitable with such restricted views of the sky. My biggest regret was not chucking the phone down when I saw what I still reckon were two Shelduck going high south. I was talking to Dave Allen, setting up a survey contract which secured my mortgage payments for the next three years. Massive error – Dave would’ve totally understood. So be warned if you’re on the phone to me – you may suddenly hear the receiver hit the carpet!

Shetland 2012

I’m back from a 10-day trip to Shetland with Gareth Richards in search of rare birds. We knew when we planned this trip several months ago that we were taking a gamble on the weather. The prevailing autumn winds from the western sector make for pretty dull birding but to be on Shetland in one of the magic periods when the winds go southeasterly is the stuff of dreams. Birders on Shetland were living that dream in the week before we went with Foula alone turning up Sykes’ Warbler, Swainson’s Thrush, Blyth’s Pipit, 2 Blyth’s Reed Warblers, Olive-backed Pipit, 24 Yellow-browed Warblers, etc! But alas, we knew even as we packed that we were in for 10 days of westerlies.

First stop on day one (Friday 28th Sept) was the Swinister Burn, to relive day one of my trip in 2010 when Juan Brown found a White’s Thrush here. Would our trip get off to a similar start?

The trip got off to a great start with close views of PG Tips Locustella certhiola in Tesco.

Our plan was to stay on Bressay, a grossly underwatched island. It doesn’t seem that many rare birds have been found on Bressay in the past but surely that’s down to lack of coverage? Check out this map of the island annotated with some rarities of the past. On our first evening, we checked the garden of our accommodation and two adjacent gardens. We saw a Pied Flycatcher (one of only three reported on Shetland during our stay), a Common Redstart and heard a Tree/Olive-backed Pipit. Promising … birds that arrived in the south-easterlies earlier in the week may still be lingering.

Next morning, we headed to Gorie. It is the remotest croft on Bressay, down about a mile of rough track with our hire car’s underparts clunking along the ridge. Gareth found a Barred Warbler in the plantation straight away – an overdue self-found tick for him. It already had blackberry juice all over its face and had clearly been feeding up at Gorie for a few days already, and was still there on our last visit on 5th Oct. There was a Chiff-chaff in the garden which also stayed throughout.

Gorie: this is where the 1983 Hawk Owl came after it left Frakkafield!!! Noss in the distance.

Barred Warbler at Gorie

If birds like Barred Warbler are still around, what else might have stayed on Bressay from earlier in the week? By late afternoon we’d worked a lot of gardens and found just one more Chiff-chaff and 3 north-western Redpolls. We found a flock of perhaps 800 Golden Plover and scoped them at long range in buffeting wind. Almost inevitably, there was one bird that looked quite good for a moulting adult American Goldie but by the time we got our scopes set up in a more sheltered spot, it had gone out of view. We decided to come back to it another day but we never saw the flock again, and a moulting adult American Goldie was found on mainland that afternoon.

Juan had recommended we keep an eye on Gunnista at the north end of the island so there we were at about 4.45 when a warbler flushed out of the Holmview garden. We didn’t quite see where it went but Gareth checked one way and I the other. I guessed right, and the bird was sitting out on top of a stone wall … a Booted Warbler! For the brief while it was in view, hopping away along the wall, I was trying to call and wave to Gareth without scaring it off. But he arrived in time only to see it flit round the corner.

Now Gareth and I have history with Booted Warbler. Within an hour of arriving on Scilly for my first visit in 1985, I had gripped Gareth off on Booted Warbler while he went off to pay our camping fees – read the story here. I’ve seen three more since whereas Gareth has dipped three. There is no bird I would rather find for him. But that wet and windy evening at Gunnista with the clock ticking and the light fading, it was starting to look bad. I could hardly submit a rarity description saying “I instinctively knew it was a Booted Warbler … err, that’s it” and Gareth’s long wait to see this species could go on for another 27 years …

Then at 5.35 it flushed again from the Holmview garden, I saw where it went and ran round to view the back of the other garden, turning my camera on. It was there, and I blasted off a load of shots. They’re not great photos by any means but enough to nail the identification, and Gareth was there on my shoulder finally to put away a long-standing bogey.

Booted Warbler at Gunnista

Booted Warbler at Gunnista

Gunnista with the Holmview garden on the right.

Phew! We didn’t see it again before dusk and sadly could not find it the next morning with a few carloads of twitchers to help the search (in very wet and windy conditions) nor the following afternoon when the weather had improved. Spreading out, we put up a couple of Jack Snipe, found another two Redstarts, 3 Redwings, a couple of Mealy Redpolls, a Yellow-browed Warbler, a Willow Warbler and a Chiff-chaff. In the evening, with news of a Pechora Pipit at Norwick on Unst, we decided to get the first ferry off Bressay on Monday morning and head north. I saw a Pechora on Fair Isle in September 2006 and it was brilliant – well worth seeing again.

Monday at Norwick gave us the best and the worst of Shetland twitching. Access to the Pechora Pipit’s fields had been withdrawn by the landowner. But eventually a few flushers went in, and those of us standing on the road got flight views. With the owner looking on, attended to by a few placatory birders, we left. There was more mob trespass later and had we stuck around we’d have seen it much better but it is hard to feel too regretful. The Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll at Norwick was a cracker though, and quite fearless feeding on mayweed seed-heads.

The Snowball: Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll

Our first Otter of the trip was at Toft, as we returned to mainland Shetland, a tick for Gareth. We then got good views of the drake Surf Scoter at Foula Wick, good views of the Spotted Sandpiper at Lower Voe, flight views of probably the Buff-bellied Pipit as it flushed off Rerwick Beach, and good views of the Siberian Stonechat at the Swinister Burn in the last of the daylight. Back on Bressay at 11 pm I heard a flock of Whoopers come in from the east over the house. At dawn next morning they were on the loch and took off, three pairs with three young, to carry on over to the mainland.

On Tuesday we were back to working Bressay. After drawing a blank with a flight-only warbler sp. at Kirkabister (one of several that got away), we then located a robin-like bird in our garden. It was silent and mega-skulking, mostly glimpsed in deep shade, and kept us going in circles. Eventually, after well over an hour of stealthy pursuit, Gareth stationed himself looking at a slim gap, while I commando-crawled through the shrubbery. It showed in the gap – a Robin! The rest of the day yielded a new abietinus Chiff-chaff, a Blackcap, 10 Wigeon, a Grey Heron and two Otters. A bit of a dull day but the wind turned south-easterly for a while during the night – would this be enough to bring in some new birds?

Otter

Gareth caught on a barbed wire fence. Naturally, my first instinct was to offer a helping hand but Gareth asked if I would take some commemorative photos instead. He then took a couple of heartfelt electric shocks off the next fence before we were chased out of the field by a herd of bullocks.

We had perfectly still weather from dawn on Wednesday – a rare treat on Shetland. At Gorie, we could hear the bill-snapping of the Goldcrests in the plantation and the distant calls of Red Grouse on the moors above. But the only new bird was a call-only Lapland Bunting going over. Other new birds for the day were 3 Blackcaps, 2 Willow Warblers, 14 Red-breasted Mergansers, a Red-throated Diver, our fourth Bressay Redstart, 4 Dunlin and 13 Knot. Steve Blain and friends came over to Bressay for the day and also noted an increase in Blackcaps but nothing else new for their efforts. Gareth got an afternoon flight to Fair Isle but wasn’t able to relocate the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler in South Harbour before dark.

With a day to myself on Thursday, I decided to bird Gorie and then walk the cliffs of the east coast down to Bard Head at the south-east tip. It wasn’t a decision likely to yield many good birds but I wanted a change of scene and a day off from driving from one garden to another. The scenery was spectacular and there were lots of good sheltered geos to peer into, though Rock Pipits, Meadow Pipits and a Skylark were the only passerines to be seen.

Rock arch at Huster Roo

Lots of Fulmars still on the cliffs.

Skylark.

A ancient hut on the cliff-top. Amazing to think of people living here, burning peat, wearing seal skins, sleeping in Eider down, and dining on Great Auks?

The east coast of Bressay.

Stoura Clett rock arch, looking towards the Noup of Noss.

A Whinchat on stone walls near Gorie was my only new bird of the day and one of only two on Shetland during our stay. Although I neglected the crofts, Dave Bradnum and a mate were over on Bressay for the day and worked it hard, finding the abietinus Chiff, one of our Redstarts and a few Blackcaps.

Friday was another calm and sunny day which at least made the birding easy but the only contenders for new birds were a Bar-tailed Godwit and a flock of 7 redpolls which only touched down briefly. Gareth returned from Fair Isle with Lanceolated Warbler on his list.

For our last full day we went off to the mainland twitching again and dipped absolutely everything we went for. A miserable experience which we basically repeated on Sunday morning before catching our flight south in the afternoon. ‘Nuff said.

Thoughts: Is Bressay any good? I reckon it’s got a lot of potential if you want an island to yourself to find some rare birds, given that Unst, Foula, Fair Isle and the Ness are all well covered. But having spent 10 days there in westerlies, we haven’t really proved it one way or the other. But one day someone will do Bressay during a good spell of south-easterlies and then we’ll see. Everyone we met was really friendly and interested, and generously allowed us to walk through their fields or even into their gardens. I recommend the Crofthouse self-catering: sleeps two (a double bed and a good sofa-bed) and is in one of the best gardens in the south of the island. And there’s a regular 7-minute ferry journey into Lerwick if you want to bird elsewhere.

Was it a good trip? Yes, but if it hadn’t been for finding the Booted Warbler, I’d be disappointed. And we could so easily have missed that bird, or never clinched it. I still think that it would be much better to go for two weeks. I know there are people who’ve endured two weeks of continuous westerlies but you’re at least giving yourself much better odds of some easterly winds.

Why is birding Shetland so hard? A lot of the birds we saw were ridiculously shy! Every bird needs to make a judgement when it detects someone approaching whether to carry on foraging, or to burn energy in flying away. How close they let you get (their ‘flight distance’) is an expression of their judgement of the risk you pose versus the time and energy expenditure of flying away. Most of the warblers, redstarts, thrushes, robins, finches, etc that we saw were insanely frightened of us, like you’d glimpse them flying out of the back corner of the garden when you were still 100m away, bombing off across open fields. Why so obviously maladapted? Does the lack of cover make them paranoid? Why can’t they all be like Horny Redpolls? It’s just so not fair, etc., etc.

Uncropped photo of a disgracefully showy Willow Warbler which could easily have flown far, far away: "you've let your self down, you've let your genus down, you've let your family down ..."

Sunshiners, Shortspurs and Starlets

One of my best jobs this year has been a four-day survey of Orford Ness for the National Trust under an EU LIFE programme. The main aim of the survey was to survey invertebrates in and around saline and brackish lagoons, including some which have recently been created as well as some older examples.

I’d never been to Orford Ness before and I was soon wondering why on earth not. The range of habitats is excellent, including some amazingly natural and undisturbed transitions from saltmarsh through to shingle. And although there’s a good list of invertebrates for the site, it still feels massively under-worked for somewhere that is clearly a nationally important site for invertebrates. Despite some dreadful weather in late June, I kept hard at it in the hope of making some good discoveries.

The best spot.

This was the best spot on the whole survey. There were several Saltmarsh Shortspurs Anisodactylus poeciloides under the wood when I turned it over, scattering in all directions. Grubbing about at the roots of the Marsh Foxtail, I also found a single Great Trident Sunshiner Amara strenua.

Saltmarsh Shortspur Anisodactylus poeciloides

Great Trident Sunshiner Amara strenua

Thinking that this was a very good spot indeed, I looked harder still and spotted a tiny (1 mm), globular, shiny, black insect. It could have been a mite but it moved like a beetle so I got a lens on it and realised it was an Orthoperus (Corylophidae). I managed to get it safely into a pot along with a second individual but couldn’t find any more despite an hour spent searching within the red ring above. I was instantly hopeful that an Orthoperus in such habitat might turn out to be O. brunnipes, a Rare (RDB3) species that I had attempted to find at Murston Marshes, north Kent only three weeks earlier. On that occasion, not only did I fail to find O. brunnipes but I found a large new industrial estate on the site, and after searching around the remnant bits of marsh, returned to find I’d got my car locked in for the night. So to bump into it unexpectedly on Orford Ness was a real highlight for me. Also here was my first Peritrechus nubilus (a ground bug). Corylophidae once seemed such an impossibly difficult family to me, so it is encouraging to know that I have now found all the British species except for O. atomarius, the one that usually occurs in wine cellars. Now if anyone knows of a wine cellar that I could poke about in, preferably with plenty of mouldy old wine casks, do get in touch!

Starlet Sea-anemone Nematostella vectensis. A tiny delicate species in shallow, saline lagoons.

Sea Pea on the outermost shingle ridge. We saw a possible Bombus humilis foraging on the flowers but it eluded confirmation.

NT lent me a golf buggy: my new favourite item of entomological equipment!

This was the only lagoon where I found Common Goby Pomatoschistus microps. Everywhere else was a Goby desert.

Barn Owls were frequent by day, and I also got good views of Little and Short-eared Owls.

Helops caeruleus. Several of these beauties seen under old timber sleepers.

Porcellionides cingendus, a common woodlouse in the SW but reaching its NE limit at Orford Ness (where it has been known since Jon Daws visited in the early 90s).

Cloves and Billy Goats

If I tell you I sniffed two flowers on Monday evening, one that smelt of billy goats and one that smelt deliciously of cloves, where in Britain was I?

These are the aromas of Lizard Orchid and Bedstraw (or Clove-scented) Broomrape and I was on the fabulous calcareous dune grasslands at Sandwich Bay. Both species were abundant though most of the broomrapes have gone over by now.

Lizard Orchid. They are certainly malodorous but I've never actually sniffed a billy goat to find out whether they smell of Lizard Orchids.

Bedstraw Broomrape. A tick for me, all the better as I wasn't expecting to see any still in flower.

Yes, those are actual Lizard Orchids growing in the lawn!

I can hardly believe that I have only been to Sandwich Bay three times before, and two of those were just to twitch birds (the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and an American Golden Plover that BBRC rejected). It’s such an impressive site and I am keen to spend more time there.

I have much more to tell from the last two days in Kent, and with a lot of rainy days ahead and fieldwork postponed I may have time to blog about this and other recent trips.

And just in case there’s anyone left that I haven’t told the story to, my only beetling trip to Sandwich Bay on 12th June 1999 was superb for beetles but I will always remember the magic moment when I heard a ‘prrp, prrp’ from above, chucked down my trowel, ripped my binoculars out of my rucksack and looked up to see a Bee-eater circling overhead!

Clicks, ricks, bumbles, damsels, beauties and lovers

I returned home on Sunday night from a four-day entomological expedition to The Mullet, County Mayo. Thanks to Dave Allen for including me in the team for this trip and thanks to The Heritage Council (Ireland) for financial assistance. After a 5-hour drive from Belfast, we arrived on Thursday in a land of machair grassland, lakes and hay meadows. Relatively few entomologists have worked this part of the world but it is already known as the only area in Ireland for the click beetle Selatosomus melancholicus, and a stronghold for the sand wasp Ammophila sabulosa, otherwise known in Ireland only from The Raven, Co. Wexford. What else awaits discovery out there?

I have been to The Mullet once before, on a similar expedition in late June 2007. On that occasion, resident naturalist Dave Suddaby guided us to a couple of the best spots for the click beetle, only to find the dunes littered with their corpses. This is a beetle which emerges in considerable numbers but doesn’t live for very long. I was, quite frankly, gutted. Fingers were crossed that the earlier dates of this year’s trip (7 – 10 June) and the late spring would give us a better chance of seeing them alive.

The first one I found at Annagh dunes on 7th in pouring rain … was dead. But then Sudds found a live one, and there was rejoicing.

One of the survivors: a living Selatosomus melancholicus.

We eventually tallied 21 dead click beetles to 4 live ones. This beetle does not occur in Britain, and in France it is restricted to the Alps and Pyrenees. Whether the population on The Mullet is native, or an ancient introduction is unclear – but either explanation is pretty mind-boggling.

Despite the rain, sand wasps were still out and about, hunting caterpillars.

Sand wasp Ammophila sabulosa is fairly common in England but a Mullet speciality in Ireland.

Belted Beauty Lycia zonaria caterpillar. These are abundant in the dunes and provide the main prey for Ammophila sabulosa.

We endured some terrible weather for the first couple of days though it did blow in a summer plumaged Long-tailed Skua. The wind and rain eased on Friday evening and Saturday was a beautiful sunny day. Sudds found a Great Yellow Bumblebee Bombus distinguendus on Red Clover in the garden of our B&B (Léim Siar, highly recommended), which was to be the first of many. Though I never succeeded in photographing any of them!

We worked some meadows near Termoncarragh Lough, with more Bombus distinguendus, and a fly-past from a pair of Chough. A Marsh Pug here was probably the best macro-moth discovery of the trip. Roy Anderson decided to try sieving one of the hay-ricks which turned out to be seething with Atomaria, ptiliids and all manner of other beetles. Bells started ringing in my head about the hay-rick beetle fauna – there are several species which were seemingly common in the days before combine-harvesters and silage but are now extinct or vanishingly rare. Maybe they could survive out in west Mayo, where Corncrakes and Great Yellow Bumblebees also cling on? Well I filled my pooter with a lot of LBJs but it will need several winter days at the microscope before I know what I’ve caught!

Hay ricks full of beetles

We ended the day listening to Corncrakes after dusk in beautifully still conditions.

Sunday’s fieldwork plans were mucked up by a slow puncture on Dave’s truck but when we did collect the moth traps, there were still very few moths. I was pleased to see an adult Pod Lover Hadena perplexa capsophila and Red-shanked Carder Bee Bombus ruderarius before we set off back.

Pod Lover

A terrible photo of Bombus ruderarius but it does at least show the red hairs on the pollen basket.

Just after breakfast I grabbed some photos of a bumblebee in the garden of our B&B. At the time I thought it might be one of the cuckoos (formerly in genus Psithyrus) as it looked quite shiny. On examining the photos back home I thought it was probably a Shrill Carder Bee Bombus sylvarum, which would be a good find. However, Mike Edwards reckons it is just a worn individual of one of the brown carder bees (pascuorum or muscorum) and that the apparent black hair-band across the thorax is just a bald patch.

Bombus sylvarum lookalike

Bombus sylvarum lookalike

Last stop before I was dropped at the airport was Cullentra Lough, a beautiful little lough just off the main A4 road east of Fivemiletown at H 476 474. It’s a good spot for Irish Damselfly Coenagrion lunulatum (and the only place I’ve ever seen it). We found just the one on this visit after checking through loads of Common Blues Enallagma, Variables Coenagrion pulchellum and Azures C. puella.

Irish Damselfly Coenagrion lunulatum

Salisbury Plain again: Broomrape, Toadflax and ground-huggers

Another fine day on Salisbury Plain on Thursday with Dave Gibbs. Added a few more scarce insects to our list from the first visit, including the red-tailed cuckoo-bee Bombus rupestris, and the weevil Protapion filirostre (a new beetle for me). The suction sampler also turned up another individual of Ptomaphagus varicornis, the Red Data Book beetle I recorded here on 11th May, and this time I was able to show it to Dave in the field. With Knapweed Broomrapes pushing skywards, Small Blues on the wing, and a Quail quick-lick-licking from a nearby field, it reminded me of a few happy weeks surveying invertebrates on Salisbury Plain in 1997, my first job after finishing my PhD.

Knapweed Broomrape

A surprise record from 11th May was a single individual of Rhinusa collina, a weevil which develops on Common Toadflax Linaria vulgaris. This is a Nationally Scarce (Na) species with a single previous Wiltshire record. I hadn’t even noticed any Linaria on 11th May but on Thursday, we made a specific search for the plant and eventually found a small patch of a few sprigs up to about 5 inches high within an area of about two square feet. The first sprig I looked at had four elongate cylindrical weevils on it of a species I’d never seen before! My first thought was Baris but I soon found a match in Mecinus janthinus, Nationally Scarce (Na) and another one new to Wiltshire. I suction sampled the entire population of the host plant, which only took a few seconds, and produced one more Mecinus janthinus, three Rhinusa collina, two Rhinusa linariae (Nationally Scarce (Na); one previous Wiltshire record) and the pollen beetle Brachypterolus linariae.

Mecinus janthinus

I don’t know whether anyone else has come to the same conclusion but I think the way to find both the two scarce Rhinusa species is to look at Linaria when it is just a mere few inches high. By the time it is in flower, all I ever find is the common one, Rhinusa antirrhini. My dates for the three species are as follows:

  • linariae (Na) 17th May to 5th June
  • collina (Na) 31st May to 2nd June
  • antirrhini (Common) 9th July to 14th September

So if anyone is out and about now and sees Linaria, it would be interesting to know which weevils you find. As Thursday’s observations show, even a tiny patch of the plant can support the scarce species.

The suction sampler is turning up a lot of interesting beetles for me but, unexpectedly, the flies in the suction samples have been very interesting too. There are a few species with very reduced wings that are clearly adapted to a life on foot. But there are also some species which look perfectly capable of flying off but choose a ground-hugging way of life, running about in the bottom of the tray and seeming reluctant to even climb up the walls to escape. Amongst Thursday’s samples Dave has already identified two Nationally Scarce species, Geomyza apicalis and Geomyza breviseta, with more specimens still to be looked at. I guess these flies would be recorded more often if more dipterists used suction samplers – they’re probably not so scarce, just very good at eluding capture by nets!

A day on Salisbury Plain

Dave Gibbs and I had three days’ fieldwork together recently in Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire. For two days we took a drenching and struggled to find any but the most ordinary invertebrates. And then on Friday 11th May we had a dry day with just enough sun to get a few butterflies on the wing. Our survey site proved to be a very interesting place on a south-facing, rabbit-grazed slope of Salisbury Plain with a very friable, chalky soil. Two new beetles for me: Ptomaphagus varicornis (Leiodidae) is a rare species (RDBK) which to the best of my knowledge has only been recorded from Surrey and Wiltshire in the last 40 years; and Stenus ochropus (Staphylinidae) which has no conservation status but must be fairly rare and has not been recorded from Wiltshire before (Darby, 2009). Dotted Bee-fly is always a superb thing to see, and I even had to stop work briefly to admire one basking on my sieving equipment!

Dotted Bee-fly Bombylius discolor

I also suction-sampled Geomyza breviseta (Opomyzidae), a Nationally Scarce fly mining grass leaves. Other scarcities on the day included the longhorn beetle Phytoecia cylindrica on Cow-parsley, the weevil Trachyphloeus aristatus*, the bee Osmia bicolor, a probable Hedge Rustic caterpillar**, the weevil Limobius borealis on Meadow Crane’s-bill, and Dingy Skipper. A single worker of the ant Stenamma debile s.s. looks like a good distributional record.

Couldn’t help but notice some big birds too …

Great Bustards

* previously determined as Trachyphloeus asperatus, re-determined and corrected on this webpage 7.vii.2012.
** Dave reared this and it was a Feathered Gothic.

More on Albert Ross

In response to my story of dipping Albert, Simon Mustoe writes: “Albert was still there in 1994 when a team of UEA birders cashed in on a special deal for flights to Shetland (thanks to Dick Filby). After having endured the same lengthy journey that Mark and his colleagues did (though we only went once, LOL) and the wrath of lunging Great Skuas, we arrived.”

Simon's sketches from 30th April 1994.

As Simon said, this is from a time when birders used to carry notebooks instead of cameras. But few have Simon’s artistic talent. It is entirely thanks to Simon that this website he designed for me looks so good.

The worst dip ever

I know this is a bold claim but I don’t think there has ever been a worse dip in the history of British twitching. On 3rd July 1987, I sat my last A-level exam and then with Hamish Mackay, Ian Hunt, Adam Wilson and Adrian Jaques we set off in a hire car to see “Albert”. Albert was the 8th Black-browed Albatross for Britain and Ireland and only the second twitchable one after the bird which joined the Bass Rock gannetry in 1967-69. He (or she) had been a fixture in the gannetry on Hermaness from about February to September every year for 15 years since discovery on 21st July 1972. And we knew our mate Keith Holland had scored on the 2nd. How could we possibly fail?

But fail we did. It would have been 811 miles to drive direct to the northernmost headland of the northernmost Shetland isle, plus three ferries. To dip a mega-rarity that had been present for 15 years! We kept going back for 5 days, initially hoping it was just on a foraging trip and would fly back in at any moment. But as the days wore on, all hope was lost. We thought the chance of a lifetime had gone.

Dipping. One of us would go on to serve as one of the Ten Rare Men. Click for a bigger image.

That’s not the end of the story though. Albert returned to Hermaness three years later on 27th March 1990: a totally unexpected second chance. I set off hitching north from London on the evening of 5th April. This wasn’t the usual hitch, chatting to a succession of generous strangers but the other sort – weird, frightening and dangerous. On the following morning in Glasgow I decided to fork out for a bus instead to get me the rest of the way to Aberdeen in safety. Finally, I arrived at Hermaness to savour the sight of a Black-browed Albatross sitting on its nest, alone and in the wrong hemisphere. The only good thing about dipping is that it makes it all the sweeter if and when you succeed.

Albert returns

Scilly 2011: still there!

Gareth Richards had four days off in half-term and we decided to revisit Scilly. Flew on the Skybus from Land’s End aerodrome at 10.40 on Monday 24th, found a B&B in Hugh Town, dumped our bags and set off to Lower Moors to try for the Northern Waterthrush which has been present since 16th September. But that plan was soon abandoned when we passed a couple of birders looking intently into a tiny bulb field behind Porth Mellon. “Got anything?” “We’ve seen a bird we can’t identify.” In other words, it could be mega. After about 20 minutes it showed again, very briefly in the shadows of the back hedge. Thrush Nightingale maybe? But as the crowd swelled there was talk of Veery, Hermit Thrush and even Rufous-tailed Robin. Over the next couple of hours, more and more people squeezed into the narrow viewing space, pressing me deeper and deeper into the hedge. Gareth and I both eventually saw it reasonably well and called it as a Common Nightingale. Only my second on Scilly but we’d all been hoping for something rarer, perhaps hoping too hard.

The Northern Waterthrush was to prove a devious adversary but the Wilson’s Snipe that has eluded some this autumn could not have been more accommodating. On constant show with about 6 Common Snipe, it had a preen, showing off its diagnostic underwings and outer tail-feathers before flying towards the hide and walking up the bank to feed just a few feet from me, in company with a Common Snipe for convenient comparison.

Common (L) and Wilson's (R) Snipe

Wilson's Snipe

We did see the Waterthrush in the afternoon from the Shooter’s Pool screen, calling and showing for just a few seconds. Tickable but not very satisfactory and so we hung about till dark hoping in vain for a better view. The tedium of waiting was relieved by a vocal Yellow-browed Warbler and by a brief view and a few ‘tacks’ from a Dusky Warbler just after it was found by Spider.

We spent the first and last hours of Tuesday waiting in vain at Shooter’s Pool for more views of the Waterthrush. In the middle of the day, we birded our way up to Borough Farm for superb views of the Upland Sandpiper. With that UTB, we were free to just bird and try to find some rarities of our own. Just a few fields away, Gareth found a Woodcock feeding out in the open in a bare field on Watermill Lane and we both had our best ever views of this species.

Woodcock at Watermill

On the coast path at the end of Green Lane, I picked up a dragonfly that fluttered weakly at my feet as I walked past: male Red-veined Darter Sympetrum fonscolombii! Further up Green Lane, a small crowd was watching a Hawfinch making a right mess of eating haws.

Male Red-veined Darter. A fully mature individual should have more extensive red on the abdomen.

Neither of us could face another dawn at Shooter’s Pool so we were birding Porthcressa Beach when we heard that the Waterthrush was showing on Higgo’s Pool. We missed it by three minutes, gave it another 40 and then just as Gareth gave up and set off … ‘zik!’ and there it was! It made up for its previously elusive behaviour by giving us (me, Gareth and Tony Davison) absolutely stonking views just a few metres away. After 20 minutes or so, it flew off and we punched the air! YES!!!

The Northern Waterthrush. I've always been a sucker for a zonking great supercilium.

We had the rest of the day to head out and find rarities, splitting up to cover different parts of the north of St Mary’s. In the first 24 hours of our stay on Scilly, other people had found 2 Olive-backed Pipits, Little Bunting, 2 Dusky Warblers, Pallas’s Warbler, Radde’s Warbler and White-rumped Sandpiper. Unfortunately Wednesday was a quiet day (the best find of the day was a Bluethroat on St Agnes) and we found little of note. But birding on Scilly, even without seeing anything rare, is a pleasure. And I did end the day with some excitement after a passing birder tipped me off that the Treecreeper was showing again in Carreg Dhu garden – I ran for it! My third Scilly tick of the trip (with Waterthrush and Dusky Warbler).

Thursday. Dawn on Peninnis Head with a few migrants on the move overhead including a Redpoll and a Lapland Bunting amongst others. Bizarrely, as I’ve noticed before, the vismig on Scilly seems to be of birds coming in from the west and heading back east. Perhaps at first light they realise that they’ve gone off course and turn back towards land? A fleeting view of a bird flitting out of a weedy field got both of us excited. It was ultra-wary and after chasing it through several fields it gave itself up – as just a Skylark. Faulty rare-dar!

Yesterday’s Bufflehead was still present at Housel Bay on the Lizard and we reckoned our 16.35 flight back to Land’s End would give us at least half an hour of daylight on the bird. In fact, everything went really smoothly and we spent over an hour watching the Bufflehead on a tiny pool. Perhaps the best candidate for a genuine transatlantic vagrant Bufflehead that we’ve had in Britain?

Bufflehead. It was gone by the following morning.

UTB = Under The Belt