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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

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

Dainty Damselfly: welcome back!

male Dainty Damselfly Coenagrion scitulum

Once, while sitting in the famous Nancy’s Café in Cley, I asked Nancy about a horizontal line marked at about head height on the doorpost with “1953” written next to it. This would have been in about 1986 but she still remembered the ’53 flood in harrowing detail. 307 lives were lost along the coast of eastern England that night. I can only imagine what impacts it had on wildlife but we do know that it wiped out the Dainty Damselfly Coenagrion scitulum, then known from a couple of sites on the Essex side of the Thames Estuary.

So I feel very privileged to have been able to go and see Dainty Damselfly on Saturday, back on British soil and seemingly breeding in the brackish borrow pits on the Isle of Sheppey just west of the two bridges. It has been slowly expanding northwards on the continent so it looks like it has naturally re-colonised Britain: an amazing feat for such a dainty creature!