Sunday, May 21, 2017

Hatfield Forest Cuckoo Bees.

A walk round Emblems Coppice in Hatfield Forest, partly to see if I could hear the Nightingale recently heard by local birder Laurence, partly to catch up with some woodland birds, but also to look for bees.

No birds, partly because a dull cold mid-day trip is not the best for singing Nightingales. Much more success with the bees mainly on a line of what I think is Houndstongue.

There were Early Bumblebees - I see them everywhere now of course - Common Carder Bees, Tree Bumblebee and a white-tailed/buff-tailed bee. And then there were what I think are cuckoo bees. Slightly larger, a bit more relaxed and plodding in behaviour as befits a bee that is letting other bees do the work, and some details that are beginning to become familiar.

First up was this.

I think this is a female Vestal Cuckoo Bee (Bombus Vestalis). My guide book (Falk and Lewington) says "Females ... when fresh have a ginger rather than yellow collar and the yellow patches at the side of the tail are sulphur yellow.". The picture below shows a sulphurish patch.

Then another one I think is male Forest Cuckoo Bee (Bombus Sylvestris). It seems to have a break between the white bands on the abdomen and the gingerish tail, and looking at the chart from the NHM it matches this best. If you look at the photo below there are four colours - yellow, black, white, ginger, hence matching another name for Sylvestris - Four colour cuckoo bee. 

Shows the hard shiny exoskeleton which is indicative of cuckoo bee.

Finally a third candidate cuckoo bee. I'm confused here as it has the same ginger collar as the first bee but my book says "there is never any hint of a midriff band" and you can just see one here.  so maybe its a male, but it has a ginger collar and only females have a ginger collar.

I will post in an ID site and see if I get guidance from people who know their bees, so watch this space!

And finally a day-flying moth. Looking at the illustrations in Waring and Townsend this would seem to be a Pretty Chalk Carpet Moth. Habitat: woodland. Status: common.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Early Bumblebee

Starting on a new class of creatures is like learning to birdwatch all over again, and finding that birds like bullfinch, Swift, Goldfinch, can all be seen from your garden.

Today it was Early Bumblebee (Bombus Pratorum) on the patch.  Needless to say a "very common bumblebee" but the first time for me I've looked at one knowing what it was. Very yellowish bees, with yellow hairs on their face. The ones with the yellow bands on the abdomen are males I believe. It seems a bit early for males, but I guess there's a clue in the name.

a female worker here - no thorax abdomen band, just a top yellow band on the thorax and a red band at the tail.

Finally a Common Carder Bee in classic pose hanging off the comfrey flower. The Early Bumblebees were on flat flowers and the Carder Bees were on the bell-shaped flowers of the comfrey. Wikipedia tells me Early Bumblebees have short tongues, which makes sense.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Patch update

So, its 12th May, approaching the end of spring migration. How is the patch doing?

By this time last year I'd seen 85 species. So far this year I've seen 79. Birds I saw last year that I haven't seen so far this year are Pied (and White) Wagtail, Lesser Redpoll, Siskin, Lapwing, Green Sandpiper, Black Redstart, Egyptian Goose, and Cuckoo. Birds I've seen this year but not last are ... Ring Necked Parakeet.

So on the face of it this year has been quite dismal. Basically, its the birds I saw last year, minus some interesting ones. However, as all us birders know, the list doesn't tell the full tale. In my view, its been a good year.

Part of the deal when you take on a patch is that the local is more important than the wider or national. It is a commitment to look out and record the ordinary. Every bird has the same status, irrespective of whether its an everyday commonplace or a national rarity; they are all unique on the patch.

Take today. I will admit I had high hopes; don't we all have every time we go out? but today in particular after seeming weeks of cold northerlies had produced a late and sporadic migration, finally the wind has turned and damp southerlies looked set to ring migrants flooding through. I set out mid -morning and headed for the pond where the recent lack of rain has produced some muddy fringes. No waders here but there was a Little Egret picking its way through the shallow edges, and a Reed Warbler finally showed itself after singing half-heartedly away.  a Male Reed Bunting sang. Over head there were, for the first time this year, good numbers of Swifts - about 50 over the full panorama - and about 10 House Martins slowly drifting south.

Down to Feakes Lock, a small oasis of rural perfection, and once again it delivered; a pair of Grey Wagtails on the lock fence, a Buzzard drifting overhead, and a Cetti's Warbler singing from the undergrowth. Back along the path via an active Blue Tit's nest and home.

Other times this year I've had Barn Owl and Little Owl much more frequently and with better views than last year, Kingfisher around more often, more Cetti's Warblers, more Buzzards, more Shovelers, and a new place for House Sparrow, a species whose movements round the patch are intriguingly mysterious. So it has maintained interest on almost every visit.

I popped out shortly after to the Park to walk the dogs and of course birds that avoided me in the previous walk now came out; a Jay flew over, Willow Warbler and Garden Warbler sang and a Lesser Whitethroat rattled from a distant hedge. Of the Swifts and Martins, however, no sign. Birds riding the winds on their route to some distant place, just passing through.

From this point on last year there was not too much to add. Turtle Dove undoubtedly the highlight, and then a quite poor autumn. So there's still plenty of time.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Where are the bees?

Spring birding is the best. All the birds look like they are dressed up going out to a party. A couple of trips recently had some cracking birds even if there are no major rarities on the list.

Firstly up to the North Norfolk coast with David. I glimpsed a Ring Ouzel at Burnham Overy Dunes but we couldn't find any others, but there were lots of Wheatears and a Whinchat, some nice waders around too - Common Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Knot, Grey Plover, Barwit. then Titchwell and some Velvet Scoters mid-range from the beach, some Sanderling, a Little Tern and a couple of Med Gulls, Ruff, Turnstone, three Marsh Harriers doing the talon-grappling thing and a close-up male Whinchat. A nice day with some sunshine and excellent company

Yesterday I popped down to Rainham Marsh. A fantastic selection of waders on the Target Pools (3 Wood Sandpiper all sparkling elegance, a Greenshank, another Turnstone - what fantastic birds they are in spring -  2 Little Ringed Plover, 2 Ringed Plover, and a Common Sandpiper). A couple of small parties of Whimbrel too picking their way through the grass. Then from the riverside path a female Ring Ouzel seen well but distantly in the middle of the reserve (sorry David).

On both occasions I was keeping an eye out for bumble bees, and there were very few. Perhaps I'm being premature and we wouldn't expect to see anything but a few queens, but I fear the cold spell may have really set them back.

I'm not sure if problems now correct themselves later. Dave Goulson in his book "A Sting in The Tail" says 50% of bee nests fail every two weeks, so at the end of summer its a case of many queen bees being produced from a few nests. If lots of bee nests fail now, does that mean the other bees have an easy ride as there is lots of food for them? Or is there another limiting factor? Do they get predated more than they would otherwise? I've no idea, but I am a bit concerned how the rest of summer is going to pan out for these splendid creatures.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Therfield Dotterel

I had arranged to go to Norfolk with David, but with northerly winds bringing rain and hail to the coast and nothing of particular note being reported there was only one realistic option on the table; Dotterel at Therfield. We spent over an hour with these gorgeous birds - 2 males, 2 females, which came quite close in the end. as always my excellent photography skills suffered due to unavoidable issues such as heat haze and poor light, but hopefully this gives a flavour. A pleasure to bump into some birders from Wolverhampton too.

Otherwise a female Wheatear and local finches and Yellowhammers.

Here's a few of the female:

nice to get a good look at the males too today.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Black Necked Grebe - Stansted Airport Lagoons

Birdguides had one last night so I dropped in this morning to see if it was still there. And there it was, a stunning bird. Surely even someone of my limited photographic skills couldn't cock this one up...

it did a spot of preening showing off its white belly ...

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Local Wheatears

With spring migrants now being seen all over the place I headed for the high ground west of Sawbridgeworth. A beautiful sunny day which meant I seemed to be on the wrong side of a lot of birds for photography

It was a quiet start with not much of note until I hit the big open field near Shingle Hall Farm. There was 10+ Yellowhammers in the bush by the chaff dump, and a pair of Red-Legged Partridges flew up. Then on the old airfield perimeter a male Wheatear. I spent a good half hour trying to get a decent photo, but distance and my continuing crapness with a camera resulted in these apologies for photos.

Walking a little further and I got to the top of a field by local farm Tharbies.  A Red Kite flew over, a couple of Grey Partridge flew out of the field, and on rounding the end of a hedge I found a small paddock with 4 Wheatears in it. I searched for more but never mind - Four spring Wheatears is a cracking local record.

three of the four Wheatears.
and that was nearly that. One of the pleasures of going off birding is bumping into people along the way. A highly entertaining and informative encounter with a nature-lover/shooter/photographer today was one-such. Now I know how to shoot a deer so it dies instantly, and how to avoid the possibility of a wounding and a lingering death, as well as some more detail on the local birds of prey.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Goodbye to all that

Way back in 2003, when D#4 was but a small crawling baby, Mrs D's parents moved to Weymouth. Or more precisely, back to Weymouth. We started visiting regularly; there is no better place for small children, and there were grandparents too. I got to sneak off on occasion to birdwatch the local sites with the results you've seen here.

Roll forward 14 years, and things have changed. D#4 is a teenager worried about his trainers and playing computer games with his mates. D#1 has moved into the world of work, and the others don't find a long golden beach the attraction it once was. More significantly, Mrs D's father sadly departed this life a couple of years ago, and Mrs D's mother has moved away. So this weekend Mrs D and I  came down to tidy up some loose ends and close the door on a long and happy chapter.

Birdwise, its been good. Its not been as good as some have had down here, but the reality of birding Portland and Weymouth is that the birds come to those who put the hours in. Lots of stuff comes through for a day or two only, so if you are not down here when it turns up, you miss it. Nevertheless with such a variety of habitats as Portland bill, the top fields, Ferrybridge, Radipole, Lodmoor, Portland Harbour, and the fleet the standard bird list on any one day is really impressive.

I only really got to appreciate the place when I stopped worrying about the rarities. If you worry about the birds you miss it will eat into you in a big way. If you accept that you can't be everywhere all the time, and that wherever you are the birds in front of you are the ones you need to be looking at, then its a great place. Marsh Harriers, Bearded Tits, Water Rails, Peregrines, Auks, Terns, waders, passage migrants, they are all here.

The local birders have all been very welcoming and informative. I've not detected any of the suppression of some places and most are only too happy to tell you what's around and where to see it. Special mention to Martin Cade, warden at Portland Bird Obs. It goes without saying he knows his birds, but he knows most of the other island wildlife too. His generosity of time and explanation and warmth of welcome goes beyond the call of duty. Portland is lucky to have him.

But its time for different places and different birds. I can still come back, obviously, but its a three and a half hour trip so there and back in a day is difficult, and given I can get to just about the whole Norfolk coast and most of the Kent and Sussex coast in 2 hours I can't see why I wouldn't do that instead. And all that time in Weymouth has been time not in other places so I feel it is time for other places to get a visit.

So that's that for a while. Thank you Weymouth and Portland, and time for some new places and new birds.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Weymouth and Portland - the last time?

Some times, you know you are doing something for the last time. The last day at school, at University, at work, in a house. Other times, it is only after the event that you realise it was the last time; the last time you saw someone, the last time you went into a particular shop. Sometimes you have a sense that you may not be coming back - the last time you go to a particular country, visit a particular town.

Last Thursday may have been the last time I go to Portland Bill, the last walk round Lodmoor. And the last visit to Radipole may have already happened. Circumstances, more of which in a later post, mean that coming here again will take a particular effort, and given the effort, it is likely I will spend that effort going somewhere else that I haven't yet been to, or haven't visited in a while.

So, first off, park at Portland Obs, walk on to the patio, and there is Martin Cade with a fantastic male Redstart perched on his closed fist, calm as you like. Always a cracking bird, they really are better at the range of a few feet. A smashing start. A brief sea-watch has two Red-Throated Divers and 3 Common Scoter up-channel, two Wheatears in-off over our heads, and a Willow Warbler singing in the garden. I head off to the bill to get closer to the movement, but there isn't any in the conventional sense, just Gannets, Fulmars, a fly-by Shag, and on the sea small rafts of Guillemots and Razorbills. The Razorbills are the stars of the show, good scope views with the sun shining on them, just spectacular birds in brilliant white and glistening deep blue and not birds you see too often from a land-locked county like Herts. For me, its this kind of birding that makes Portland a special place.

A brief stop at Reap Lane. A scan has a probable Wheatear on a bush, so I set up my scope and go slowly through a large field. A total of 13 Wheatears, some movement in a generally NE direction with a couple of gorgeous males sat briefly on a nearby wire. 

Later in the day a walk round Lodmoor. Nothing too much here. There's a warbler singing from the reed bed. Its a sedge/reed, and i'm always rusty when I her them for the first time in spring, but with no chuck-chuck-char-chars and lots of whistling I'm confident its a sedge-warbler. There's some movement in the reeds, and a brief view confirms the uniform brown plumage of my first Reed Warbler of the year. Oh well, back to Xeno-Canto to brush up on my warbler songs.

About half way round I bump into a couple of birders. They ask me if I've seen much. Not really. There's a Dunlin on the pool where you come in, two cream crown Marsh Harriers doing their tumbling flight over the reed bed, up high there are about 20 Swallows and Sand Martins, there's been a Raven flying round the reserve for the last few minutes rolling over a couple of times and groncking away, but that's just flown off, and there have been a couple of Bearded Tits flying around just now. Judging from there crest-fallen look on their faces this is a good list, and indeed it is, a sign of what passes for normal at Lodmoor. They have "only" seen two Wheaters by the mound which I get later along with two-pairs of Oystercatcher.  Back to the car, turn out of the car park and into Weymouth, and that, Lodmoor, is that.

Friday, April 07, 2017

More patch stuff

A walk round in the sun. Bird-wise it is fairly quite. Just a Red Kite soaring around a long way up, and a Kestrel a Sparrowhawk and several Buzzards all enjoying the sun and the heat. Closer to the ground there was a male Bullfinch, several singing Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs, a Shoveler and a Little Grebe on the pond, and down at Feakes Lock I could see Little Owl and Grey Wagtail whilst at the same time a Cetti's Warbler sang. Otherwise a male Reed Bunting looking quite spectacular, a Meadow Pipit over, and Green and Great-Spotted Woodpecker so once again a nothing-kind-of-day turns out to have quite decent list.

My first Speckled Wood Butterfly of the year, a number of Orange-tips, a few Small Tortoiseshells and a couple of Peacocks gave a decent butterfly list, and some Buff-tailed Bumblebee queens were flying around. I think I saw my first worker of the year (white/buff-tailed) and there was a Tawny Mining Bee on the hawthorn.

Buff-tailed queen
standard close-up of Hawthorn/Blackthorn flowers

Dreadful picture of a Tawny Mining bee

There were a few sites with lots of small piles of fine soil with holes in the middle. Generally these were in bare parts of the field on a slight slope. I watched for a while and saw no creatures come out of these. I wonder if they are Tawny Mining Bee nests that the adults have emerged from so they are no longer using them. Here's a typical one.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Local insects

And we're off. The sun is shining, the meadows are buzzing. I spent some time in the Impenetrable Forest and saw a few insects on the wing but by far the commonest was the Dark-edged Bee Fly (Bombylius major). It is in close-up, obviously, because if this wasn't a close up it would be quite a fearsome beast.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Little Bunting at Great Barford

When twitching works its a great way to spend a morning. An hour to the site. Easy to find because others have given very good directions, some "will-it-won't-it" tension, then views as good as you could ever wish for, some excellent conversation and back home.

Directions: - look up Great Barford on google maps - its near the A1. Park by the church - there's sufficient parking just off the road. Walk back to the bridge, then along the north-west Great Barford  side of the river for a few fields until you reach a small copse with a bridge viewable in about 50 yards. If you get to the bridge you have gone too far.

I got there this morning and two chaps from the West Midlands were looking forlorn. The tractor had just gone through and ploughed the seed area. No birds. We were going to give up when some Reed Buntings appeared, and then the Little Bunting. Here it is.

It showed all the features, some of which you can see here (black border to cheek patch, fine black markings on white breast, fine straight-edged bill). It even called when it flew.

We spent time looking at the Reed Buntings too. They were each as different to each other as the Little Bunting was from them, but all were bigger, had thicker brown streaks on the breast, and didn't have the full black cheek ring.

Bring on the next twitch!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Spring arrives on the patch

Today was undeniably Spring. Not in the birds - a chiffchaff singing was not the first of the spring, and there was nothing particularly Spring about the unusually showy Little Owl, the Kingfisher, the three pairs of Shoveler on the pond, but the two singing Cetti's Warblers including one actually seen well were signs of Spring, as was a pair of Canada Geese in a field.

It was the number of insects that really signalled spring. A brief sight of what I am sure was a Tawny Mining Bee, a Brimstone Butterfly, a Peacock butterfly, and a comma, and around 10 different bumble bees which as far as I could see were all Buff-Tailed Bees. Some hoverflies hovering, and then finally a buzzing hawthorn tree turned out to be alive with Honey Bees. It's all happening on the patch!

Sunday, March 05, 2017

A new and impressive list for 2017.

I've got a new list for 2017. Here it is:

  • Common Crane
  • Great White Egret
  • Goshawk
  • Black Brant
  • Rosy Starling
  • Richard's Pipit
  • Cattle Egret
Quite impressive I think. Yes, as you have no doubt worked out by now, this is a list of the birds I've dipped so far this year. Criteria are that the bird was seen either on the day or both before and after, and from a place where I've been and could reasonably have expected to see it if it popped up in front of me.

This weekend in Weymouth was a particularly good one for the list. No sign of the Rosy Starling in Dorchester, I went to Abbotsbury and was informed a Richard's Pipit had been seen well on a dry stone wall and then on a bush. Nothing. I bumped into four people who told me the Starling had eventually appeared in Dorchester. I went back - nothing, although I did see a lady walking her dogs who showed me a photo of the bird in her garden on her phone (for clarity the photo of the Starling was on the phone, not a photo of the Starling on the phone). well at least I had a couple of bankers at Portland Bill - Purple Sandpiper and Short-Eared Owl. Yep no sign of them either.

Back to Abbotsbury this morning - nothing, then back to Dorchester - nothing. Although I did see the lady and her dogs again.

The thing about this is I still quite enjoyed my birding, although not as much as if I'd actually seen any of the birds I guess. I'm still mulling over what that means about the value I attach to seeing rarities.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Local Little Egret

Little Egrets are the Collared Doves of my generation. A bird imprinted on our minds as a scarce sought-after rarity. so when one turned up in the stream at the bottom of my road I got the camera out.

The stream, complete with passing post van. 
The Egret. It was stirring up the bed with its foot, no doubt hoping to dislodge some prey. It has been seen to eat a couple of items of prey.
Its had enough and decides to go up the bank ...
... and wait for a bus.
No bus, so it flew into a nearby tree.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Patch outing

A cold frosty morning with low numbers of birds, so time spent on some "art" photography.

A Little Owl flew into the old oak tree in the big field after some hassle from a Jackdaw. I've often looked for this species in that tree so nice to see it there today, even if just briefly.

A Little Grebe below Feakes Lock was new for the year. Some good views of three Bullfinch, but typically tucked away in undergrowth made photography challenging.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Bee ID

2017 hasn't really got going yet for me. So here's a photo of a bee from last year. It is here so I can link to it from another ID site that seems to have various size and format limits. I think it may be a cuckoo bee so any views on this will be gratefully received.

Longish abdomen, yellow on the flanks, no pollen, possibly Gypsy Cuckoo Bee or Vestal Cuckoo Bee?


This has been confirmed as a Cuckoo Bee, either Vestal or Gypsy. In which case I probably saw quite a lot of these last summer. There are various explanations of things to look for including both anatomical features and behaviour, but for me the abdomen seemed quite long and distinctive.