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Friday, 10 November 2017

Back With The Kingfishers - Autumn, 2017

I really did think, when I published a Kingfisher post three weeks ago and said that I thought it would be "my last Kingfisher post, for this year at least", that that would be the case.

On 30th October, I visited the same Kingfisher location because it can be good for other interesting birds and unexpectedly found a Kingfisher in attendance. I couldn't resist a few more photos of Kingfisher as it was a reasonably bright day. Here are a few from that session.

Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) (male) - Leicestershire
The main interest here during that session was, however, the Water Rail. Unfortunately, although this showed for a while, it remained well-tucked into the phragmites and I only managed a record shot which confirmed the bird by its bill and a small section of its back.

On 2nd November I returned in the hope of seeing the Water Rail, but it didn't show. It was a dull day and the Kingfisher showed again, so I took some more photos although the lack of light made photography difficult for most of the time.

Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) (male) - Leicestershire
On 6th November, it was a relatively bright day, and in considering where I should go I settled for a place near home, but in Derbyshire rather than my own county of Leicestershire. The reason for choosing this place was that it can be good for 'water birds', but also good for passerines. I'd ruled out the Kingfisher location on the basis that I'd like to see something different.

Having parked my car and set off on foot, I found the sight of a Magpie perched on top of the head of a particularly hairy beast to be an amusing sight.

Magpie (Pica pica) - Derbyshire
Arriving at the first viewing platform, I found some distant ducks, geese, and grebes, but nothing to get me excited, until towards me flew - a Kingfisher!! It briefly alighted on a phragmites stem which didn't bear its weight, and instantly flew back up the channel and out of sight.

The next two platforms didn't reveal any more than the first, and I then ended up at the hide, which was still under construction when I last visited. I was greeted with the information that Kingfisher had been showing well and frequently!

The window seats were relatively full, so I sat at the back. When Kingfisher was first spotted in the far distance, I was kindly given access to a window and pointed at the bird. It was too far away and somewhat obscured for a worthwhile photo.

Later it came a little closer and I managed a shot that was still somewhat obscured.

Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) (male) - Derbyshire
After a while, the lady who occupied the prime seat departed, and I moved into that position. I did not have to wait long before the Kingfisher came quite close, but it was behind vegetation. With patience it was possible to get a slightly clearer shot when the breeze moved the vegetation aside. It was a pity that a totally clear shot wasn't possible as the light by then was gorgeous!

Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) (male) - Derbyshire
It soon departed, but came back again a short while later to a place that was a little further away, but relatively unobstructed. Sadly this place was in shade.

Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) (male) - Derbyshire
From this end of the hide I also had three very brief (about one second) views of a Water Rail as it flew across a 2 metre wide patch of water from one set of phragmites to another. I missed getting a shot each time.

The only other photos I took were of a very distant Common Snipe - not worth including here.

I gladly gave up my seat to newcomers to the hide, and set off back to see if I could find an owl - I did, but didn't get any photos as it was too dark and my car, in which I was sitting, was facing in the wrong direction anyway.

At this point in time I have absolutely no idea what my next blog post will feature.

Thank you for dropping by

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Back to Basics - October, 2017

I believe that there are a few people out there who may be wondering why owls have not featured on my blog for a long time, especially as the title of my blog suggests that owls would be a major feature. The year got off to a reasonable start, with pairs seen at a number of sites, and mating observed with the promise of a reasonable breeding season. The reality is that my sightings of owls since the spring have plummeted desperately, for reasons which I will discuss below and, until last Friday, I had last photographed a Little Owl on 1st July this year! Here's an image from back then:-

Little Owl (Athene noctua) (male) - my Site No.02, on 1st July, 2017
Shortly after that photo was taken, the whole of that roof behind the owl disappeared, closely followed by the owls.

There's no denying that this lack of owl sightings is partly due to lack of effort by myself. Now I'm in my 70s I do not have the stamina and agility that I had when I first started this passion 8 years ago that allowed me to roam the fields for hours on end looking for owls. Related to this is the problem of avoiding cattle in fields which I have to cross to get to some of my sites. It's not a worry that the cattle will be aggressive. In fact, if they are close at hand it's less of a worry as I'm happy to walk beside them. The real problem (and I've had a few close shaves) is when they spot you from afar and charge towards you to greet you. I feel that standing one's ground in this situation is potentially very dangerous, and out-running them has become more difficult, particularly when I struggle to climb over a stile in order to exit the field! 

Over the past few years I have got into the complacent habit of driving to existing sites to check on the owls, particularly on the route between my home and Rutland Water, and only occasionally visiting my other further flung sites. I have not, therefore, been doing the prospecting for new sites that, ideally, I should have done.

However, there is no denying that, in the areas I monitor, the Little Owl population has suffered badly in 2017. I'm writing this is as the latest county records have been published and there has only been one Little Owl sighting record submitted for the whole of Leicestershire and Rutland (VC55) for the month.

Some of the problem has been visibly due to nest site destruction/deterioration. In other words, the trees or buildings that the birds nested in have suffered significant damage. However, I also believe that predation, largely by Common Buzzard, has been a significant problem. Several times now I have seen Buzzard move into the vicinity of a nest and the Little Owls disappear almost immediately, and on one occasion I believed I witnessed the actual predation event.

There are, no doubt, other factors in action such as food supply and weather conditions - and we have certainly had some odd weather this year. Owls do not like to be out in wind and rain, and we've had plenty of both. There has also been a lot of publicity given lately to the way that the invertebrate biomass has crashed in recent years - and invertebrates constitute a major part of a Little Owl's diet.

Returning to the subject of my (lack of) effort in monitoring the owls, for the past couple of months I have found myself shying away from looking for owls as I seem to always come back disappointed from sites that were, until recently, a place of delight. Just of late an expression has repeatedly entered my head and that is "back to basics".

My current intentions for this winter are to spend more time closer to home than I have done over the past few years, and get back into prospecting for owls. I have in the past, largely, confined my owling to VC55 as that is the area for which I report my sightings. However, my home is right in the north-west corner of VC55 and almost at the meeting of four counties - Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire - so there might be a shift away from Leicestershire sites. I intend, also, to spend more time locally looking for birds and other wildlife. I have some great places quite close by! I also intend to spend more time out around dusk in the hope of seeing other owl species.

All this does not, however, mean my travelling days are over. In fact, I intend that the opposite will be true. The rationale is that, if I spend more owling and general birding time close to home, I'm consuming less time and fuel in travelling, leaving me time and fuel to visit those exciting areas that are significantly more remote. So, for example, I have already booked to visit Speyside in Scotland early in the year, the Scilly Isles in spring, and North Uist (Outer Hebrides, and primarily for Short-eared Owls) in the summer.

For a while, I did contemplate changing the title of this blog to remove the reference to owls. I have decided that it will stay like it is, for the time being at least, to spur me on to do better!

That process has, I hope, already begun. On Friday 27th October I spent a couple of hours in the morning checking trees in an area where previously I have had four Little Owl sites. I found no signs of any owls, but it was an enjoyable time, and I ended up photographing a few other birds. Later that day, a little before sunset, I went to my Little Owl Site No.02. Whilst I was confident that the Little Owls had gone, I had seen Barn Owl here too on occasion. I sat there until it got dark, and then there was a familiar 'whoop' - and a Little Owl came out of the remains of the barn! This next image might be be of poor quality, but it probably means more to me than any other owl photo I've taken this year. I suspect that this is the male bird from this site.

Little Owl (Athene noctua)  - my Site No.02, on 27th October, 2017
I confess to becoming a little emotional when this bird appeared. It sat there for at least ten minutes before dropping down into the field alongside the barn. 

The excitement had not ended, however, as soon there was a brief 'whoo' call and then the calls built up into fully recognisable Tawny Owl calls coming from at least three directions - then what looked like an owl (it was very dark by now) flew past the barn and a short while later flew back past the barn and down the road away from me. I cannot swear that this was a Tawny Owl, but suspect that it was.

Two days later I was back again and this time I saw a Little Owl which I am relatively confident was the female from this site. 

Little Owl (Athene noctua)  - my Site No.02, on 29th October, 2017
I feel fired-up again, and hope that this lasts, although I am under no illusions that the process will be easy or many owls found! With a bit of luck I might even find an owl to photograph in daylight!

I suspect that it might be a while before my next post, and it is in the lap of the gods as to what the subject matter will be.

Thank you for dropping by.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Drakelow NR and Contact with an Alien - on 13th August and 28th September, 2017

Sunday, 13th August

I'd not visited Drakelow Nature Reserve, managed by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, for some time, mainly because of the construction of a solar farm taking place next door to the reserve. As the work had now finished and this place can be good for dragonflies as well as birds, I decided on a visit on 13th August. Because of the bird factor, I took the 50-500 lens on my camera, rather than the 150 macro.

I'd not been on the path for long when I found a young rabbit that was much more confiding that usual. 

Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) - Drakelow NR
A little further on I found my first Southern Hawker of the year. 

Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea) (male) - Drakelow NR
There were surprisingly few butterflies around, but this could have been because it was breezy. This rather worn female Common Blue was settling on the path-side vegetation from time to time.

Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) (female) - Drakelow NR
There was a pair of Black Swans on the far side of one of the lakes, but too far away for sensible photography. I photographed few birds that day, but the next is of one of them.

Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) - Drakelow NR
A little further on I found my first Migrant Hawker of the year. Happily, this was a female. It's not often I see the females of this species - I wouldn't be surprised if the sighting ratio was 50 males to 1 female!

Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) (female) - Drakelow NR
There were a few Speckled Wood butterflies on the reserve.

Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) - Drakelow NR
At the risk of confusing the reader, further on I found a mating pair of Common Blue - this time Common Blue Damselfly, rather than Common Blue butterfly!

Common Blue Damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) (pair mating) - Drakelow NR
I was a little surprised at how few Common Darter dragonflies were around - here's one:

Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (male) - Drakelow NR
As I was heading out of the reserve, I stopped by a lake and a Kingfisher flew in and landed in a distant tree. This is the best I could do before it flew off again! This was extremely exciting for me as I'd not yet had my close encounters with Kingfisher which feature in some of my earlier posts.

Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) - Drakelow NR
Thursday, 28th September

Well over a month passed before my next visit. I arrived at lunch time and stopped off beside a lake to have a quick look around before lunch. There were a few dragonflies around including several Common Darters, a couple of male Migrant Hawkers, and a possible Southern Hawker seen briefly at a distance. I only managed photos of Common Darter.

Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (female) - Drakelow NR
There were several Caddisflies around, but I do not know of hat species they were.

Caddisfly species - Drakelow NR
I noticed that one particular type of flower was attracting numerous bees that seemed to look very white. I have no idea what this plant was, or what the species of bee was, but I believe that the pale colouration of the bees was probably due to a covering of pale pollen. This is one with a little less pollen on its abdomen.

Bee species - Drakelow NR
I also saw the first of many butterflies here.

Comma (Polygonia c-album) - Drakelow NR
I took my picnic into the first hide and was nearing the end of my lunch when a couple of old acquaintances arrived. During our chat they informed me of an alien that they'd seen on the reserve, and where it could sometimes be seen.

Having finished my lunch, I set off into the reserve. I was soon finding a few dragonflies, but only managed to photograph two species. 

Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (male) - Drakelow NR
Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (female) - Drakelow NR
Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) (male) - Drakelow NR
I also saw what will almost certainly prove to be my last damselfly of the year - a Common Blue Damselfly.

Common Blue Damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) (male) - Drakelow NR
An adult Dock Bug (a close relative to the shieldbugs) presented itself nicely in the sunshine.

Dock Bug (Coreus marginatus) (adult) - Drakelow NR
Butterflies seen included several Speckled Wood, but I didn't photograph any of that species.

Comma (Polygonia c-album) - Drakelow NR

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) - Drakelow NR
By this time I'd passed by the location that the alien was said to frequent, and I didn't see it. However, it was there on the way back as I reached the main path. Although it had been described to me, I still couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the size of the Yellow-bellied Slider that had hauled out of the water - it must have been as big as a dinner plate!

It was in a very difficult position for photography and facing away from me behind bushes as I stood on the nearest part of the bank. Here's a view from the side path that I'd just come down.

Yellow-bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta) - Drakelow NR
Eventually I was able to find a place where I could just get a view from the near part of the bank, where I waited until it turned its head, as in the next image.

Yellow-bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta) - Drakelow NR
I hung around for a while in the hope of getting a better view, but it didn't seem to want to move so I continued to a more remote part of the reserve. 

I saw very little, other than a few Migrant Hawker dragonflies that were very uncooperative, and some Common Green Shieldbugs. The Common Green Shieldbug is very variable in colour in all its stages. This can be seen in the following two images showing 5th instars (nymphs) of the species. 

Common Green Shieldbug (Palomena prasena) (5th instars) - Drakelow NR
The adults are also extremely variable in colour, and take on a brownish hue as autumn progresses. However, I have never before seen one with the extreme colouration as shown in the second image. At first I thought I'd got a different species!

Common Green Shieldbug (Palomena prasena) (adult) - Drakelow NR
To my utter surprise, as I made my way back to my start point, I found the Slider was out of the water and making its way across the path in front of me.  As I approached, it stopped. giving me the opportunity to take some closer photos. Sadly, however, it was in deep shade, so I didn't do well. 

Yellow-bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta) - Drakelow NR
Not wanting to disturb it too much, although it had probably grown up with human contact, I didn't stay with it for long. I did, however, for some crazy reason decide that I wanted to touch it. I very gently touched its carapace with the tip of a finger, taking care not to go anywhere near its mouth (they can, I understand, take chunks out of you!). I had made contact with an alien!

My last photos were of another Migrant Hawker. This one was in better condition than the first one.

Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) (male) - Drakelow NR
Yellow-Bellied Slider

The Yellow-bellied Slider is a native of the southeastern United States (Florida and Virginia). Like the Red-eared Slider (more usually known as the Red-eared Terrapin in UK), it is traded as a pet. Sadly, although these are usually bought as cute little creatures, they can grow to a very large size, and outgrow their welcome. I do not know what the responsible or humane way of disposal is, but it is certainly not releasing them into the wild, where they cause all sorts of problems. I suspect that this individual was released into the River Trent, which adjoins the reserve, and made its own way into the reserve (the reserve is members-only with a security gate). I'm not sure whether this Yellow-bellied Slider can survive an English winter (recommended temperatures for keeping them are higher than those of the average UK centrally heated home), but Red-eared Terrapins can certainly survive an English winter. 

When I encountered this creature out of the water I wished I knew what the best course of action was. I felt sure that, if I'd had something I could put it in securely, I should have picked it up and transported it to somewhere where it would be dealt with in an appropriate manner. If anyone has any views or knowledge on this subject, I'd be pleased to hear them. When I mentioned what I'd seen to the none-too-helpful person who was working on the site (those that know the site will know precisely who that person is) I was just told "yes, and there's Red-eared Terrapins here too".

Thank you for dropping by. I have absolutely no idea what the subject of my next post will be.