Mist Opportunities

One of the things I miss most about island life is the seawatching. I’d wake up early every morning, often rising before the sun, and try to stare out to sea for at least an hour before work. It was the element of mystery that had me hooked. It felt like anything could fly by, and there was no shortage of surprises – I’d seen everything from Storm Petrels to Snow Buntings flitting above the waves.

There’s not much scope for seawatching in Nottinghamshire, so when we decided to take a holiday to Cornwall, I was determined to make the most of it. In fact, gazing out to sea was the main reason we chose the sunny southwest. Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas.

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Our first day it seemed the entire county was wrapped in a sea fret. Dense fog shrouded the cliffs, trailing out across the ocean and making our mission all but impossible – it’s hard to seawatch when you can’t even see the sea! Still, we tried. An hour of mist-watching produced nothing more exciting than a few Manx Shearwater. Fortunately, conditions were better for migrant passerines, with a Firecrest and three Tree Pipit amongst the various chats, finches and warblers at Porthgwarra.

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It took a couple of days for the fret to thin, and even longer to lift entirely. But perseverance paid off, hundreds of Manxies streaming past in the clear spells. Scattered amongst them were dozens of Sooty and Balearic Shearwaters, the former sleek and graceful, the latter brown and pot-bellied. Add in the occasional skua and things were looking pretty good!

But we never got our real target birds – Cory’s or Great Shearwater. We were a couple of weeks too late for the main rush of large shearwaters; only a few were spotted during our time down there, and we always seemed to be in the wrong place! We did, however, see our first ever Ocean Sunfish, waving its enormous fin at us from the softly rolling sea.

Most importantly, I got to indulge one of my favourite hobbies for the first time since leaving the Farnes. I can’t think of a more peaceful experience than sitting on a clifftop, eye to a ‘scope, watching the sleek silhouettes of shearwaters carving graceful arcs above the rolling waves as the sun sinks slowly towards the horizon.

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The Slow Journey South

The list of birds I’ve seen in Britain is fairly modest, by birder standards. Many hardcore listers manage more species in a year than I’ve seen in a lifetime, but I’m slowly closing the gaps. One glaring omission was the Cirl Bunting, the Yellowhammer’s black-bearded cousin.

Restricted to coastal hegderows in the southwest, the Cirl Bunting was one of the few resident birds I’d yet to track down. The time had come to change that! What better way to break up a long drive down to west Cornwall than with a stop in Devon, to seek out this beautiful bunting.

So, after five hours in the car, a big chunk of the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix audiobook, and a stop at the poshest service station I’ve ever seen (Gloucestershire, where in place of McDonald’s or Burger King they had a farm shop!), we pulled into the carpark at Labrador Bay.

Signs were promising; I’d barely opened the car door when I heard a sharp “zitt” and saw a trio of bunting-shaped silhouettes darting from the closest hedge. Unfortunately, they didn’t stick around, flying off far into the distance. As I stared after them, the distinct “gronk” of a Raven drew my attention skyward, where a great black diamond-tailed shadow was soaring above the clifftop.

But, impressive as these cronking corvids are, we were on a mission. We marched along the hedgerow, inspecting every movement in the dense tangle of branches. There were a lot of birds moving around in there, but almost every one seemed to be a Dunnock – living up to their pseudonym of Hedge Sparrow, they were popping up every few yards!

Frustrations were building. Would that fleeting glimpse of suspicious silhouettes be our only sighting? Would we leave Devon having failed to add the stunning Cirl Bunting to our life list? Not if I could help it! I raised my bins and started scanning, checking the bushes in the far distance. A flicker of movement caught my eye, a chunky bird hunkering down in the hedgerow. Definitely a bunting. Rushing to set up the ‘scope, I honed in on the target and… yes! A juvenile Cirl Bunting!

Pretty soon another had emerged beside it. We stared at the pair of juveniles for a while, but in truth were a little underwhelmed. Endearing as they were, these dusky youngsters weren’t what we’d travelled cross-country to see! Tearing ourselves away from our first lifer of the trip, we continued along the path and were quickly rewarded with incredible views of a male Cirl Bunting. Now this was the bird we were looking for!

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On the brink of moulting, he still sported more than enough of his summer finery to stop us in our tracks. This fine specimen of a bird was every bit as handsome as the pictures suggest. After a few emphatic calls, he flew off into the distance and was promptly replaced by a female, a beak-full of grubs indicating she had a nest nearby. Our appetite for buntings sated, we set off for the carpark to address our suddenly insistent appetite for dinner.

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Scale-winged Saturday

Maybe it’s the slight midsummer lull in birding opportunities, or maybe I’m finally maturing as a naturalist, but I’m finding myself spending more and more time staring at invertebrates lately. And so it was that I found myself at Chambers Farm Wood last Saturday, looking for creatures with scaled rather than feathered wings.

The weather looked perfect; we pulled up in the carpark about 09:00 and the day was already warming up nicely, strong sunlight filtering through the trees. I’d only taken a few steps when I had my first insect encounter, albeit an unwanted one – a sharp pain drew my attention to a horse fly burying its face in my calf!

We headed southeast, following the White Trail, and soon found our first butterflies. Small clouds of Ringlets were beginning to drift out of the undergrowth, already too energised to settle for long. Despite them being abundant, I never managed a decent photo!

 

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Ringlet

 

Just before we turned onto the White Trail proper, we picked up our first Small Skipper, basking unobtrusively in a small patch of sunlight. But then the forest grew thicker, the shadows deeper and the butterflies fewer. We walked for ten minutes with no sign of a fluttering wing, but something else caught our collective eye. Something had been very busily at work on the hazel leaves, leaving a ragged patchwork of holes in dozens of them. A quick inspection revealed the culprit to be, perhaps unsurprisingly, a Hazel-leaf Roller Weevil.

 

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Hazel-leaf Roller Beetle

 

After admiring this handsome weevil for a while, we moved on and found an opening in the canopy. Bright sunlight poured onto the path, bathing a single bush in golden light and illuminating, with an air of biblical revelation, my first ever White Admiral!

 

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White Admiral

 

White Admiral had been our target for the day, but I’d never expected to see them so well, or indeed to see so many of them. The first was a rather underwhelming specimen, ragged of wing and more than a little faded – but it was my first, and it was magnificent! However, shallow as I clearly am, I soon lost interest in it when a more pristine specimen fluttered by.

 

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White Admiral

 

But it wasn’t just White Admirals taking advantage of this literal hot spot. There were a few Commas, Red Admirals and a selection of Whites all busily flitting between flowers. Eventually, several hundred photos later, we dragged ourselves away and continued along the trail. White Admirals continued to appear, with easily a dozen seen along the trail. As the woodland thinned Meadow Browns became more abundant, and we found our first Large Skipper of the day gazing out over a forest of ferns.

 

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Meadow Brown

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Large Skipper

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Comma

 

Soon we’d finished the loop of the White Trail, arriving at the Butterfly Garden. Given our success in the woodland, we had high hopes for this patch of cultivated wildness, specifically tailored to attract moths and butterflies. Surely it had to be the Lepidopteran promised land, with brightly coloured butterflies on every bush and Hummingbird Hawk-moths buzzing around the flowers.

 

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Butterfly Garden

 

It was not. Sure, there were butterflies, with Small Tortoiseshell and Gatekeeper new for the day, and plenty of Red Admirals busily investigating the garden, but it wasn’t as active as I’d expected. In fairness, it was still early in the day, and had we stuck around longer I’m sure more would have appeared. And, in even more fairness, I’d opened the garden gate with a ridiculous level of expectation. Mostly I was annoyed there was no hawk-moth.

 

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Red Admiral

 

But the day wasn’t over! It was only a short drive to Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust’s Red Hill Nature Reserve, a meadow just brimming with butterflies. We hadn’t even left the car before we spotted our target, a stunning Marbled White. There were dozens of these black-and-white beauties! Playing second fiddle were good numbers of Meadow Brown, Ringlet, skippers and Six-spot Burnet Moths.

 

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Marbled White

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Six-spot Burnet Moth

 

 

Birding the Broads

Since becoming a birder, I’ve barely dipped my toe into the ornithological delights of Norfolk, often hailed as the best county in Britain for birdwatching. I’ve skimmed the shorebird sanctuaries of the northern coast, venturing as far as Titchwell, but never strayed far into the heart of East Anglia. Until last weekend, that is!

After a brilliant Saturday at RSPB Minsmere, my partner and I moved up into Norfolk on Sunday to explore the Broads. Specifically, we were headed to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Hickling Broad. Unusually for us, the main target was not a bird but a butterfly, arguably the most beautiful of it’s kind to be found in the country: the Swallowtail.

However, not wishing to break too far from tradition, we first stopped off at Potter Heigham to track down the breeding pair of Black-winged Stilt. Anticipating a quick stop to admire these long-legged beauties, we were somewhat frustrated when, two hours later, we had still not located them. We’d found plenty of great birds, including Cattle Egret, Spotted Redshank and 14 Spoonbill, and even had a brief and unexpected glimpse of our first ever Swallowtail! But no stilts.

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Cattle Egret

The problem was, we had no idea where to go. There were scrapes and flashes in every direction, most barely viewable behind tall vegetation. It wasn’t until another birder arrived, and explained that the stilts were on the far side of the site, that we even realised there was a circular walk around the marsh! We quickly followed this newly revealed (and exceedingly overgrown) path and picked up the two adult stilts with ease – unfortunately the four juveniles proved too elusive, hidden by the vegetation on the near-side of the flash.

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Black-winged Stilt

Finally, flushed with success, we completed the circular walk and celebrated by paying a much needed visit to the burger van at nearby Lathams. Ten minutes later we were pulling into the carpark at Hickling Broad. Having already seen a Swallowtail at Potter Heigham, we felt a little like the pressure was off – if we saw another, great; if we didn’t, at least we’d seen one earlier. What we never expected was to find one that was this cooperative!

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Swallowtail

In fact, despite the breezy and overcast conditions, there were plenty of insects on the wing. Most excitingly for me, after the Swallowtail, was a single Norfolk Hawker that buzzed by my head, but Black-tailed Skimmer were far more abundant. It was actually a little quiet on the bird front, but we had great views of a Bittern flying above the reeds, and even better views of a party of Bearded Tit – one juvenile even sat still long enough to get the scope on it! The only bird that sat still long enough to digiscope was this beautiful Marsh Harrier.

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Marsh Harrier

And then the rain came! Sudden, unexpected and surprisingly heavy, just as we were at the furthest point from any hide. Huddled beneath a tiny umbrella barely big enough for one, we shuffled back towards the visitor centre, serenaded by a Sedge Warbler as soggy as we were. It was a much quieter day than Saturday in terms of species count, but there were some definite gems on the list! Just as with Minsmere, we were already planning a second trip to Hickling Broad.

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