A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Lindisfarne Helleborines!

Out of 50 species of orchid that regularly occur in Britain & Ireland and having been on a quest to see them all for the past 8 years, I had finally got down to just one species left to find – Lindisfarne Helleborine.
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Endemic to just the small island of Lindisfarne off the north Northumberland coast, this unobtrusive and at first glance relatively plain looking orchid is in fact rather special – it grows nowhere else in the world and is restricted to just a few dune slacks towards the western edge of the island. With plants quickly going over if the weather is particularly hot, as soon as I got word that the Helleborines were in flower I arranged a day off work so we could travel up to see this British speciality. Usually flowering at the start of July, the particularly wet season meant that this year they were several weeks late – just coming into their peak on the third weekend of the month.
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
With Lindisfarne cut off from the mainland during high tide, we had arranged overnight accommodation nearby ready for a morning crossing, and meeting one of the wardens on site at just after 11 we were led through the dunes and to the outskirts of the colony. 
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
To prevent trampling and destruction of the site due to curious orchid hunters searching for the plants, the wardens led us to a small group on the edge of the dune slacks where about 7 plants were in flower, the aim being to preserve the main colony and allowing those interested to admire and photograph the orchids to their hearts content.
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Helleborines - Lindisfarne
Spot the Helleborines!
Snook - Lindisfarne
Similar to the closely related Dune Helleborine in both looks and habitat, DNA testing confirmed that Lindisfarne Helleborines are indeed separate and worthy of full species status. With around 200 flowering plants on the Snook (a section of the island) and growing nowhere else in the world, their existence could potentially be precarious - habitat degradation or severe flooding may prove disastrous for this isolated colony.
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Snook
Whilst the abundant Early and Northern Marsh Orchids scattered across the dunes were already over, the Marsh Helleborines also on site were in prime condition, creating a beautiful carpet of white frilled flowers across the wetter dune slacks.
Marsh Helleborine - Lindisfarne
Marsh Helleborines - Lindisfarne
Marsh Helleborines - Lindisfarne
As the tide was fully in over lunchtime rendering the causeway flooded and unpassable until after 5pm, this presented an opportunity to explore the rest of the island, with several Grey seals, a colony of nesting terns across the bay and a female Eider with her fully young in tow all notable highlights as we walked to the castle.
Lindisfarne Castle - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Castle
Lindisfarne Priory - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Priory - Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne Priory
Lindisfarne Causeway
The causeway!
With an 8 year long quest now completed and having seen and photographed all of the regular flowering orchids in Britain & Ireland, this now just leaves the almost mythical Ghost Orchid to track down deep in the Herefordshire or Chilterns woodlands – no small task by any means!
Lindisfarne Helleborine - Lindisfarne

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Scilly Pelagic Magic - Wilson's!

Wilson’s Petrel – an elusive and enigmatic seabird that evades the vast majority of British birders during their lifetime, unless of course they’re prepared to make a lengthy pilgrimage to Cornwall each summer and spend time exploring the vast seas surrounding the beautiful Scilly Isles in search of seabird gold.
St Marys - Isles of Scilly
St Marys - Isles of Scilly
With Bob Flood, Joe Pender and the rest of the crew on board the now famous ‘Sapphire’ having well and truly mastered the art of tracking down these mysterious petrels, their Scilly Pelagic boat trips have a high success rate during summer weekends, often attracting up to 4 or 5 birds to the boat at once.

Having experienced 3 pelagics last August, but with no luck on the Wilson’s Petrel front (it was a very late year for them last year), this August again saw us make our way down to Penzance ready for the Scillonian crossing the next morning. Stopping off en-route to admire the long staying and extremely dubious of origin Dalmatian Pelican that’s been spending its time loafing at Restronguet Creek and the surrounding Cornish coastline for the past 3 months, we eventually had relatively distant views as it lifted up its head to show the magnificent yellow bill and confirm our suspicions as to the ID (it was asleep at first and looked like a giant washed up buoy!).
Dalmatian Pelican - Cornwall
Dalmatian Pelican - Cornwall
The 'rancid' Pelican!
Having been tracked from Poland and highly suspected to be of captive origin, with many pelicans having escaped from European collections that contain free flying birds, whilst nice to see, the Pelican won’t ever be making its way on to my list – unless of course concrete evidence such as feather analysis proves it to have originated from the Danube Delta!
Dalmatian Pelican - Cornwall
Restronguet Creek, Cornwall
Restronguet Creek, Cornwall
Restronguet Creek
Arriving at St Marys on Scilly the next day, we had plenty of time to explore the island before our first of three pelagics on Monday night, taking in the beautiful beach scenery that St Marys has to offer and soaking up the sun. Unfortunately we didn’t find anything of note at either Lower or Higher Moors throughout our week on the island, several Snipe and a smattering of Common, Green and Wood Sandpipers being the best we could muster. 

With the moss and lichen coated trees and hidden marshy groves, it wasn’t hard to imagine the plethora of American vagrants the area has undoubtedly held in autumns gone by.
Common Snipe - Higher Moors, Scilly
Wood Sandpiper - Higher Moors, Scilly
Knot Grass Moth caterpillar - Lower Moors, Isles of Scilly
Knot Grass Moth caterpillar - Lower Moors, Isles of Scilly
A Knot Grass Moth caterpillar that we found on the boardwalk at Lower Moors
With Monday night’s pelagic sadly not featuring any of the large Shearwaters or our much sought after Wilson’s, we settled for point blank views of around 40 European Storm-petrels whizzing around the boat at top speed. A nice Long-tailed Skua that we watched approach the boat from being just a spec in the distance to flying overhead was also a bonus, as were the two Blue Sharks that were caught and tagged as part of the on-going research programme in to their distribution in British waters.
St Marys - Isles of Scilly
St Marys - Isles of Scilly
St Marys - Isles of Scilly
St Marys - Isles of Scilly
The beautiful Scilly scenery
Friday evening (and our next pelagic) soon dawned rough and stormy, a huge weather front from the west blowing in with ginormous waves forecast and winds in excess of 50mph! Certainly not ideal sailing conditions, and whilst the Scillonian had been cancelled due to the ferocious weather, in complete contrast we headed out in to the storm in pursuit of large shearwaters and petrels!

It was immediately obvious that the high westerly winds had brought in huge numbers of Shearwaters, and it didn’t take long before we had our first Cory’s – a lifer for me and Alex – soaring towards the boat, a second bird in quick succession. 
Cory's Shearwater - Scilly Pelagics
Cory's Shearwater - Scilly Pelagics
Cory's Shearwater - Scilly Pelagics
Cory's Shearwater - Scilly Pelagics
Having missed Cory’s Shearwater on our pelagics last year, this was a huge relief, and despite the howling gales we enjoyed incredibly close views as these remarkable seabirds expertly cut through the air with incredible power and grace.
Cory's Shearwater - Scilly Pelagics
Cory's Shearwater - Scilly Pelagics
Cory's Shearwater - Scilly Pelagics
Cory's Shearwater - Scilly Pelagics
The huge waves we experienced during the pelagic!
With approximately 42 Cory’s seen during our 5 hours out at sea, along with a handful of Great Shears, at times flying right over the boat, the evening was a huge success – even more so considering I’d managed to avoid the seasickness I’d suffered on Monday’s much calmer pelagic! Relief! With just one more pelagic left on our 2016 trip, it was well and truly last chance saloon on the Saturday to get our desired Wilson’s, and with the winds perfect and less rain forecast, we were definitely in with a shout!

Saturday dawned as wet and windy as Friday evening had left us – giving us barely any time to recover after the absolute battering (my knees and shins were bright purple with bruises!) we’d received being tossed around the boat the night before. Speaking to seabird expert and Wilson’s guru Bob Flood before the boat arrived, he was confident we’d be able to get a Wilson’s to the boat – fingers crossed he was right!
St Mary's Harbour, Scilly
St Mary's Harbour - if only the weather had been like this for our pelagics!
Huddling underneath 5 layers of coats, including a bright pink rain cape (it did the job!) in an attempt to avoid the driving rain and waves that were pouring upon us, singles of Cory’s and Great Shearwaters kept us entertained as we headed east of St Martins. Stopping the boat to commence drifting and chumming in an effort to draw in a Wilson’s, it was now a waiting game to see if they would materialise.

Numerous European Storm-petrels soon began to appear, attracted to the mixture of cod liver oil and mashed up fish pouring in to the water, the scent clearly having travelled in the wind. With the numbers of Stormies building, complete with several returning Bonxies, Cory’s and Great Shearwaters, the cry soon went up that everyone on board had been waiting for – WILSON’S!!

Scrambling over to the side and struggling to stay upright as the boat was buffeted about on the water, it transpired Alex was already on the bird, but with the huge winds creating large channels in between waves, it was all too easy for the tiny petrels to vanish behind a tower of water, and my target bird disappeared behind a huge blue wall of ocean.
Scilly Pelagic
The crashing waves we experienced on the boat trips - easy for small petrels to get lost behind!
With no sign over the coming minutes, I anchored myself to the side of the boat, ignoring the lashing wind (which actually ripped the hood off my mac it was that fierce!) and splashing waves, putting the extreme rocking motion of the boat and the associated seasickness out of my mind – I was now on red alert for Wilson’s!

Luckily, after an excruciating 20 minutes when the first bird didn’t reappear, the cry went up again – WILSON’S – it’s back!

Spinning around to face the back of the boat and squinting through the spray, the bird I had been waiting to see for over 30 hours of Scilly pelagics was finally in front of me, skipping over the waves almost in slow motion and hanging delicately in the air, a calm contrast to the raging torrent of water over which it hopped with ease – my first Wilson’s Petrel.
Wilson's Petrel - Scilly Pelagics
The magical moment lasted only a few seconds, the light pale panels on the wings standing out against the velvety black, while the long spindly legs trailed behind, dangling helplessly towards the water. For a brief moment, it seemed like the wind stopped howling and the waves stopped raging as we all locked on to this sought after scarcity in British waters, savouring the seconds and enjoying the moment by simply watching on as the petrel danced over the waves instead of scrambling around for a camera.

Then, in an instant it was gone, carried off by the wind and lost in the waves, aware once again of the crescendo of noise returning as the water crashed against the side of the boat, my mac flapping fiercely out of control in the gales. None of this mattered - finally we had our prize!

With the conditions still ideal for seabirds, we continued to chum, managing to attract a further two Wilson’s Petrels towards the boat, making approximately 4 in total. Managing a few shots with my camera as one passed the end of the boat (the majority of frames were out of focus black shapes or crashing walls of water) due to the intense rocking of the boat, I found it exceptionally difficult to even stand up straight, let alone hold a camera steady to take in-focus photos of a fast moving petrel!
Wilson's Petrel - Scilly Pelagic
Wilson's Petrel - Scilly Pelagic
The characteristic yellow feet that Wilson's Petrels show
Instead, it was better to just watch on and admire the Wilson’s spectacle unfolding before us, our last encounter being a bird cruising slowly past the boat at eye level, floating in the wind and giving everyone on board a memory to last a lifetime.

With three days to spare between pelagics, having booked on to dates at either side of the week, we used the spare time to explore more of the islands, taking a day trip out to the wonderful Tresco on the Tuesday – our first Scilly island apart from St Marys. Exploring the famous Tresco Abbey Gardens revealed none of the resident Golden Pheasants that are said to live there, but the beautiful garden features and the photogenic Red Squirrels were more than enough to keep us happy.
Red Squirrel - Tresco, Scilly
Red Squirrel - Tresco, Scilly
Red Squirrel - Tresco, Scilly
Red Squirrel - Tresco, Scilly
Red Squirrel - Tresco, Scilly
Red Squirrel - Tresco, Scilly
Red Squirrel - Tresco, Scilly
Tresco Abbey Gardens - Tresco, Isles of Scilly
Tresco Abbey Gardens - Tresco, Isles of Scilly
Tresco Abbey Gardens - Tresco, Isles of Scilly
Tresco Abbey Gardens - Tresco, Isles of Scilly
Tresco Abbey Gardens - Tresco, Isles of Scilly
The beautiful setting of Tresco Abbey Gardens
An Icterine Warbler that had been found on the Garrison during our stay also had us taking a trip up to this high point on the island, staking out the garden next to the football pitch until this monster of a warbler reappeared in the apple tree, proceeding to flit around elusively and feed for the next half an hour or so. 
Icterine Warbler - St Marys, Scilly
Present with at least two Willow Warblers, the Icterine was noticeably larger, with a huge orange bill compared to the Willow’s shorter and daintier beaks. Having only ever seen Melodious before, even abroad, this was a great new bird for me and one I had been hoping to bump in to for a while over several east coast visits. 
Icterine Warbler - St Marys, Scilly
Icterine Warbler - St Marys, Scilly
Pied Flycatcher - St Marys, Scilly
A handful of Pied Flycatchers were the only other migrants of note
Having enjoyed a fantastic week on the island in perfect weather (in terms of both exploring and for generating excellent seabird movement!), with gorgeous scenery, excellent food and second to none hospitality at the B&B, we both thoroughly enjoyed ourselves on these charming islands. 
Cart - Isles of Scilly!
The Scilly Isles carts! One of the highlights of my week!
St Marys - Isles of Scilly
With our Wilson’s Petrel finally in the bag, along with excellent views of Cory’s Shearwaters and my first Icterine Warbler to boot, who knows when we’ll be back on these picturesque islands in the future – fingers crossed it’s whilst looking at a pristine male Blackburnian Warbler one autumn. We can but dream.
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