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....

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Marsh Fritillaries!

Marsh Fritillary is surely one of our most attractive British butterflies – a striking checkerboard of fiery oranges and burnt umbers flecked with delicate hints of gold and cream. A true delight of the Lepidoptera world. It was also a species that I had been extremely keen to catch up with after learning two years ago that there was a small population just a couple of hours away from home. Unable to visit in previous springs due to a combination of poor weather and being away in Mull and New York respectively during the last two flight seasons, this year we planned in a visit during the half term holiday.

Parking in the local village and walking the short distance to the entrance gate of the reserve, after a brief stroll along the boardwalk we had reached the small patch of ground where the fritillaries can be found. Almost instantly I spotted our first one – zig-zagging low down above the grass before alighting on a nearby flower to nectar and allowing relatively approachable views. Far more used to the restless and dancing flights of other species of fritillary, it was a refreshing change for these mosaic patterned beauties to tolerate a close approach!
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
In total we managed to find 4 or 5 individuals – luckily the fritillaries are just managing to hang on here, despite being reduced to just a small isolated population in what is sadly the last site for Marsh Fritillaries in the area.

With Marsh Fritillary colonies undergoing periodic population crashes and extreme swings in numbers, individuals will recolonise the area from other nearby populations as part of one large meta-colony in order to replenish numbers if they drop too low. If there is an absence of adjacent colonies nearby however, this lone surviving population could be in trouble if numbers do ever crash to unrecoverable numbers.
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Once a relatively widespread butterfly, Marsh Fritillaries have undergone a serious decline in numbers, especially in continental Europe, and the British Isles are now considered one of the few strongholds left for this charismatic species. Despite this, they have suffered severe population drops even in Britain due to the draining of their fenland and marshy habitat for agriculture, making the Marsh Fritillary a definite species of concern. Appropriate conservation measures will hopefully see them continue to grace our wetland meadows for years to come.
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary sites may be susceptible to trampling (especially if there are caterpillars still waiting to emerge in the undergrowth early on in the season) so it is always best to tread carefully and view from the footpath where possible.
Marsh Fritillary
With their gorgeous chequered patterns of orange, yellow and cream hues, Marsh Fritillaries are one of our most attractive fritillaries, and it was fascinating to study them up close as they nectared and rested on the strands of grass - we even witnessed two individuals mating on one occasion.
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
An incredibly enjoyable day at a beautiful reserve, and I for one really hope that the population continues to hang on and delight visitors for years to come.

Friday, 5 August 2016

MEGA!! Purple Swamphen at Minsmere - should it get accepted on to Category A?

There is no arguing that Purple Swamphens in Britain have a very chequered history – the records are littered with unscrupulous escapees and the possibility of a genuine vagrant reaching our shores always seemed a very remote possibility indeed. Fast forward 6 years from the last twitched individual (an escapee that took a liking to a muddy ditch in Saltney) and Sunday afternoon saw phones bleeping and twitter coming alive in the birding community as reports surfaced of a Purple Swamphen at Minsmere spotted lurking amongst the reeds surrounding the pool near South Hide.
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere
Originally put out as ringed on the RSPB Minsmere Twitter feed before some hasty backtracking, it soon became apparent that this was the best candidate yet as a genuine vagrant, and most definitely had the potential to achieve what all British Purple Swamphens before it had spectacularly failed to accomplish – gain acceptance on to Category A of the British list.

Unringed, with full wings and most importantly being of the Western race of Purple Swamphen (‘Purple Swamphen’ as a species was split last year in to 6 full species, with Western Swamphen occupying Iberia and the Western Mediterranean), the chances were high that this could indeed be the real deal.
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
Digiscoped shot showing the full wings
Booking a day off work for the Thursday, Alex drove the epic 4+ hour journey to Minsmere from Cheshire, setting off at an ungodly hour in the morning and still managing to experience the joys of the M6 in all its glory (lorry fires, rolled over lorries, exploding lorry tyres and the inevitable motorway closures that come with it) eventually arriving on site at just after half 10. Approaching South Hide, I was surprised to see a relatively large crowd of birders and scopes present for a weekday, and we joined the waiting assemble to try and get a glimpse of the much talked about ‘Purple Chicken’.
Minsmere, Suffolk
The view over the pool at South Hide - the very same pool that held a Black-browed Albatross last year! 
After keeping us on our toes for around 45 minutes having disappeared in to a channel, the cries soon went up that the hen was back on show, and sure enough, we soon got a glimpse as it slowly worked its way through the reeds and crept through the shallows. At more than twice the size of the nearby Moorhens and being bright purple, it stuck out like a sore thumb, looking extremely out of place in a British reed bed and at one point positively startling the Mallards that had been dozing peacefully on the water’s edge.
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
With over 40 records of Purple Swamphen in Britain in the past and with all considered to be escapees, what's to stop the Minsmere bird joining them in the realms of escaped Swamphen purgatory? One huge point to consider is that the majority of records in Britain refer to the Grey-headed form of Purple Swamphen - found throughout Asia and the most commonly kept type in captivity. The Minsmere bird being of the Western type therefore immediately elevates it to the top of the list of likely wild candidates, with vagrancy potential from the Mediterranean and Iberia much higher than from across Asia and the probability of it being an escapee being significantly less.
Grey-headed Swamphen - Florida
Grey-headed Swamphen - more often to be found in captivity than Westerns
Whilst mainly found across Iberia, Western Swamphens have very recently colonised Southern France as a breeding location, and 2016 has seen an unprecedented number of birds disperse much further north than ever before – to date 8 records have surfaced of 9 birds found across Drôme, Rhône, Saône-et-Loire and even as far north as Morbihan. Granted, Suffolk is much further (and contains the added hurdle of the English Channel) but following the French records in a line north leads straight to East Anglia, perhaps displaying a natural path of dispersal.
Purple Swamphen Distribution 2016
Map showing the Northerly Purple Swamphen reocrds during 2016.
Accepted as being genuine records in France if of the Western form, not all French birds have complied however, and a bird seen in 2014-2015 in Gironde relates to an African Swamphen of unknown origin and almost certainly an escapee, proving that not all records can be taken as gospel of being non-captive. 

Whilst at first glance the English Channel may pose as a stumbling block in the path of a Wild Purple Swamphen, it actually transpires that this species has made open water crossings before, with records from islands such as Malta, Menorca and Sardinia. The closely related American Purple Gallinule also has various records of long distance vagrancy (across the Atlantic Ocean no less) under it's belt, while other species of crake and rail have similarly shown instances of extreme distance flights, dispelling any myths that this family of birds are poor flyers. 
American Coot - Florida
American Coot and American Purple Gallinule - two species that have made the epic crossing across the Atlantic and dispelling the myth that rails are poor flyers
Often thought of as non-migratory birds, many species of Crakes and Rails do indeed move, often in the summer months, and it is entirely plausible that what at first glance may seem unlikely, is in fact a very real possibility.

However, one question to consider surrounding the Western Swamphen’s ability to travel long distances revolves around the large die off of Western Swamphens in France during the harsh winter of 2012, when several hundred birds were killed due to lack of food and starvation as their ponds froze over solid. If the conditions were so tough to the point of death, then why didn’t the Swamphens simply move elsewhere in order to survive?

Whilst most records of Purple Swamphens can quickly be attributed to being an escape, often traced back to a specific collection, two other great candidates for being Britain’s first genuinely wild Purple Swamphen have occurred in the past, yet have both been rejected; a bird found in Cumbria in 1997 that was rejected on the basis of being thought to be a hybrid between two races and therefore deemed to be of captive origin, and a promising individual at Sandbach in Cheshire back in 1971. Thought by many to be of the Western form, the record was rejected presumably on the basis that it couldn’t be proven that it wasn’t an escapee, especially with no pattern of previous natural occurrence in Britain. If the Minsmere bird does eventually get accepted, then surely this record must also be reviewed.  
Western Swamphen - Portugal
Western Swamphen - Portugal
Western Swamphens in their native Iberia
Rather worryingly, and perhaps the most damning evidence against the Minsmere Swamphen’s acceptance on to the British list however comes in the form of recent claims on the Wildlife Photography in the UK Facebook group that a bird keeper on the Norfolk/Suffolk border lost a Purple Swamphen around 4 months ago. Investigations are currently underway to establish whether the bird was a Grey-headed or Western type – but if it turns out to be the latter then the Minsmere Swamphen’s fate will unfortunately be sealed as destined to lie in category E for all eternity. Despite all the promising information regarding the unprecedented dispersals in France, this will also without doubt be the correct decision, as a tough line in accepting birds (particularly firsts for Britain) is essential in keeping the integrity of the British list intact.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Pugsley's Marsh Orchid on Anglesey

With just two native species of orchid left to see in Britain (not counting those elusive Ghost Orchids), we planned a visit during half term to Cors Erddreiniog NNR on Anglesey to find one of my last remaining species – Pugsley’s Marsh Orchid.
Pugsley's Marsh Orchid - Anglesey
A fine specimen of Pugsley's Marsh Orchid - Anglesey
Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids are considerably scarce and local, only growing in a few select locations, including the rich fens of Anglesey.

Stopping over in Llandudno for the night, myself and Alex headed over to this fantastic fen reserve the next day in an effort to locate them, the weather following the trend for the week and providing us with clear blue skies and glorious sunshine.

Treading the path down through the reserve gates and over the boardwalk, we had soon found our prize – a large group of Dactylorhizas nestled within the wet marshy grass right at the end of the trail.

Consisting of a mix with Early Marsh Orchids (subsp. Incarnata) present, I was soon able to pick out the Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids within what I can only presume was a mixture of variations and Dact hybrids – the marked purple flowers didn’t really seem consistent with any species!

Never the less, we found a number of plants that fitted the characteristics of Pugsley’s Marsh perfectly (Mr Orchid himself Sean also later confirmed from photos) and I happily set about photographing these delicate and subtle beauties.
Pugsley's Marsh Orchid - Anglesey
Pugsley's Marsh Orchid - Anglesey
Pugsley's Marsh Orchid - Anglesey
Relatively hard to identify without knowing what to look for, a range of features give Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids a subtle but distinctive appearance. The flowering spike is usually distinctly one sided (with all flowers facing roughly the same way) and there tends to be a limited number (on average 6-14) well-spaced flowers on the spike. 
Pugsley's Marsh Orchid - Anglesey
A typically lop sided flower spike
The lip is also prominently 3 lobed with the central lobe projecting out as a prominent ‘tooth’, while the few leaves are relatively narrow (hence its former name of Narrow-leaved Marsh Orchid). The upper stem is also washed purple, as are the upper bracts, and the whole plant seems to have a rather delicate appearance. 
Pugsley's Marsh Orchid - Anglesey
Pugsley's Marsh Orchid - Anglesey
Note the purple washed stem and upper bracts.
A number of individuals in the colony should always be examined to confirm the identity, and Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids rarely bloom as just a single specimen in a mixed colony of Dactylorhiza.
Pugsley's Marsh Orchid - Anglesey
There has also been a considerable amount of research conducted centred on the genetic background and ancestry of Pugsley’s Marsh Orchid. Populations in Norfolk, Suffolk and elsewhere in southern England (south of a line from The Wash to the Severn) were long placed with Pugsley’s Marsh Orchid until 2012, when new genetic evidence suggested that they were instead a subspecies of Southern Marsh Orchid. It now seems that only the northern populations can be classed as true Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids.
Pugsley's Marsh Orchid - Anglesey
Pugsley's Marsh Orchid - Anglesey
Pugsley's Marsh Orchid - Anglesey
Pugsley's Marsh Orchid - Anglesey
I had previously visited Parsonage Moor reserve in Oxfordshire in the search for Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids, but sadly had only come across what at the time appeared to be a hybrid. Regardless, with the recent genetic analysis and revised distribution, this would now have been classes as a subspecies of Southern Marsh anyway.
Southern Marsh Orchid - Parsonage Moor
Southern Marsh Orchid at Parsonage Moor
Alongside the orchids we also found an interesting selection of carnivorous plants (always a favourite of mine) with several dew-drop laden leaves of Round-leaved Sundews visible growing on the moist mossy tussocks, as well as an abundance of Common Butterwort – a new species for me in the wild. Each had several small flies entrapped on the sticky leaves – fascinating, especially as wild carnivorous plants are not something I encounter all too often!
Round-leaved Sundew - Anglesey
Round-leaved Sundew - Anglesey
Round-leaved Sundew
Common Butterwort - Anglesey
Common Butterwort - Anglesey
Common Butterwort
With just once species of orchid left to see in the UK (Lindisfarne Helleborine) I’ll hopefully be able to catch up with my final target later on in the summer - fingers crossed for a good flowering season up on Lindisfarne!

How to get there:

There is no parking at Cors Erddreiniog itself, but there are spaces in the nearby village of Capel Coch - just a two minute walk from the reserve entrance gate. The post code for parking is LL73 8PH and the reserve is on the east side of the road down a small track next to a white cottage. Once through the gate, follow the track down the hill to a second gate and entrance board sign.
Cors Erddreiniog - Anglesey

Friday, 15 July 2016

Lady's Slipper Orchids at Gait Barrows NNR, Cumbria - The Lady of the Limestone

The Lady’s Slipper Orchid – perhaps the most well-known and charismatic of all our British orchids. Collected from its limestone haunts to near extinction in Victorian times, just one native plant now remains in Yorkshire – guarded each year and shrouded in secrecy to ensure its survival.
Lady's Slipper Orchid - Gait Barrows, Cumbria
Surely one of our most impressive looking native flowers, the sheer class of a Lady’s Slipper Orchid in full bloom is unrivalled – I have yet to meet anyone that doesn’t exclaim “wow” when they see one for the first time. Tall and elegant, with thick green leaves shrouding the delicate golden pouches framed perfectly by the twisting curls of rich maroon purple sepals – there is no doubt about it, the Lady’s Slipper Orchid brings a touch of glamour and the exotic to our British countryside. 
Lady's Slipper Orchid - Gait Barrows, Cumbria
Lady's Slipper Orchids - Gait Barrows, Cumbria

Thursday, 7 July 2016

White-winged Scoter off Murcar, Aberdeen!

White-winged Scoter is one exceptionally good looking bird. Ever since seeing the pictures of a drake photographed off Musselburgh back in 2013, I wanted to see one for myself – the extravagant flick of bold white eyeliner contrasting against the midnight black tones and striking pink bill elevating them a cut above the rest in Scoter terms. Yes, Velvet Scoters are attractive, but White-winged Scoters are in a whole different league.
White-winged Scoter - Murcar, Aberdeen
Record shot of the American White-winged Scoter
With very few records of either race (Deglandi or Stejnegeri) occurring in British seas (just one record of Deglandi from Aberdeen in 2011 and one record of Stejnegeri photographed in Lothian in 2013 – but not actually seen at the time) White-winged Scoters are a truly rare bird in Britain indeed, so when reports surfaced of an adult drake Deglandi type mixed in with the regular Scoter flock off Murcar Links Golf Course in Aberdeen, it was a no brainer to get up there.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Welsh Pearls - Pearl-bordered Fritillaries at Eyarth Rocks

Having never seen Pearl-bordered Fritillary before and sadly missing them at Glasdrum Wood earlier in the week, reports of a number of individuals on the wing at Eyarth Rocks near Ruthin saw me and Alex plan a visit during half term to try and catch up with them.
Pearl-bordered Fritillary - Eyarth Rocks
Eventually arriving on site, we made our way up the steep woodland slopes to the start of the reserve, navigating the many un-signposted tracks in the wood (with a few wrong turns) before the trees opened up to reveal the sunny hill top summit. Surrounded by open stands of bracken, the area was clearly being managed with Pearl-bordered Fritillaries in mind, and within a matter of minutes we had seen our first individual gliding majestically by.
Pearl-bordered Fritillary - Eyarth Rocks
Despite exploring the summit, it transpired the small patch of ground right at the start near the gate and entrance sign was the most productive, and we had up to four individuals feeding on the buttercups and Birds-foot Trefoil in the vicinity.

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