Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Shetland Shindig

I've just staggered back to London after an excellent weekend's wildlife exploring in Shetland. More to follow once I've unpacked and triaged the steaming pile of emails that await. To whet your appetites I attach a photo. Roger Riddington (editor of the esteemed British Birds) aka Strider is on the left, and Martin Garner (uber-birder and author of Frontiers in Birding) is on the right. We haven't decided which hobbit he is yet. They're looking for a rostrata Redpoll.
I think it badly needs a caption. Please post your suggestions.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Final Frit

I thought we had completed the full set of British Fritillaries back in June when we finally nailed High Brown in the valleys near Dartmoor. But then reading my treasured copy of Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington's "The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland" I was reminded of the beautiful Queen of Spain.

This has always been an exceptionally rare insect in the UK. The nearest colonies are on the coastal dunes of mainland Europe. Many decades ago, Queen of Spain Fritillaries used to breed near Calais. It seems that individuals from this relatively adjacent colony would occasionally make it across the Channel, perhaps breeding for a generation in Southern counties if they could find the pansies that are their larval foodplant. Sadly, the Calais colony is long gone and sightings in England are now few and far between.

Nevertheless, the mention of coastal breeding colonies got me thinking. A spot of research soon threw up several promising sites in Holland. So on the back of another meeting in the Netherlands, very late in the season, an attempt was made to track down this elusive butterfly that just about makes it onto the British list.

I am delighted to say the expedition was a success. Her Majesty was finally located in some fine sand dunes located in a most dubious situation between a raucous dog pound and a roaring motor racing circuit! The sound track may need a spot of improvement, but the fritillaries themselves performed splendidly for the camera: nectaring, basking and even copulating.

It seems an age to wait for next Spring and the awakening of the Orange Tips that will herald a new season. Let's hope it is as good a one as 2009 has been. Perhaps we will be very lucky and see one final firework this year: with luck the Clouded Yellows may yet perform in October. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Tufted Puffin

Good grief! The Red-billed Tropicbird and the Blackburnian Warbler were enough for any week. But no. This morning the phone rang with an excitable and slightly panicking news operator on the end: "I can't get a Tufted Puffin to be a Mega!". I was pondering why on earth one would want a Tufted Puffin to be a Mega as the penny slowly dropped. There was one. Really. In the UK.

Cue quickfire questioning and lots of swearing. Who, what, where, how, WTF? Are we sure? I pressed the big Mega button with trembling fingers and rang Mark Golley: "There's a Tufted Puffin! Yes seriously. Don't know - get yourself to Kent."

The phone immediately rang again: the Press Association. Then it went a bit nuclear. The Guardian, the BBC, photo desk editors, updates from the scene, more press, all interspersed with the usual daily tasks. Slowly the news began to take shape. Yes it was real, there are photos and a magical seven lucky people saw it. Bets are taken as to where it's going to turn up: should we all go and stake out Westminster Bridge with sardines for chum? Is it already whirring past Porthgwarra? Has anyone phoned round the collections yet?

We're all rather dazed. Fingers crossed for the wee gem turning back up tomorrow so that everyone has a fighting chance of seeing this unexpected First for Britain and Ireland. Some of you will remember my previous plea for prospective firsts - this wasn't on it.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Pied Wag post script

One of the things we should all do at this time of year is to clear out our nestboxes. Once you've disposed of any contents, you can disinfect the box with boiling water. Let it dry out, and perhaps put some wood shavings or hay (not straw) inside in case it's used over the winter as a roost.

We followed our own advice and cleaned out our poor Pied Wagtail nest. Andrew did the intrepid ladder-climbing and popped the abandoned nest and eggs in a plastic tub for inspection.
The nest is made of twigs and some moss, and has been lined with feathers, hair and some wool. The clutch of 5 eggs is typical (according to the BTO data in our Breeding Birds software). I guess we'll never know why the nest failed. It could have been the super-hot spell we had whilst the birds were incubating. I'm going to re-site the box somewhere more shaded for next year.

Other happenings this week included a trip to visit invertebrate-artist god, Richard Lewington (where entertainingly there was a grasshopper perched on his front wall). A meeting with the good people of Bumblebee Conservation Trust was very productive, and I finally finished fiddling with my new Lindo at Large. It'll be appearing on the webzine very soon.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Fruit Thieves Framed

Far too many green moths and butterflies have featured recently on this blog. Time for some green birds. And what could be greener than this fine family of Ring-necked Parakeets that I finally managed to capture – red-handed – in my pear tree. On HD video that is.

That is Mrs Parakeet on the left, junior in the middle and, Pa Parkeet flying in for a fruit feast on the right. They do this every autumn, although it is devilishly difficult to catch them on camera. They are even worse than crows for knowing that you are attempting to film them. Early morning is best.

These pears are at a height of about 30 feet, and fortuitously there is a window more or less level that provides a convenient vantage point. It is astonishingly easy to miss these brightly coloured birds quietly chomping away in the foliage. Same camouflage technique as Golden Orioles I suppose.

Should we welcome these recent invaders? They have become one of the more numerous and vocal birds in the parks around Acton where BirdGuides' London office is based. Presumably they compete with other hole-nesting birds such as Great Spotted Woodpecker and perhaps Stock Dove. I hear on the grape vine that moves are afoot to curb the Parakeet population. Does anyone know of hard evidence that they are doing harm to the natural population? And are there any reliable estimates of their current population?