Saturday, 30 April 2011

Pearl-bordered Fritillaries

I've scooted up to Scotland to take advantage of the lengthy Bank Holiday, and have been blessed with uncharacteristically good weather. Today an outing to the Butterfly Conservation reserve at Mabie Forest was plotted in the hope of some very early Pearl-bordered Frits.

So I pitched up with my brother at Mabie fairly early this morning. And glorious it was too. Wall-to-wall sunshine despite some stiff easterlies.

We'd neglected to work out exactly where in this enormous site we needed to go. And the information boards were unhelpful, and there was a complete dearth of leaflets. We set out armed with Viewranger for iPhone as navigation and crossed fingers.

Mabie forest is a wonderful place to visit. A Wood Warbler serenaded us from a stand of mature Beech, and a pond with a boardwalk was heaving with newts (apologies for the terrible pic).
I'm not entirely sure what flavour of newt it might be - but hopefully someone will let me know. 

So after a bit of misguided hill-walking (and filming a bumblebee cuckoo that *might* be Bombus vestalis) we finally headed down the right path (and if any of you fancy emulating my intrepid adventure you need to follow the dark-red markers).

Fraser (who is a Pearl-bordered virgin) suddenly shouted: "There's one!". But he was wrong. There were dozens. Dozens, and dozens of little fiery-orange frits darting from flower to flower, and basking on the bracken. They're all really fresh (apart from the one featuring below) as it's so early. They were a joy to behold - cavorting in the spring sunshine, courting and warring and nectaring. 

Sadly the breeze was too stiff for either good film or good photos. But who cares. Spring sun and thriving rare butterflies are good for the soul. Butterfly Conservation should be congratulated on the excellent work they are doing at this site. I've never, ever seen such a profusion of these rare and threatened frits. 

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Duckling-tastic at RSPB Lochwinnoch

Anyone who's ever suffered a few kids will have some sympathy for a female Mallard at Lochwinnoch RSPB reserve who has a whopping brood of 27 ducklings! She's been working hard to protect them from predators, although despite her best efforts she is now down to 24.

The RSPB reserve team will be following the progress of this monster family, which are regulars at the feeding station there. Keep up on the RSPB’s community page.

The photo here is courtesy of Danny Ferguson.

Almost-Easter eggs

Having been away since Thursday, I came back to find a very impressive six eggs in the Blue Tit box.

She must have just started laying as I left, with one egg per day sounding about right. The Nest Box Challenge results seem to show that we're a little bit late, with birds on eggs now as far north as Lanarkshire.

So assuming she'll lay 3 or 4 more eggs and then incubate for 13-15 days (facts and figures courtesy of the BTO BirdFacts page), we should be looking at the first chicks hatching on 6th May!

Saturday, 16 April 2011

A fun day in Budapest

Contentedly enjoying some chat along with a rather excellent Hungarian dessert wine at the BirdLife partner conference in Budapest, I idly checked the BirdGuides news page on my iPhone: it wouldn't load but I just put that down to a hotel wifi connection overloaded with BirdLife partners from 43 countries skyping home. It was a short while later that I stole a quick glance at my email, thereby sealing my fate for the next 30 or so hours. Not only was our web server down, but, chillingly, the duty engineer at our ISP claimed not to be able to find a bootable operating system on it. Website crises habitually fall into two categories: short-term panics that are usually quickly resolved by unflappable engineers, or unfolding disasters of epic proportions. A dreadful sinking feeling told me this was the latter, as I made my apologies and scurried back to my hotel room.

And so it was to be.

Initially our Master Boot Record appeared to be mashed: not a very nice thing to happen to anyone, but fixing it is a routine procedure and most patients go on to live a full and happy life. I suggested to the helpful engineer at our ISP that he might copy off a few vital files for me before patching the MBR "just in case anything went wrong". A short while later he called me back and cheerfully told me he couldn't read any files on the disk, but "not to worry", we'd get them off the most recent backup. Having a long and well-founded distrust of backups, I found it difficult to share his optimism. Hours pass; I can't sleep. Eventually I call to see what the story is: less cheery this time, he tells me that yes they have the backup, but the vital website configuration files are not present. You mean they're missing?!! Yes, but "not to worry", he has passed our case on to the escalation team. Meantime they have worked hard to reinstall the OS and "even upgraded it to the latest version". This a bit like the fire chief telling you that sorry your house has burned down and no, they couldn't save your filing cabinet with the house plans, but don't worry, we've cleared the site and, hey, we even upgraded your septic tank so you're good to go!

So with little sleep and and regretting the glass or two of wine I had so recently savoured, I'm faced with having to rebuild the BirdGuides website configuration more-or-less from scratch. Fortunately Hungarian coffee is just as potent as their dessert wine, and the BirdGuides "escalation team" swings into action. I hang a Do not Disturb sign on the hotel room door. A moment of inspired paranoia a while back prompted me to make a few backups of my own: I remember these, dig them out and get to work. But by lunch time I'm tired and starving and no longer fit to be left in charge of any server, let alone the BirdGuides server. I'm persuaded to take a break, so I wander down to the hotel restaurant and ask if they do a light lunch. The kind waitress tells me she has just the ticket - the Hungarian Business Lunch Special: four courses topped and tailed with an aperitif and coffee. Very, very tempting - but absolutely lethal in my condition, so I have to disappoint her and ask for a sandwich instead, and a very strong coffee. She brings me an aperitif anyhow - I must look like I need it.

Late afternoon, and is emerging from its near death experience. The bird news team is busily catching up with entering the day's news and we're almost ready to go live. Dave and Fiona are frantically testing and making sure all those obscure parts of the website are still functional, all the while blogging and tweeting to keep you all informed. Meantime I'm wrestling with a recalcitrant security certificate. At last the lock symbol appears, and you can confidently buy all those goodies from BirdGuides in the firm assurance that your security is protected by a company called It's time to throw the switch.

Within seconds the traffic on kicks in, and grows, and grows, and grows. It's heartwarming and also rather scary to watch. Will the server cope? Have we forgotten anything? To imagine that so many people have been sitting (im)patiently at their browsers just waiting for this moment! It made my day. I wander down to the restaurant again, but sadly the Hungarian Business Lunch Special is off the menu.

So, as politicians promise after all good disasters, lessons will be learned. We clearly need to improve our resilience. But it is worth saying that our data - your data - was unaffected: it lives on a dedicated RAID array of hard drives and on a separate dedicated database server.

Thanks are due to Adrian at our ISP who toiled through the night to help us, and to my colleagues Fiona and Dave, without whose help and support the whole process would have taken so much longer.

I'm off to the Hortobágyi for a few days and this time I won't be checking my email...

Menzie's New Hobby

Hope he hasn't given up birding...

Monday, 11 April 2011


This is kinda fun and also rather ground-breaking, as 15 Adelie Penguins have been fitted with small cameras which provide a fascinating insight into the lives of these birds.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

April mothing

Yesterday evening was spent in the delightful Perivale Woods, setting up moth traps followed by a session of 'dusking' (running around with a net catching anything that happens to fly in front of you) and 'sugaring' (wandering around checking 'sugar' baited tree trunks, generally failing to find any moths).

Species encountered on our dusking tour of the woods included an Early Thorn, some lacewings (including a tiiiiiiny white one), several very attractive Lunar Marbled Browns that had already been attracted in to the traps:

a Nuctenea umbratica (we think):

And a European Hedgehog:

We were back this morning to check the traps. Plenty of Eriocrania subpurpurella:

Quite a few Brindled Pugs, too:

Some Hebrew Characters:

An Oak Beauty:

An Early Thorn:

And, excitingly, a new species for the site: Pine Beauty. It's nationally quite common and widespread but its absence from Perivale can be explained by the scarcity there of its foodplant - pine.

Messrs Howdon, Culshaw & Whitby photograph the Pine Beuaty:

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Blue Tit update II

Two blogs in a day seems excessive, but I thought it was time to bring you up-to-date with the happenings in the nestbox.

The female has been busy filling the box with moss and the nest is now almost two-thirds built. The 'nestbox shuffle' is working overtime now, creating a good solid central cup, even though you can't see it here!

Whilst we're still a way off eggs yet, there are already reports of birds laying as far north as Merseyside. In fact, logging on to the results pages at 'Nest Box Challenge' also shows the pattern, with the first blue markers showing those nests with eggs by yesterday.

Owls, Duck and Rice

I feel guilty posting so soon after Mark's piece about the wandering White-tailed Eagle yesterday. So please scroll down if you have not yet read it. However I bring dramatic news from South Kensington...

Yes I mean No – negative news regarding the Kensington Garden Tawny Owls. Traditionally at this time of year a fresh crop of baby owlets make their appearance... "branching" as the phenomenon is known. There are just a few days when the baby owls are on show, yet the leaves have not fully appeared on the trees to obscure them. The beautiful Spring weather prompted us to take a look, and sure enough we soon found a crown of like-minded London Birders. No luck. We searched all trees but no trace. Misery.

And then as we trudged forlornly out of the park, we received a call from none other than Des McKenzie, the King of Kensington Gardens himself. The birds had been located...

Here is the proof: a dodgy digi-bin on Stephen's iPhone.

And so we headed off for a celebratory ornithological lunch.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Invisible barn door

You may not have been following the wanderings of England's White-tailed Eagle, but it first appeared in West Sussex in mid-December, spending most of its winter in Hampshire. It left the south of the county on 9th February before turning up further north two weeks later.

More recently it left Hampshire on 24th March and disappeared. So when we got a report of a bird in Lincolnshire and then in Norfolk two hours later (pretty good going!) then we did wonder if it might be the same bird. It didn't find anywhere in Norfolk quite to its liking though and wandered all along the coast before popping over to Suffolk for a bit and then back to Norfolk.

Norfolk being Norfolk, it was obviously going to be photographed, and once some images were submitted we could compare it with those of the Hampshire bird. On both birds, a middle primary on the left wing has a distinct cut tip to the feather and on the right wing there's an unusual gap in the secondaries. This seems pretty conclusive and it is indeed the Hampshire bird. Check these two similar photos.

We wonder if it might have headed along the Thames valley and then the Derwent/Trent valley to find itself in Lincolnshire, but how does a massive flying barn door manage to make this journey (shown on our BirdMap below) mostly unseen?!

***STOP PRESS*** A day is a long time in the life of a White-tailed Eagle and no sooner had I blogged this than the bird had turned back west, headed back out into the Wash and dropped in to Gibraltar Point in the afternoon!