Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Arctic Terns

In the afternoon we moved on to Inner Farne. Similar birds but also the chance of seeing Arctic, Sandwich and Common Terns. The Arctic Terns were the reason for visiting here. Again I had seen them before but never this close. A feisty bird, they nest next to and on the paths and you come under constant attack from birds warning you to keep away from their nests. Wear a thick hat if you go there.

There must be a balance for the Arctic Terns. Nest close to where the people go as it protects against the predator gulls but keep the people away from the nests to protect the eggs. It was interesting that some of the birds took no part in the mobbing of the visitors, choosing to sit calmly on the nests as the people walked past just a few feet away. I wonder if these are older birds who know that they are safe and are happy to let the more excitable youngsters get on with the harassment.

It is difficult to believe that these tiny eggs will hatch in a few weeks and by the end of the year the young birds will be down in the South Atlantic part way through an annual 56,000 mile migration.

The Sandwich and Common Terns were a bit harder to find than the Arctic. The Sandwich Terns were nesting in a tight colony in the centre of the island.

Although their name suggests they should be easy to find, the Common Terns were in short supply on the island with just a few lone individuals found nesting.

The islands still show a brutal side. Gulls wait to attack and steal food from returning Puffins. They also predate nests stealing eggs and chicks. It looks harsh but they have to live and they also have chicks to feed.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

It is not a cheap trip, £35 for the all day birding trip and £26 to the National Trust for landing rights. Expensive but well worth it. The National Trust also has to get the balance right. Allowing people onto the islands inevitably means some disturbance and abandoned nests. However, the money they make goes to providing wardens and to protecting the birds. Keeping the cost high will deter some visitors but I have to say, not me. I will be going back at the first opportunity that I get.

Have the National Trust got the balance right? The boats were very crowded, I would say overcrowded, and there were lots of people on the islands. Most were not birders and many seemed to be surprised by the Arctic Terns attacking them. A well aimed brolly, handbag, or flailing arm could do a lot of damage to these small birds. I also wonder if all the money is being used for the benefit of the birds. I could not find any details of visitor numbers or income but they could easily be taking £5-10K a day. I hope it is all being spent on the birds.


I had a great family holiday in Northumberland. We stayed in a cottage just over a mile north of Belford and about four miles from the coast. Very peaceful, good company, lots of walking, a few beers and we even managed to squeeze in a bit of bird watching. In fact the whole family volunteered to do the Billy Shields all day birding trip to Inner Farne and Staple Island with me.

I am not sure that is exactly what I had in mind but I am glad they came. They all seemed to enjoy the experience, including being attacked by the Arctic Terns. Although my two sons were probably not so enthusiastic about a well aimed deposit from one of the gulls that just missed me but gave both of them a traditional welcome to the islands.

Staple Island was the first stop and fortunately I had been warned not to take the big lens. A 200mm or better still a 100-300 zoom is probably ideal. I felt sorry for the guy that had lugged his 800mm up the steps from the boat. It would have been almost impossible to get far enough away from any of the birds to get a picture.

Puffins and Shags were the main reason for visiting Staple Island. I have seen lots before but I have never been this close to them.

It was nice to get the picture opportunities but it was also a bit disconcerting. There was no need for any field craft or any need to take care to avoid disturbing the birds other than by not stepping on their nests. I am sure people got pictures as good as or better than mine just by walking up and pointing their mobile phones at them.

You should have seen the one that got away

 My initial thoughts were, are we disturbing the birds and should we be here at all. Then you see a Shag on a nest with a couple of chicks (Shaglets?) and a group of young children sitting round the nest within touching distance. The bird does not seem to be concerned. It may well have nested in that spot before and knows that it is not at risk and in fact is probably safer from predators by being choosing to be close to people.

Plenty of opportunity for Puffins in flight but perhaps not enough light to be able to freeze the action.

Shags, probably the least concerned of all the birds by the presence of people.

I was really there to photograph the Puffins and Shags but there were a good selection of other birds on offer. I was quite suprised to find that I only came away with a single picture of a Guillimot. Perhaps I should have spent longer concentrating on them.





In the afternoon we moved on to Inner Farne, seeing a similar selection of birds plus the Terns.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Common Clubtail

Having dipped the Common Clubtail Dragonfly on the Arun yet again, Dave and I decided on a trip up to Goring-on-Thames to look for them. They would still not be easy to find, but at least we knew there had been recent sightings.

The hot spot was the railway bridge over the Thames about a mile east of Goring. We parked up in Goring just after nine and walked the river bank to our destination, searching likely vegetation and objects along the bank for any sign of our target. Our estimates of success had not been high when we arrived, probably around 20%. By the time we got to the railway bridge they were down to just two or three percent. The weather was much cooler than we had expected, there were no insects flying anywhere and certainly no signs of Clubtails.

Hopes were raised when we met a fellow odonatist who knew a bit more about the local Clubtail population than we did. He pointed out Exuvia close to the bridge that we had missed and told us where to look for emerging specimens.

Common Clubtail Exuvia

Re-energised we searched again. We found more exuvia but with the time just coming up to one o'clock there was still no sign of an emerging larva. We had thought that emergence would only be in the morning and were just about to give up and head for home when Dave found a specimen that had climbed the wall that we were searching and was out on the grass.

Emerging Common Clubtail Larvae.

The location was not ideal for obtaining a photographic record but we did not want to move the larvae or do anything that could compromise its final emergence as a Dragonfly. The following pictures record that emergence over a period of just over an hour.

12.50    Drying out

13.02    Thorax pumping up, laval cuticle begins to split

We would have been a bit disappointed if a Four-spotted Chaser had popped out at this point. We also had an interesting discussion over the point it actually becomes a Clubtail Dragonfly and gives us the life tick. Geek or what?

13.04    Head emerges 

13.05    Thorax and first segments out

13.06    Legs coming out

13.08    Legs out 

13.09   No action for a few minutes as the legs harden

13.16    Using hardened legs to withdraw the rest of the body

13.17 Body out but wings still compressed

13.17    Body fluid being pumped through the wing veins to expand the wings

13.23    Wing expansion continues

13.29    Wings fully expanded, body fluids now pumped to expand the abdomen

13.36  Nearing completion

13.40    Drying wings, seems to be disposing of excess body fluids

12.41    Nearly ready to fly

12.53     Just before short first flight

12.58     A few feet from emergence point, still drying wings and preparing for longer flight

And then it was gone. I like to think that we watched over it and safeguarded it during this vulnerable period. Birds were probably not too much of a threat but there were dogs about and it could have been at risk from humans like us searching the river bank.

Just to prove it wasn't a fluke here is a second one we found just before leaving. This was in a bit more precarious position gripping the stone wall overhanging the river.

A bit of a slow start but in the end a great day and two very satisfied photographers. Just one problem, we still don't have that Sussex tick! No, two problems, this is only a teneral, where do we find a mature adult?

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Scarce Chaser

Tuesday was a bit of a mixed day. Good in that for the first time this year we saw Dragonfly and Damselfly in decent numbers. Bad in that we did not find our target, the Club-tailed Dragonfly.

We spent most of the morning on a detailed search of just over a mile of the Arun river bank from New Bridge near Billingshurst up as far as the old mill. It was interesting, we found Hairy Dragonflies, various Damselflies, exuvia hanging from vegetation, and a variety of insects that I am still trying to identify. What we didn't find was any sign of the Clubtails. I have a bad feeling about this. Last year I spent at least five days searching various stretches of the river without even a sniff of a clubtail. Do they still survive on the Arun?

What did we find? A freshly emerged Scarce Chaser in lovely condition and fortunately for us reluctant to fly.

Large Red Damselflies - my first of the year.

Azure Damselflies

Male and Female Banded Demoiselle

Common Blue Butterfly - another first for the year

And finally a Mayfly, or what I have always known as a Mayfly, freshly emerged and hanging out to dry.

Reading up on them I see that Mayfly is the common name for the group of insects  Ephemera vulgata with fifty one species known in the UK. Facinating to read that these were one of the first winged insects. Fossils have been found dating back over 300 million years, well before the dinosaurs. Hmmm... - a little bit more research and this could be the start of another list!

But back to the Clubtail. I cannot face another year of dipping this Dragonfly so the next good day and it will be a trip up to Goring-on-Thames and a search around the railway bridge. Look out for the next Blog.