Thursday, 29 June 2017

Purple Emperor

I paid a visit to the Knepp estate today. I am not sure if I am a fan of the wilding project or not. To start with it is not really wild. It has more footpaths, tracks  and signposts than any area of countryside that I know and I cannot help feeling that it is a manufactured environment to attract wildlife. Still, that is not necessarily a bad thing and they do need to generate an income to support the project they are working on.

In the end I went because it is now the premier site in the country for Purple Emperors. Counts of 140+ and 130 + have been reported there over the past couple of weeks. I had tried a few of my traditional sites for the Emperors but my only sightings were high in the trees with nothing coming down to the ground, so I decided to give Knepp a go.

I didn't see 140 but my count did get into double figures, just, I saw ten. Most were in the tops of the trees with only one coming down and then only for a few seconds.

Purple Emperor

Perhaps more impressive were the numbers of Purple Hairstreaks. Record shots like the one below were easy to come by but what I really wanted was an open wing shot of a male Purple Hairstreak. It has been close to the top of my butterfly wish list for a long time. I didn't get one, despite hours of waiting for them to come down out of the trees, but my thanks to the guy that showed me his perfect picture. I really appreciated that. It even convinced me to waste another hour standing in the hot sun waiting for my chance to come along.

Plenty of other butterflies about particularly if you like Meadow Browns.

White Admiral

Large Skipper

Marbled White

Small Skipper

There were also a number of Silver-washed Fritillary about but they weren't stopping to have their pictures taken.

The free roaming animals often come as a surprise. This piglet following me down the path before disappearing into the undergrowth.

There were also some interesting Dragonflies. My first Southern Hawker of the year. I could have done with a cleaner background but still worth recording.

Southern Hawker

There were also White-legged Damselflies, again my first of the year. I was surprised to see them so far from a river where they are usually seen. However, checking it does appear that they move away from the rivers during the maturation period.

White-legged Damselfly - immature female lactea phase

White-legged Damselfly - male

another immature female

I did have one heart stopping moment. White Stork in the distance but then I realised there were a pair of them in a very well protected compound.

I couldn't find any reference to them on the web. I assume this is part of a re-introduction program but it would be nice to know if it is purely a Knepp initiative or is part of a national program.  If they breed there is a good chance that the chicks will return to nest in the same area once they mature. Look out for nesting platforms going up over the next few years.

Note July26th  -  Statement from the Knepp Estate on their part in a White Stork rewilding project,   ( It is good to get an understanding of what is happening and an explanation for the White Stork Sightings around the area. Lets hope the project is a great success.

I should also apologise for straying off the public footpaths. My excuse - perhaps not quite enough of the signposting that I commented on above.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Sussex Common Clubtail

Having made the trip up to Goring on Thames to see the Clubtails emerging (see blog), the pressure was off and I had lost track of my target of finding one in Sussex. Seeing the blogs from Matt and Bob Eade last night reminded me that the males would now be returning to the rivers to establish their territories and to look for females. It was time for me to make a return visit to some of the likely locations.

I would like to be able to say exactly where I found them but I am faced with the usual problem. If I give too much information the area will be trampled and the population will be put at risk. All I will say is that in Sussex the Common Clubtails can be found on stretches of the Rivers Arun and Rother. If you do a bit of basic research you will find the best areas to look. Better still, see if any of the other rivers are holding a population. Can they still be found on the Cuckmere? Now is the time to look.

It was hot out there today and after nearly three hours standing in the sun I was ready to go home. I had seen a lot of Clubtails but I didn't have a good picture. They were very mobile and when they did put down it was in the branches or reeds overhanging the water on the opposite bank. I just couldn't get a decent record shot, even with the big lens.

Still, I was happy, I had seen it and a Sussex tick on the Clubtail was one of my key targets for the year. I packed all my gear then decided to have one final look before I left. Panic, there was one on my side of the river, could I get the camera out before it took off.

Not only did I get the camera out but it returned three times to the same area. Happy days.

I still had to use the telephoto. A shame really, just a little bit closer and I could have got it on the macro.

Hard work but a great find. I also saw a Golden-ringed but it was motoring down the river at speed and I had no chance of a picture.

Here are a few other record shots taken over the past week or so. Nothing very exciting. It is strange how you always end up with the same set of photographs. I have followed Emperors, Hawkers, Hairy dragonflies, Downy Emeralds, and others but early in the season it is difficult to find them grounded.

Red-eyed Damselfly

Banded Demoiselle (Male)

Banded Demoiselle (Female)

Female Black-tailed Skimmer

Broad-bodied Chaser

Probably a Common Blue

Definitely a Common Blue

Four-Spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

Large Red

Mayfly -  One of 51 species in Britain 

Good record shots but it wasn't worth the blog until the Common Clubtail turned up.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017


Sad to report, but a most unsatisfactory session with a Cuckoo. Or perhaps I should say with people photographing the Cuckoo.

We had heard reports of a male Cuckoo at Thursley Common that was being fed mealworms and so returned to the same area on a regular basis. I was interested, I had heard a number of Cuckoos during the spring but had not managed to see one, and they would be starting to head back to Africa soon. We just happened to be at Thursley photographing dragonflies, it was a no brainer, we went to have a look.

Initially it looked quite good. Just the two of us there and a good viewing area with some cover available for concealment. We settled down to wait. After about an hour, team one turned up. They were reasonably pleasant but explained that the bird was virtually tame and you could get a lot closer without spooking it. They proceeded to set up perches and sprinkle mealworms around the area.

Redstart on team one perch - he wanted his share of the mealworms

A short time later team two turned up. They walked out into the field of view and proceeded to set up a different perch and liberally laced it with caterpillars. No explanations no apologies.

Perhaps this is the point at which we should have left but we had waited about an hour and a half in the hot sun and we could hear the Cuckoo calling. We stayed, after all it was our year tick!

The Cuckoo flew into an adjacent tree but which perch to choose, mealworm or caterpillars. More caterpillars where thrown out. Half of team one joined team two. No competition, big juicy caterpillars are the obvious choice and it chose perch two.

With the food so easy to find the Cuckoo made a few sorties on to the ground and then flew back to the perch or more often into the tree. It wasn't around for long. Team one were muttering that it had filled up too quickly on the caterpillars and that it would have been on the ground for longer looking for the mealworms. Team two were not bothered. They had lured the Cuckoo to within about twenty feet with more handfuls of caterpillars and a trail of them leading up to their big lenses. The Cuckoo certainly wasn't bothered. Stupid humans providing unlimited food, he had trained them well!

What was I doing apart from looking down my nose at my fellow toggers? There was a Cuckoo on the ground about fifty feet from where I was sitting. I was taking pictures.

It all felt a bit like observing a bird in a zoo but then who am I to criticise. Feeding stations are getting more and more popular - Red Kites, Eagles, etc; The RSPB do it; I am sure the top wildlife photographers all do it; I have one set up in my back garden. But then I would not take a picture of birds on my feeders (unless it was a real rarity). Perhaps it really comes down to the issue of passing off pictures of tame birds as wild birds. It just leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Learn some field craft and go and find some wild birds.

Perhaps this has been a good lesson for me. I always thought that the picture was all that counted. I guess I realise now and have probably always really know that it is the when, where and how that really add the value and create the exceptional shots.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Elegant Tern

The Elegant Tern, that had frequented Sandy Point on Hayling Island for a couple of days, was reported to have headed east along the coast on Friday evening. Come Saturday morning and the likely stop off points in West Sussex were all under observation from early morning. But not by me, as unfortunately I had prior commitments until early afternoon.

The bird was eventually found by Alan Kitson late morning at Church Norton on the west side of Pagham Harbour. Should I go? I don't like twitches and I don't (usually) go to them. Worse still, if it was in Pagham Harbour it would probably be on Tern Island and that would be at least 250 meters from the nearest observation point. That's "showing well" range if you are into sea watching but us Toggers need closer views.

I checked with my buddy Dave but he didn't want anything to do with it - too many people. I thought about it and in the end I decided to go. It was on my patch and it's a bird I may never get to see again.

I parked up at the Visitor Centre and walked down the west side of the harbour eventually getting to Church Norton at about three o'clock. As expected the twitch was forty plus, the bird was on Tern Island and it was on the ground with the Sandwich Terns keeping its head down in the long grass.

Tern Island viewed through the 500mm lens - it's somewhere in the grass

I spent about an hour scanning the island with the bins and my small spotter scope. It did occasionally raise its head and you could see the distinctive orange and slightly drooping bill but there were no clear views. I attempted a couple of record shots but then realised that I had left both the  lens extenders at home.

At around a quarter past four it started to get a bit more active, making occasional small flights but then always dropping back into the vegetation. I did eventually get my record shots. They are not that good but at least this is a really distinctive bird and when heavily cropped there can be no doubt on the identification.

I am always suspicious of unusual birds in the wrong places. This one should be on the Pacific coast of the Southern United States and Mexico. Fortunately there are at least three examples of these Elegant Terns in Europe as well as Elegant x Sandwich Tern hybrids. They have been the subject of some detailed study and I am told that this particular male was ringed in France and has been DNA tested and proved to be pure. See this Birdguides article if you want more information.

White ring on the right tarsus and it looks like red on the left tarsus

The colour ring details shown above suggest this is bird B detailed in the Birdguides article above. Well it looks as though I got that wrong. Lee Evans reports that it has a metal ring on right tarsus (FT67249) and white plastic one, with green above yellow on the left tarsus (ringed in 2003). So bird C detailed in the Birdguides article above.

It is also likely that with a french male on the loose along the south coast, we will have our own group of Elegant x Sandwich Tern hybrids to observe next year.

Lets hope it stays a few days. When the crowds go down I may be able to get a better picture and I really would like to get a better image of the colour rings.

Monday 12th June

Went back this morning for another look. The twitch was much reduced from yesterdays numbers but there were still around fifty people when we arrived at about 0830. We watched for about three and a half  hours. A few people managed to get views of it on Tern Island as it stuck its head up out of the long grass but you had to be quick to see it. Towards the end of that time we had a few distant and very brief views as it made short flights over the island.

It was always at a range of about 250 metres so from a photography point of view just a little disappointing. However, I did manage to get a shot showing the ring colours. 

White ring on the right tarsus and green over yellow on the left tarsus

As indicated on Saturdays blog above, this confirms Lee Evans observations and this is bird C as detailed in the Birdguides article. So this bird has DNA that matches that of a pure Elegant Tern. The method of DNA analysis, multilocus barcoding, confirming both parents as Elegant Tern.

Great bird but I just wish I could get a good picture.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Roseate Tern

Highlight of the Northumberland trip was Coquet Island and the Roseate Terns. I may have seen them before but they were distant and I could not be sure. This was a chance to bury the doubt. I would still not get close views as you cannot land on the island but I would at least get a record shot.

I used Puffin Cruises for the trip around the island. They are based in Amble and the short trip out and around the island lasts about an hour. The boat trip was far more enjoyable than the Farne Island trip. Numbers on the boat were severely limited, there was plenty of room to move around, and it was a lot easier to see things and to get pictures.

One tip, book to go on a high tide. The boat can get closer to the island and you will get better views.

The Roseates like to nest in holes so a wall has been built and nest boxes installed for them to use. Roseates can be seen sitting outside boxes 142, 139 and 11 and below are close crops on numbers 11 and 142.

The Roseates have distinctive all black bills which makes them easy to identify even from a moving boat. Taking pictures though is just a little bit harder.

I would like to have got closer and to have come away with better picture but it was not possible and also not worth the risk to the birds. They are a red listed species, in rapid decline, with only about a hundred nesting pairs in the United Kingdom and with ninety percent of those on this island.

Wardens guard the island during the breeding season and these efforts by the RSPB are seeing a gradual increase in the numbers breeding there.


I was only really interested in the Roseate but there are huge numbers of other birds around the island. Terns, Guilemots, Razorbills, Puffins and Eider were all there in large numbers. In particular the large rafts of Puffins just off the island were very impressive.