Summer migrant at last!

The weather last weekend certainly suggested that spring had sprung and the many signs of the changing seasons about such as flowering Wood-Sorrel and active Bee-Flies supported that fact. However despite the beautiful sunny weather, by yesterday morning I was still yet to see a summer migrant this year!

Early yesterday morning I spent over an hour at the beautifully serene and calm Hedgecourt Lake waiting for a particular species I was hoping to see arrive. Ospreys are apparently seen here every spring and autumn when they travel through on their way to their more northerly breeding grounds. However I have never seen a single one here.

The previous evening (Saturday) not one but two Ospreys were reported nearby at Weir Wood Reservoir just as the sun was setting at 18:30. I was hoping that they would carry on their migration northwards earlier this morning and arrive at Hedgecourt, which is the nearest large waterbody to the reservoir. That is the main reason why I was up nearly at dawn getting ready to wait for one to appear.

Unfortunately I didn’t have any luck with the Ospreys at Hedgecourt although there were some other nice birds about around the lake, with many singing Chiffchaffs, a displaying Sparrowhawk and a male Mandarin which flew in.

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Upon arrival back home I heard news that a couple of nice summer migrants had been seen at Weir Wood Reservoir while I had been at Hedgecourt. These were an Osprey, possibly one of the two there yesterday, and a Little Ringed Plover. Encouraged by this news we decided to head to Weir Wood Reservoir to see if we could see either of these birds ourselves.

Weir Wood Reservoir is quite a large reservoir and the whole reservoir cannot be seen from just one viewpoint. Therefore most people visit both ends of the reservoir, the West end and the Dam end. The West end was where we visited first and where the Ospreys were seen yesterday evening and this morning.

Despite the large number of birders at the car park there were few interesting birds to be seen and certainly no Ospreys. According to one of the birders there, Alastair Gray, they can remain well-hidden during a lot of the day simply perched in the trees beside the reservoir and only become noticeable when they set out to fish most commonly in the early morning and late afternoon. They don’t like to fly a lot unnecessarily as it really upsets the local crows which harass the Ospreys until they land! However there was an immature male Goldeneye amongst a group of Great Crested Grebes which was my first of the year.

After searching for hidden Ospreys unsuccessfully we then moved on to the dam end to look for the Little Ringed Plover. The walk up to the dam wall was alive with the song of many Chiffchaffs and the blossoming Blackthorns were full of life. There were a pair of Pied Wagtails on the grassy bank of the dam and a Grey Heron flew overhead.

After walking along the dam wall for a little while to my relief the Little Ringed Plover came into view. It was small and slender, moreso than its relative the Ringed Plover, and was feeding right on the water’s edge. I was able to get quite close, up to a distance of about 10 feet, and from there I was easily able to observe its distinguishing features. To separate Little Ringed from Ringed Plover, the easiest feature to see is the colour of the bill. Little Ringed Plovers have an entirely dark bill whereas Ringed Plovers have a bill with an orange base and a dark tip. Also,  if you are close enough, you might be able to see the yellow eye ring of a Little Ringed Plover which is a feature absent in Ringed Plovers.

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The Little Ringed Plover

Although Little Ringed Plovers are regular breeders in England and Wales in the modern day, they first bred as recently as 1938. Their expansion across southern Britain is partly due to the creation of man-made habitats perfect for breeding such as water-filled gravel pits. Now over a thousand pairs of these small waders arrive here each spring to leave again in late June/July.

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I am pleased that I have now managed to find my first ‘proper’ summer migrant of 2017. Over the coming weeks, migration is set to pick up as winds become favourable and it becomes warmer. Hopefully I will soon be waking up to the song of Blackcaps and Willow Warblers!

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A Quick Walk down Mill Lane

 

This morning I walked along Mill Lane which runs along the east side of Hedgecourt Lake. What struck me first was the height that the Water Dock had grown to compared to the last time I visited the lake. It was at least the height of me if not taller. This is not unusual though, some plants can grow to more than 2 metres. This plant can grow in very tough conditions, these ones grow on the concrete wall of the lake against the hard wind and the severe waves that sometimes form. Equally large were the leaf mines that covered almost half of each leaf. Some leaf-mined leaves were about 75 centimetres long, so the leaf mines were huge! Whose larvae are growing up inside those leaf mines?

To identify the culprit, I visited a site I use regularly: http://www.ukflymines.co.uk
I went to the Rumex (Dock) section of the site and I saw that luckily there are not that many leaf mines on Dock in Britain. From the photos on that page I think that my species is Pegomya solennis. Pegomya solennis is a species of fly, unfortunately not new for my list although very impressive. This species is not a large fly, but the key to its very big mines lies in teamwork. In each mine there are two or more larvae that at first work together making a wide corridor. They then separate and each form a large blotch which all fuse together making one large blotch from which they feed. Sometimes the blotch size is increased even further when the blotch joins the blotch from a different leaf mine.

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The larvae feed on the leaf from inside these blotches.

Along the grassy verge between the lane and the lake there are several large patches of Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Ribwort Plantain and Black Medick. I thought these large patches might hold some specialist species but alas not much was swept from them using my net. The only species of interest was a single Platycheirus peltatus, a species of hoverfly and my 94th fly species on my Pan-species List.

Moving on, it was still windy and not too warm so most of the wildlife was hiding away. I stepped down onto one of the fishing jetties to get a closer view of the lake wall without the risk of falling in to the nippy water. On top of the concrete wall was a hole, which was occupied…

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The white spherical object in the centre of the hole is an egg sac, which belongs to a very large spider. I tried to coax it out from the hole, but it wouldn’t come. I’m not certain what it is, but one possibility is the mouse spider, Scotophaeus blackwalli. However it is usually found in sheltered places indoors so I’m not sure what it is doing on this exposed wall if I am correct.

On some more Water Dock further along I noticed a colony of aphids. It is often not hard to identify aphids when you see a colony on a particular species of plant. For this one I just searched with Google ‘aphids on dock’ and I was presented with two options: Aphis rumicis and Aphis fabae. Aphis rumicis is more plant-specific, being found on mainly dock and sometimes on rhubarb. Aphis fabae (the Black Bean Aphid), is much less so being found on a wide range of vegetables. Unfortunately the two are quite similar, although I am leaning towards A. fabae due to the paler legs shown in many of the photos I have seen on this species. My 50th hemipteroid (bug) for my Pan-species List! In my (not great) photo, the colony appears to be being attended by a Lasius ant.

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Suddenly the sun emerged from behind the clouds and everything seemed to suddenly wake up. There were loads of umbellifers on the lake shore which were great for invertebrates although I had little time to examine them closely. What I did find, however, is a mini-miner. These are very tiny bees in the genus Andrena, which I don’t come across too often. Their larger relatives in the same genus I more often come across. There are 10 mini-miner species compared to 57 other Andrena species, although I find them much harder to identify. Also, many of them have very restricted distributions.

I potted this tiny bee and when I arrived back home I took a few hasty shots though the gap between the lid and the pot. The long, very white hair caught my eye and helped me when I attempted to identify it using Steven Falk’s Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland. Currently I think the most likely species is Andrena niveata, the Long-fringed Mini-miner. Modern records are restricted to South-east England and it is not very common, therefore I am tentative with my identification and I will hopefully get it checked under the microscope or with an expert. In the book it says: ‘the body hairs are much whiter than in other mini-miners…the overall effect is thus of a very silvery, strongly marked mini-miner’. This definitely fits my bee.

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I was very pleased with the number of interesting and new species that I found this morning, given the short amount of time and the unfavourable weather conditions. I can’t wait until the summer holidays when there will be more time to explore!

Hedgecourt Invertebrate Survey: Part 1

I am very lucky to live within walking distance of a great Surrey Wildlife Trust reserve in South Surrey near the Surrey-Sussex border. Hedgecourt Nature Reserve is quite a small reserve, but it contains a mix of habitats. It is situated on the edge of Hedgecourt Lake, so that you can get a good view of the open water and the river that feeds into it runs through the nature reserve, creating a few stony streams too. There is a lot of marshland on the reserve, some open and some with tree cover. The woodland near to the lake is almost always flooded, especially so after rain when the lake level rises. This creates a fantastic habitat and I keep saying that it resembles the Florida Everglades in some places. I keep expecting to see a snapping turtle rise up from the murky water! There is also lots of dry woodland – interspersed with many small ponds – which attracts birds such as Nightingales.

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It is usually much wetter than this!

This year I have been given permission to conduct a relaxed invertebrate survey of the reserve. The wardens were very happy to have a free survey take place, they haven’t had one in quite a few years. My target number of species is 1000 by the end of the year but I’ll have to work quite hard to get to that figure! On my Pan-species list I barely have 1300 species, and that includes fungi, birds, mammals and plants!

So far this year I have made a few visits, mainly mopping up the common species before I get weighed down by the bizarre beetles and fantastic flies! Most were in the first winter period (January – March).

However, I have made one April visit so far this year. The walk through the reserve started off well. I had just passed the entrance sign when two Brimstone butterflies flew past across the marsh. A Buff-tailed Bumblebee clumsily flew in front of me and a Peacock butterfly erupted from the path ahead. There is a patch of new iris shoots coming out in the first marsh and I noticed small dark things on them when I walked past. At first I thought they were just holes in the leaves but on closer inspection I saw they were very small beetles. I tried to get one in the pot but it vanished – characteristic of a flea-beetle. One moment it’s there, the next: Whoosh!

When I got home I searched ‘flea beetle on iris’ on Google. Lots of results came up, almost all resembling my beetle. Guess what it was called? The Iris Flea-beetle (Aphthona nonstriata)!

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This mating pair was more reluctant to hop away.

Just 10 metres further up the path the open marsh turned into the woodland marsh. I bent down to have a look at a large ground beetle that was scuttling across the path when another one, smaller, caught my eye. A third species, which I recognised as one I found the other day: Asaphidion flavipes, also ran out from under a clump of moss. This site is great for beetles, I thought! I ran through the first two beetles at home and the first I didn’t find too hard to identify. It was quite distinctive and it turned out to be Elaphrus cupreus. I’m glad we found this species as it is found in very wet habitats so the wooded marshland at Hedgecourt is perfect for it.

The second one was a bit trickier as it was small and there weren’t really any distinctive markings. I spent a quite a while puzzling over this beetle with The Carabidae (Ground beetles) of Britain and Ireland (Luff, 2007) open on my lap. Eventually, using a combination of appendage colour and pronotum shape, I narrowed it down to Bembidion properans. This is interesting as this species is usually found in drier areas, the complete opposite of this section of the path at Hedgecourt.

My favourite part of the reserve is along the river that runs into the lake. The vegetation has recently been cut beside the river, presumably to let new vegetation grow through. The sun was shining directly on this open patch and there was lots of insect activity. Some Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis) was already poking through and on one flower I only just spotted a resting Orange-Tip Butterfly. My first of the year!

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There were also lots of flies taking advantage of the warm weather. Three hoverflies were noted – the very common Eristalis pertinax and Helophilus pendulus and the very-common-but-new-to-me Platycheirus albimanus (White-footed Hoverfly). I also saw a Bee-Fly hovering above the cut vegetation, I have seen many this year.

A bit further along the path, I walked out onto the boardwalk to see what was out on the open water of the lake. I was glad to see three Common Terns loafing about on the buoys, showing no interest in breeding. Maybe they had just arrived and were catching their breath! They were sadly the only migrants I saw besides 3 male Blackcaps and a Chiffchaff.

We walked back along the path and turned onto the boardwalk leading into the sheltered reedbed. I was hoping to see an early Reed Warbler, but I did see another Peacock and a Comma butterfly on the boardwalk. They were absorbing up the sun before it goes away again!

There are several old trees by the edge of the lake where the bark is peeling off. I looked under one of these pieces of bark and I found both Common Shiny and Common Striped Woodlouse. I haven’t really looked at Woodlice in great detail before so the Common Striped was a new species to me. It is good to get them both on the year list as I’ll certainly be more busy in the warmer months.

So, I’m currently on 42 species for the year. Only 958 left to go before I reach my target! Hopefully I can find some of Hedgecourt’s specialities before the year ends.

 

A Murmuration to Remember!

Our first view was a group of around 500 Starlings flying above the reedbeds on the opposite side of Hedgecourt Lake, my local ‘patch’. More parties of chirruping birds started to fly in above our heads. Soon there were 1000-2000 swarming over the lake, but this was only the beginning.

Suddenly the whole group flew from the lake in the direction of the nearby farm and I was hoping they wouldn’t stay there. Fortunately a separate group started to form where the previous group was and that grew to about 5000.

The group that had gone to the farm returned in ten minutes to join the flock of 5000 and still more separate groups of a few hundred kept on joining. The flock reached 10000 at its climax and I was genuinely stunned and impressed. Unforgettable was the ‘plop, plop’ sound when the flock passed over my head: I was scared to look up!

Suddenly it all ended, all 10000 birds flew down into the reedbeds, how could they all fit? And the question I really want answered, is how they don’t collide with each other?!

I have found out that some believe that when one Starling changes speed or direction, all of the other Starlings respond by following that one Starling almost instantly. Others believe that a Starling copies its seven nearest neighbours. This shows that there isn’t one definite answer, but it would be interesting to find out. Something for the future?

I have also found out that Starlings mainly murmurate like this to avoid predators like Peregrines or Sparrowhawks as these predators find it hard to pick a target in the wreathing mass of birds. They group together to roost in the reedbeds to exchange information about good feeding spots and to keep warm at night.

I’m very lucky to have such an amazing spectacle not far at all from my house!

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Just a small proportion of the HUGE murmuration!

A New Sighting for Hedgecourt Lake

A leisurely trip down to Hedgecourt was turned into one of the most exciting visits ever, when my dad said he spotted a Mink run across the road away from the lake. That was something I really wanted to see because I’ve never seen a Mink before and one of my main interests is mammals. So I situated myself a few metres away from where the mink crossed the road and waited patiently for the Mink to reappear. I wasn’t certain that the Mink would cross over the road again, though luckily about ten minutes after my dad first spotted it, the Mink emerged from the shrubs that line the edge of the road. I watched it cross, though it was too quick for a photo. Once it had slipped into the water I decided to come a little closer and as I stepped onto one of the fishing pontoons, a cute weasel-like face emerged from the water. It was so startled that it immediately submerged and swam to the next pontoon. Upon reaching the pontoon it clambered into a hole in the stone wall that lined the bank of the river. After about ten minutes of waiting for it to poke its face out of the hole, it finally emerged and crossed the road again with a Signal Crayfish in its mouth. Signal Crayfish is one of the key species in a Mink’s diet, which is great because they are introduced too!
The species of Mink I saw there was almost certainly an American Mink for one very clear reason: they are the only species of Mink in Britain and the only other species of Mink in Europe is the European Mink of which the closest population is in Spain. American Mink were imported to Britain for use in fur farms, though in the 1950s and 60s they escaped and now breed in the wild. They don’t have such a good reputation in the British wildlife society as they kill Water Voles and many other native and introduced wildlife.
Today I tried to see one again, and I staked out the same place. I was doubtful that it would reveal itself again at the same spot because American Mink have home ranges or around 10 hectares, so that’s a lot of land to explore. Thankfully it did show again, though it wasn’t as exciting as the first time it appeared yesterday because it crossed at exactly the same point, went under the same pontoon, clambered into the same hole and caught another crayfish. But this time it was much more outgoing than yesterday, so I was able to get some ok photos:

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

Going for a swim

Going for a swim

Yum!

Yum!

 

Mink

Mink

Oh, Hello!

Oh, Hello!

I'm Coming Up...

I’m Coming Up…

 

Look Both Ways...

Look Both Ways…

And Cross!

And Cross!

 

 

Hedgecourt Nature Reserve – Battle of the Swans

It was a cold and windy day in Sussex so we decided to drive to Hedgecourt instead of walking. We were walking along the path in the direction of the reeds, when I saw an avian form fly swiftly from behind the twisting trees. A raptor gliding effortlessly over the dark menacing water, a contrast to the billowing clouds above. A Buzzard – a crafty hunter, built for ruling the air. The flock of Black-Headed Gulls took to the grey skies as they spotted the Buzzard, aware of every movement from the bird. The Buzzard didn’t seem intent on killing at that time, so it just soared placidly onwards, until it was hidden once again by the tall trees.

I only just noticed that I had developed some stalkers, two Canada Geese hung behind while two dominant and quite noticeably large Mute Swans led the small procession.

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DSCN2800I knew what they wanted. Bread. Though they weren’t in luck. The swans were the former parents of a brood of a grand total of seven cygnets, though now they only had four. Four was still impressive though, their rivals at the other side of the lake only had one. They were the rightful owners of this part of the lake, they were stronger, healthier and generally better at standing up for their patch. Their part of the lake was the largest, the other end of the lake was split into two parts, one for the two parents of a lonely single cygnet and the other for a bachelor cob without a mate or family.

It was then I noticed that the 2 parents of the single cygnet had started to swim towards this end of the lake. I had heard that they often fight, so I was braced for the action. I looked back down to the resident two swans (which were only a few feet away) and I noticed that the cob had peeled off in the direction of the intruders. He looked like he was going to face the two swans on his own even though he was outnumbered. He had probably done it before so I was sure that he was going to win, although I couldn’t be certain. They were getting closer and closer, though the female intruder had split from the male so it was cob on cob. Suddenly it happened, the resident male, took off and flew with strong wingbeats in the direction of the attacker.

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The intruder then started flying too, and there was a frenzy of water as two of the largest flying birds fought in the air. The commotion made the resident’s four cygnets take flight and one of my following Canada geese to fly away as well.

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The resident mute swan then appeared to land on top of the intruder, causing lots of thrashing, until the intruder speedily retreated. The dominant pair then slowly met up and performed a victory ritual on the serene waters of Hedgecourt.

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Finally, I saw a Pochard on the lake behind the Private Waters sign, the first I’ve seen on this lake. It then flew off.