A Starling Weekend

On Saturday afternoon, I headed to Hedgecourt Lake to see what might have been blown in on the storm the previous week. I have encountered several normally coastal species at Hedgecourt over the last year, for instance Slavonian Grebe and Scaup. Being the largest semi-natural waterbody in South-east Surrey it appears to be a magnet for seabirds blown in from the coast. Unfortunately there was not much in the way of scarce species, however an Egyptian Goose on the roof of the floating pontoon was a welcome surprise. I believe they frequent the lake but I have never been able to catch up with one here. They aren’t native to the UK, they were brought here for ornamental collections and quite a few escaped. There is now a stable breeding population in the UK, mainly concentrated in East Anglia however they could be seen throughout the country.

While watching the goose, I heard a whoosh above my head. I looked up and I was slightly surprised to see a flock of around 100 Starlings making their way to the other end of the lake. It appeared that one of the most iconic Hedgecourt events of the winter was beginning: a Starling murmuration! Plenty of other similar-sized groups of Starlings soon joined and several thousand were swarming above the icy waters in just a few minutes. The noise was immense – every Starling was calling to their companions, creating a sound that carried all the way across the lake.

Although the main murmuration had taken place at the far end of the lake the whole flock was beginning to fly straight towards us. The tightly-knit group made several quick flybys. Every one of the many thousand birds passed over us in just a few seconds leaving nothing but the plops in the water as they lightened their load.

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Once these amazing aerial displays were finished the Starlings poured into the reedbed closest to us. An endless stream of birds flew into the reedbed for minutes on end, they never seemed to run out. Soon around ten thousand birds were flying around and settling in a reedbed that is only a fifth of a hectare in size. Again, the noise was truly spectacular! Starlings often use murmurations to exchange information about the top places to find food, one of the hot topics would have been the best feeding spots.

Reedbeds are excellent habitats for many different species, a variety of different invertebrates, plants, mammals, fungi, fish and of course birds utilise them in many different ways. I was sure that these Starlings filling up the reedbed in their droves would push something out… and I was correct! Firstly a Kingfisher shot out like a bullet and crossed to the Alders on the other side of the lake and secondly a magnificent Bittern flew on deep, pounding wingbeats to a farther reedbed. This was my first here this winter. They are winter visitors to much of Britain including Hedgecourt; however around a hundred pairs do breed, mainly in East Anglia.

Unfortunately, the Starlings soon began to quieten down. The light was fading fast and the lake was beginning to freeze over once more. On Sunday morning they would wake up again, stream out of the reedbed and visit the most popular feeding areas. Then that same evening they would do it all again …

That evening, just after the murmuration, I heard news of an immature Starling that was being seen in a garden in the busy town of Crawley. But this wasn’t just an ordinary Starling! This particular Starling had become lost on its migration and somehow arrived in rainy Sussex having come from somewhere between the steppes of Eastern Europe or Western Asia and its wintering area in the Indian subcontinent! It was in fact a Rose-coloured Starling!

Rose-coloured Starlings are closely related to ‘our’ Common Starlings. However they are easy to separate, more so in adults. Even juveniles like this one can be told apart without much scrutiny. Adult Rose-coloured Starlings in their breeding attire are very beautiful birds, their plumage an equal mix of pink and black. Their breast and back are pink, along with their bill and their legs. They have black wings, tail and vent along with a glossy black head which often shows a long crest drooping down the nape. Non-breeding adults aren’t much different, however the pink colouration is dirtied by a grey-brown, the crest is shorter and stubbier and the black colouration on the head and flanks becomes scaly and vermiculated.  Juvenile Rose-coloured Starlings are similar to juvenile Common Starlings, however significantly paler. The main distinguishing feature, however, is the pale-yellow base to the bill.

This particular individual had been seen in a suburban garden around Bradfield for the last few weeks, although the news had only just surfaced. I imagine it was a non-birder who first spotted it on their patio but wasn’t able to identify it. Anyway, it appeared to still be in the area and I was eager to glimpse this very uncommon vagrant for myself. So the next morning we parked by the side of the road and immediately I could see that there were many Starlings around. Rose-coloured Starlings are unusual among vagrants in that they usually don’t turn up at the expected coastal rarity hotspots, for instance Spurn or Flamborough Head. Instead, they prefer to visit places I would never imagine a rarity to find itself, for example business estates or generally biodiversity unfriendly areas such as this suburban Crawley district. This is because they prefer to associate with large flocks of their only British relative, the Common Starling, during their stay on our shores.

Within fifteen minutes of our arriving on the right street a group of fifteen or so Starlings were spooked from one of the gardens and flew up into a large bare Silver Birch right next to our vehicle! It was easy to see the odd one out, the pale plumage of the juvenile Rose-coloured contrasted strongly with the other Common Starlings. After making sure that it was the right bird (it did indeed have a pale yellow base to the beak), I took a few record shots (photos that are intended mainly as proof rather than a photographic masterpiece!) through my binoculars and just a minute after I first spotted it it flew off over the rooftops. It wasn’t the most amazing view, however I was pleased that I did manage to get a glimpse of this unusual wanderer.

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The Rose-coloured Starling in very poor lighting. You might just be able to make out the pale yellow bill.

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A much better photo of the starling by Mya Bambrick, a fellow young birder who managed to see the bird later that day.

 

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Golden Robber

Diptera, the true flies, are not one of the most glamorous groups I must admit. However, they are one of my favourites because of the sheer diversity of shapes, sizes and colours. I recently added my 100th fly species to my Pan-species List, a figure I have been working towards for quite a while now. The fly species that I am writing about today was my 103rd.

Yesterday I went on another Hedgecourt Invertebrate Survey trip to try to add more species to my list. There was lots about and only about 10 metres into the reserve I was distracted by the many invertebrates I was recording. These included a White-legged Damselfly and a snipefly (Rhagio tringarius) that voluntarily flew into my net. I was so distracted that at first I didn’t notice a medium sized black fly that had landed on my hand. Annoyingly it was on my right hand, my camera hand, so I found it difficult to take a photo. Then I realised that it was strangely placid, and I coaxed it onto my left hand where I was able to photograph it.

The fly had its wings folded back, which made it look like a Bibio. However, when I blew the wings apart and off from the abdomen it clearly wasn’t a Bibio. It had a long abdomen with a ring of golden hairs between each tergite (segment). To identify it I posted the photo on the identification forum on the Dipterists Forum website. The Dipterists Forum is a society set up for the study of flies. The Dipterists Forum run regular field meetings, such as the current one in Canterbury, curate Diptera-related Wiki pages and a whole host of online forums and run recording schemes for different fly groups. I received an identification for my fly very quickly: it was the Golden-haired Robberfly.

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Before I saw this one, I hadn’t seen a robberfly for a surprisingly long time although they are very interesting insects. They belong to the family Asilidae, with about 5000 species worldwide. The alternative name ‘assassin fly’ is very appropriate as they are very effective hunters that tackle difficult prey like wasps and occasionally even dragonflies. They are very fast flying, allowing them to outpace most of their prey. They are also patient, sitting on a sunny plant or log waiting for suitable prey to fly past. Even robberfly larvae are formidable predators, feeding on other insect larvae and eggs beneath the soil.

This robberfly wasn’t the only interesting invertebrate I found on my survey trip. I also found two caterpillars that I have been wanting to see for a long time: Mullein Moth caterpillars. They are very impressive and, as the name suggests, they usually feed on Mullein. However, some other plants are sometimes also fed on. I found mine in a habitat I really wouldn’t expect to see them in. I have never seen Mullein growing in Hedgecourt at all… let alone a wet reedbed! Still, there they were, a pair of them. They were large, well grown, and stunningly coloured.

If they weren’t feeding on Mullein, then what were they feeding on? Water Figwort has been recorded at Hedgecourt, and is apparently a known foodplant. Unfortunately at the time I didn’t note down what they were feeding on but I will look to see if there is any Water Figwort where the caterpillars were feeding the next time I visit.

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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 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.

Early morning Hedgecourt

Straight after I had finished my breakfast I decided to go to Hedgecourt. This is the earliest time I’ve ever visited Hedgecourt, at 8:10 am. We didn’t see very much wildlife until water was in sight. When we arrived at the first bit of water, we saw about 30 Canada Geese fly in onto the lake but the foliage was so abundant so we did not have very good views. When we arrived at the end of the lake where we usually see all the Mallards, we could see that the water level had risen dramatically due to yesterday’s hurricane. The odd thing though, was that there were only 2 Mallards out on the water. The family of Mute Swans were there however, the cygnets are starting to look the same size as their parents! We also noticed that the Great Crested Grebes were closer to the shore than normal, possibly because we were the only people there. When we had seen all there was to see at that end of the lake, we decided to head back. When we arrived at the part of the lake where I saw the Canada Geese fly in, I decided to look at all of them through my binoculars again, just to make sure that they were all Canada Geese, not Barnacle Geese. As my binoculars were focusing on a Canada Goose on a boardwalk used by the yacht club, I spotted a fluorescent green-blue bird fly over its head. I knew it was a Kingfisher, a bird that I’ve only seen once before at Hedgecourt. It was very quick though, so I decided to carry on checking all the geese. When I was on my last goose, the aqua-marine bird flew past my binoculars again, but this time much closer. I swiftly took my binoculars off my eyes and saw the Kingfisher perched only 2 metres away on a branch sticking out from the water. In a split second it was gone, but that was enough to admire the great detail of the orange on its head.