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Lockdown Moth-trapping

By the time the UK lockdown started on 23rd March I was already working from home. University teaching had gone on-line and my last physical seminar was on the afternoon of Friday 13th March. During an extended period of home working during the lockdown moth-trapping would be an important part of my routine.

A slow start…

That night I ran my actinic Heath Trap and caught just five moths of three species (5/3). However on the wall behind the trap was a tiny pale grey micro-moth. It reminded me of the Lichen Button (Acleris literana)that I had seen on Wiveton church in late January. Not surprising as it was another species of Acleris; either logiana (Grey Birch Button) or kochiella (Elm Button). Based on the images both Keith Kerr and Dave Appleton favoured logiana an identifcation later confirmed under Keith’s microscope. A new species for me, TG20D and only the sixth to be recorded in the TG20 hectad.

Lichen Button (Acleris. literana) – 26th January 2020
Acleris logiana (Grey Birch Button) – 14th March 2020

Before the restrictions tightened I took a short trip down the A11 to Roudham Services.  The layby is surrounded by woodland and the walls of the well lit toilet block are attractive to moths. In past years this has been a reliable site for two early spring species; Small Brindled Beauty and Yellow Horned.  The first is quite scarce, but Yellow Horned is quite common in suitable habitat (birch).  I quickly found one and relocated it to Eaton for 24 hours for a photoshoot.  

Yellow Horned (Achlya flavicornis)- March 13th 2020

The next two and a half weeks were very cool and trapping was hard going.  I was catching 3/4 of the common  Hebrew Character, Common and Small Quakers and Clouded Drab most nights.  Occasional relief came in the form of the odd Twin-spotted Quaker and Early Grey.

Twin-spotted Quaker (Anorthoa munda) – 17th March 2020
Early Grey (Xylocampa areola) – 4th April 2020
A change in the weather

The weekend of 4th/5th of April was much warmer.  Multiple reports of male Emperor Moths coming to pheromone lures on Saturday made sure I gave it a go on Sunday.  Twenty minutes after deployment an Emperor buzzed my lure, but some inept netcraft saw him disappear over the back fence.  Never mind!  A few minutes later he returned and I didn’t mess up my second chance.  Whilst he cooled off in the fridge a second individual briefly inspected the lure.  My first multiple siting after singles in 2017 and 2019.

Emperor Moth (Saturnia pavonia) – 5th April 2020

The warmer weather encouraged me to switch to the bigger and more poweful MV trap. I was not disappointed with 17/10 including four new species for the year (nfy): Nut-tree Tussock, Herald, Double-striped Pug and Oak Nycteoline. Three of these species would have recently emerged

Nut-tree Tussock (Colocasia coryli) – 5th April 2020
Herald (Scoliopteryx libatrix) – 5th April 2020

The next couple of nights were quieter with only Early Thorn the only nfy. However as it warmed up ahead of the Easter weekend numbers picked with 23/13 overnight on 8th April. Engrailed plus Brindled Pug and Beauty were all expected nfy.

Brindled Beauty (Lycia hirtaria) – 8th April 2020
Brindled Pug (Eupithecia abbreviata)

Not expected was another pale grey moth on the wall behind the trap. This was a new species for me; Early Tooth-striped. The first record for TG20D tetrad and just the third ever recorded in TG20.

Early Tooth-striped (Trichopteryx carpinata) – 8th April 2020
Who needs Easter eggs?

The catch on Easter Saturday morning was small although there were three noteworthy moths. None of this trio were in the trap, but were on the house wall and other nearby surfaces. A crisp olive and lemon Frosted Green was just the second for the garden. It was certainly much better looking than last year’s rather worn individual. In comparison Streamer is a regular garden moth in mid-April, but definitely one of my favourites. The extensive mauve suffusion is shown off to good effect on this lovely fresh individual.

Frosted Green (Polyploca ridens) – 10th April 2020
Streamer (Anticlea derivata) – 10th April 2020

However pride of place went to another new species for me; Lunar Marbled Brown.  This species is bigger than I had expected with a series of wavy crossbands in muted cream and brown tones.  The black “lunar” mark is towards the top edge of the broad cream band.

Lunar Marbled Brown (Drymonia ruficornis) – 10th April 2020

After dark on the evening of 11th April there was a lot of activity in the mild still conditions. The next morning did not disappoint and there was a fine array of moths spread across the house wall and in the trap. There were high counts of Brindled Beauty and Streamer (4 each) and 7 nfy including, Least Black Arches, Muslin Moth. Scorched Carpet Swallow Prominent and my second garden Mullein.

Least Black Arches (Nola confusalis) -11th April 2020
Mullein (Cucullia verbasci) – 11th April 2020

The two nfy micro-moths were Many-plume and Bee Moth. A couple of tiny black and white micro-moths looked more interesting. I identifed them with the aid of my photographs as Mompha subbistrigella (Garden Mompha). Although this species is new to me it is not uncommon and quite well recorded around Norwich.

Mompha subbistrigella (Garden Mompha) – April 11th 2020

Unfortunately wind and rain on the night of 12th April brought this enjoyable period of lockdown moth-trapping to an end. That said although the current restrictions are set to continue this cool spell will soon pass. And as we appraoch May there will be be many more good nights  as numbers and diversity increase.

Mount Amasa and Ashalim

The rocky slopes of Mount Amasa in central Israel typify hillsides found across much of the Mediterranean basin.  The mosaic of boulders, scrub and open area is home to species such a Blue Rock Thrush, Sardinan Warbler and Woodlark. Proximity to the Judean Desert means that some desert species are also present, e.g. Mourning Wheatear and Scrub Warbler.  Moreover the climate and terroir, as Ingrid and I later discovered, suits vineyards that produce very fine wine.  Even more remarkable is the fact that there are wheatears all year round!  I winter Finsch’s Wheatears from Turkey and the Caucasus replace the Eastern Black-eared Wheatears that breed each summer. Their Hebrew names which translate as Winter and Summer Wheatear reflect the seasonal occurance of these two species.

Wine from Mount Amasa was served in our hotel

Mount Amasa is about the same distance from Eilat as Tel Aviv. This  together with the quality birding made it a sensible place to meet  Yoav Perlman. Plus Yoav wanted to see if the Persian Wheatear that had spent the last two winters here had returned.  We met in the car park of Tel Arad National Park  an importantant archeological site with a series of well preserved artefacts dating back to the Canaanite period (Early Bronze Age). I transferred my gear to Yoav’s car and we drove the few km up the road to the trailhead.

Winter Wheatears and a Big Surprise

Under bright blue skies we walked out across a flat grassy plain towards the foothills.  The elevation and strong wind made me regret not having a coat.  But conversation was a good distraction and as we gained height there was plenty to see. In particular good numbers of Finsch’s Wheatear along with Stonechats and Spectacled Warblers.  Yoav’s keen ears picked out other species including Woodlark and Scrub Warbler, but nothing was coming close.  And there was no sign of the Persian Wheatear on its favoured ridge. To mitigate the wind chill we took shelter in a hollow to see if the wheatears would come to us.

Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) , Mount Amasa, Israel, January 2020
Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)

After about ten minutes with little success all hell let loose! A startled fox dashed down the path with a large raptor in hot pursuit.  I tried to process what we were seeing when Yoav excitedly called it as a Goshawk. The first he had seen in Israel for ca 20 years.  I was instructed to get a photo as Yoav’s camera was in his bag. The huge female did a U-turn and appeared to pitch in on the opposite hillside. We left our shelter and scrambled up the  hillside, but unfortunately couldn’t relocate it. I walked down the valley to try and photograph the wheatears whilst Yoav scoured the upper slopes for the Persian but with no luck.

Finsch's Wheatear (Oenanthe finschii), Mount Amasa, Israel, January 2020
Finsch’s Wheatear (Oenanthe finschii)
Ashalim Reservoir

We left Mount Amasa and retreived my car then visited nearby Arad for a quick coffee and sandwich.  Our next destination was Ashalim Reservoir at the edge of the Dead Sea industrial zone.   Patches of open water held plenty of duck, including an impressive 47 Ferruginous Duck.  The extensive reedbeds were full of wintering Chiffchaffs feeding alongside the resident Clamorous Reed Warblers. Dead Sea Sparrows darted in and out of the vegetation and overhead were Marsh Harriers and a Long-legged Buzzard  This very birdy area eventually produced our target species, African Swamphen.

African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis) – 4th January 2020

Recently the Western Palearctic taxa in the “Purple Swamphen” complex were split into three species. Western (Purple) Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) is found in the Iberian Penninsular and North Africa. In Turkey, the Caucausus and the Arabian Penninsular it is replaced by Grey-headed Swamphen (Porphyrio policephalus).  The third species, African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis),  recently extended its range northwards from the Nile Valley into Israel.  To be honest it was not even on my radar for this trip and that made for an even more welcome WP tick (#718).

A Great Spotted Cuckoo put in a brief appearance which was a sure sign that spring had arrived in Israel.  Unfortunately our time had gone very quickly and Yoav needed to back in Tel Aviv.  

Hazeva

There was just over two hours of daylight left.  Yoav suggested a site just off Route 90 for Arabian Warbler to visit on the way back to Eilat.  This black hooded lump of Sylvia warbler starts to sing in early January and should have been easy to find.  I followed Yoav’s directions to a wadi just South of Hazeva full of mature Acacias.  As directed, I explored the wadi both to the North and South of the parking area but to no avail.

Wadi South of Hazeva – mature Acacias like tehse are favoured by Arabian Warbler.

Unfortunately the only Sylvia warbler I saw in the wadi was a very photogenic Sardinian Warbler.  An Arabian (Great) Grey Shrike was the only one of the trip and  putting the fear of God into the local bulbuls.

Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala)

There was a gorgeous sunset to enjoy before I rejoined Route 90 and returned to Eilat to join Ingrid for dinner.

Sunset over the Ararva Valley

Pink and Grey

After two fine sunny days the weather took a turn for the worse. My plan was to go out for the morning and look for Sinai Rosefinch then meet Ingrid for lunch. I started at Km 35 on Route 90 and looked for a Steppe Grey Shrike, but with no luck. I drove back towards Eilat and took the turning west at Km19 towards the Eilat Mountains.

Grey skies over the track to Amram’s Pillars.

After a few kilometers the road divides. I took the right-hand fork towards Amram’s Pillars. These natural pillars of red sandstone are a popular tourist attraction and a good place ot look for desert birds. As I parked I noticed two tiny birds with long tails scurrying over the boulders that edged the car-park. These were the two showiest Scrub Warblers that one could wish for. One even posed for me on top of one of the boulders.

Scrub Warbler, Scotocerca inquieta, Amram's Pillars, Israel, January 2020
Scrub Warbler (Scotocerca inquieta)

I walked the start of a couple of the trails leading from the car-park without going as far as the pillars. It was the Israeli weekend and many hikers and dog walkers were enjoying their day off. As a consequence there were no birds. I drove back towards the camp site and noticed a few small birds feeding on a low sandstone rock. One of these was very pink indeed! I turned the car around and edged back to the rock. A small flock of Sinai Rosefinches was attending a feeding station. I manouvered the car to use it as a hide and enjoyed excellent views. The raspberry pink male with it’s snowy forehead was a delight because on my previous winter visit I saw only the dun females.

Sinai Rosefinch, Carpodacus synoicus, Amram's Pillars, Israel, January 2020
Sinai Rosefinch (Carpodacus synoicus)

My time was up and I needed to return to the hotel.  Unfortunately Ingrid was still unwell and wished to stay in bed.  I looked in vain for two other local scarcities; Hume’s warbler and Striated Scops Owl.  But the weather got worse with a cool wind and intermittent rain.  And after a half hearted look at North Beach and the Canal I gave in for the day.

Uvda Valley Wheatears and a lifer

The Uvda Valley Wheatears

The Uvda Valley is about a one hour drive NW of Eilat.  Autumn rains caused the desert to bloom making it attractive to a  range of  wintering passerines espcially wheatears.  These included two Israeli rarities; Kurdish Wheatear and Basalt (Mourning) Wheatear that I was keen to see.  The black and white nominate form of Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens lugens) is common throughout Israeli desert regions.  In contrast the striking all black Basalt Wheatear (O. l. warriae) is a scarce (increasing?) winter visitor from NE Jordan and Syria. These represent two of eight taxa in a complex distributed across the arid regions of North and East Africa and the Middle East .  Historically  Basalt Wheatear was regarded as a colour morph of Mourning Wheatear. However recent work suggests that it is at very least a distinctive subspecies and quite possibly a good species.

Despite best efforts at an early(ish) start I was doubly thwarted. First by lack of planning; no packed breakfast. Second by a call from Yoav, surprised that I was not already in the field, who wished to plan for Sunday.  When I arrived at the given coordinates it was already mid-morning. Although Noam Weiss and clients were already leaving they had seen both birds.  Despite clear directions it took me over two hours to track down the Kurdish Wheatear.  After showing well for <1min  it  flew off 200+ m. to another patch of bushes and I couldn’t relocate it.  A real shame as although not a WP tick, I saw this species in Turkey 34 years ago, it might as well be!

Kurdish Wheatear (Oenanthe xanthoprymna)
Kurdish Wheatear (Oenanthe xanthoprymna)

Time was moving on as I walked NW up the valley to try to find the regular Basalt; one of four wintering in the area. It was slow going with many distractions like this confiding female Hooded Wheatear.

Hooded Wheatear (Oenanthe monacha), Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Hooded Wheatear (Oenanthe monacha)

And a noisy flock of more than forty Trumpeter Finches to name but a few.

Trumpeter Fich Bucanetes githagineus, Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Trumpeter Finch (Bucanetes githagineus)
Mourning Glory

I spent some time with this Mourning Wheatear perplexed by the coarse and extensive streaking on the crown. Later I discovered Dutch birder Leo Boon the author of a 2004 article “Mourning wheatears” – illustrated in Dutch Birding had photographed the same bird.  He wondered if it was of the Eastern form O.l. persica that breeds in Iran.  Leo recorded video and collected poo for DNA  extraction/sequencing.  I await the outcome with interest.

Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens lugens/persica), Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens lugens/persica)

Nearby a promising looking black wheatear sitting on top of a bush about 250 m away turned out to be the boy. 

Basalt Wheatear Oenanthe (lugens) warriae), Uvda Valley, Israel, January 2020
Basalt Wheatear (Oenanthe (lugens) warriae)

The Basalt Wheatear was clearly not happy that  I hadn’t brought a tribute of mealworms and promptly went walkabout. Not before giveing couple of distant fly pasts to show off it’s distinctive wing and tail patterns. More than happy I said farewell to the Uvda Valley wheatears and returned to the car. I drove to Yotvat to find something to eat and had a brief poke around the north circular field,  Finding nothing of note I headed South in search for my next target. 

Samar, a small kibbutz about 40 km North of Eilat, has recently hosted a family of Black Scrub Robins. This sub-Saharan species has recently colonised the Southern Arava.   The one remaining bird, I was told, had moved location and become a bit elusive.  Passing through the sturdy gates of the kibbutz I stopped to photograph an approachable pair of Spur-winged Lapwings.

Afternoon Delight
Spur-winged Lapwing (Vanellus spinosus), Samar, Israel, January 2020
Spur-winged Lapwing (Vanellus spinosus)

The horse paddocks, reputed to be the bird’s new favourite haunt, were easy enough to find.  But because it was the Israeli weekend the young kibbutz residents were busy grooming  their animals and cleaning tack. I explored a few areas of nearby scrub finding little of note, although a couple of Graceful Prinias posed for the camera.

Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis), Samar, Israel, January 2020
Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis)

Back at the paddocks the Black Scrub Robin (WP #717) crept out from cover to drink at a leaky pipe. As I lined up the camera the BCS was spooked by a passer by and flew to the kibbutz perimeter. Before I could catch up and recompose it dropped into a well-lit hollow under some tall bushes.  This was absolutely perfect except for the chain link fence between me and the bird! Here the BCS strutted its stuff. A magnificant all black bird frequently showing off the rows of white spots on the underside of its huge tail.  An absolute delight but just impossible to photograph…

After another 30 minutes or so of frustration I gave up and headed back to the hotel to catch up with Ingrid and have dinner.  There would be much to talk about after an enjoyable if slightly frustrating day.

An Unexpected Visitor

Ingrid and I flew to Amsterdam on New Years Eve and spent the night at an airport hotel. Early the next morning we flew to the newly constructed Ramon Airport just North of Eilat. However it did take two attempts. The first flight returning to Schipol after an hour because a sensor warning light came on in the cockpit. Consequently we arrived after dark and took a bus (runs every 30 mins) to our hotel near the Coral Beach. I was excited by a return to southern Israel 25 years after our last visit. Although I had no idea that an unexpected visitor from Africa was going to make the first day especially so.

After a good sleep and breakfast I took a bus into town to collect a pre-booked hire car. Two things I should have done at the same time. First use one of the ATMs in the centre of town. These recognise UK debit cards and issue small denomination notes. Seconly buy a local SIM card ca £20 for all the data you will use in a week (or even a month!).

When a new bird is not a tick!

I collected my gear and drove North thruugh Eilat noting the much changed skyline around the North Beach. I turned off East towards the Wadi Araba Border Crossing into Jordan and the Eilat Ornithological Park.

The excellent information boards at the entrance to the International Birding and Research Centre Eilat

The park which serves as HQ for the IBRCE (International Birding and Research Centre Eilat) is undergoing a makeover. Improved trails and hides will enhance the experience for coachloads of tourists who come to learn about the work of the centre. The purpose of my visit was twofold. First of all to pick up some information on the scarce wintering species in the Southern Arava. Secondly to try and see one the 5+ Oriental Honey Buzzards that were wintering in the area. I completely failed on the OHBs but enjoyed some of the common wintering species. Both around the park and on the adjacent saltpans.

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola), Israel, January 2020
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) – IBRCE
Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) – IBRCE

Just as I was leaving I saw a tweet about an African Crake that had been taken into care in Eilat!! A real WTF moment. That on day one of your trip a species with <15 Western Palearctic records has arrived on your doorstep. But! To cut a long story short the African Crake (a species in the same genus as Corncrake) arrived at the IRBCE in a bag. Found in a city garage and rescued from a cat it was lively but injured. Quite rightly it was taken into veterinary care, but not before a photoshoot.

An unexpected visitor African Crake (Crex egregia)
African Crake (Crex egregia) – IBRCE

Regrettably I cannot count African Crake on my Western Palearctic list. Listing birds is a personal thing and even more so in the WP because, like the UK constitution, the rules are unwritten. However for consistency I choose to follow the principles used by the American Birding Association for their recording area.

Evening on the saltpans

After the excitement of the crake I drove a little further North to the saltpans at Km20. It was now late afternoon and looking over the saltpans towards Jordan the light was excellent. Greater Flamingos are the stars of the show here with three big flocks totalling about 450 birds.

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) – Km 20 Saltpans

Including the long-staying melanistic individual.

mealanistic Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) – Km 20 Saltpans

Waders feeding in the shallow edges to the saltpans included Redshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Little Stint, Dunlin and both Kentish and Ringled Plovers.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) – Km 20 Saltpans
Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) – Km 20 Saltpans
Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis) – Km 20 Saltpans

By now the light was starting to go. After a couple of false starts I found the gap in the fence that allowed entry to the Km19 sewage works. In the time I had left I didn’t manage much beyond the exptected herons and duck. Although overhead were some impressive flights of Greater Cormorants heading south from I don’t where to a roost site at the coast. As dusk fell I called it a day and headed back to Eilat for an excellent dinner at a local seafood restaurant.

Managing the Light

My grandmother referred to the days around the winter solstice as “the dark days before Christmas”.  I sometimes think this phrase speaks to her understanding of the powerful impact that limited hours of daylight and grey skies can have on our wellbeing.  Circumstances that combined with the demands of the holiday season make it imperative to make best use of the few sunny days that come along; especially for birder/photographers.  

The first of these was Sunday 15th December and my orginal intention was to head over to ZSL Whipsnade Zoo where an adult male Black-throated Thrush found earlier in the week was holding court.  However mindful of the need to drive to Maidenhead the following weekend, and the fact that I had seen half a dozen Black-throated Thrushes in the UK it seem best to but that one on the back-burner.  Instead I headed South to the RSPB’s Hollesley Marshes reserve in Suffolk where I was able to watch the long-staying Siberian Stonechat happily feeding out of the wind some 200 m away

After an hour or so it was clear that the Stonechat was not coming closer so I made the short journey around the Deben estuary to Felixstowe Ferry where a Black-necked Grebe had taken up residence on a small beach side pool.  

The beachside pool at Felixstowe Ferry

From a photographic perspective this was much more satisfactory.  Lying on the flat rocks with the setting sun behind me the grebe would pop up just 5 metres away.  Unfortuntely for most of my visit it seemed encumbered by some green nylon fishing line that had got wrapped around its lower neck.  Fortunately this did no seem to impair feeding and about half way through my visit the bird appeared to be disentangling itself (upper image).  The lower image shows it to be free of the twine and I know for certain it remained on that pool for a further three days hopefully safe from dog walkers and stone throwers before it made its way back out to sea.

Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), Felixstowe Ferry, Suffolk, 15th December 2019
Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) Felixstowe Ferry, Suffolk, 15th December 2019

As it turned out that a combination of work, assorted Christmas preparations and multiple trips to the dentist meant that it was not possible to make the Maidenhead trip until Sunday 22nd.   Fortunately an early start was not needed as Whipsnade does not open to the public until 10.00 hrs and the forecast was that the ealy rain would not clear until 11.00 hrs.  It is always good when a plan comes together and as I was parking just after 11 the first visiting birders were leaving and the day was brightening. To cap it all a very kind lady walked up to me and gave me a voucher for half price entry.  Over the next hour the bird did not disappoint showing well in and around its favoured cotoneaster bush before moving into a nearby animal pen all in very good light that showed off the nucanced charcoal tones that offset it’s bright yellow bill base.

Black-throated Thrush (Turdus atrogularis) ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, Bedfordshire, 22nd Dec 2019

More than happy with my views and photo opportunities completed a leisurely journey across the Chilterns to Maidenhead and spent a pleasent afternoon with my Mother and Sister before an early evening return to Norwich.

In many ways seemed an excellent way  to end the birding year. However as so often is the case, there was a late surprise  in the form of another Eastern Yellow Wagtail found frequenting a West Norfolk dung heap during the afternoon of 23rd December. And this individual was not an esoteric study in greyscale with a funny call, but a handsome first winter male of the nominate subspecies Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis aka Alaskan (Yellow) Wagtail or Blue-headed Eastern Yellow Wagtail.  For a quick refresher on Yellow Wagtail taxonomy see my recent post;  On the Beach.  As for English names of recent splits please! Just don’t get me started!  

The  more immediate problem was that I was finishing at work,  Christmas Eve was going to be spent shopping and making preparations for Christmas Day and Boxing Day guests and the only sunny day in the forseeable future was Christmas Day.  And although I have long since stopped caring about county lists this appeared to be a very pretty bird and worth the effort.

In the event the family kindly made sure this was not a problem – with presents exchanged by 11.30hrs and Christmas Dinner preparations in Hugh’s capable hands I was given an unexpected bonus present in the for of an exeat. Unsurprisingly there were just a couple of observers present and as I unpacked my gear and the wagtail moved from a large roadside muck heap to a stubble field where it fed distantly for about ten minutes before flying off South-East.  Others decided to await its return but I walked down a farm track to the a second pile of sludge and manure where it had fed the previous day. 

Prime habitat for a vagrant wagtail

Creeping around the back of the site to get the low sun behind me I surprised the EYW which flew calling into a nearby copse before returning to feed on the piles of manure and in the slurry pools which appeared full of insects. For the next 45 minutes myself and one other photographer had this confiding beauty to ourselves whilst skeins of Pink-footed Geese called over head and flocks of Fieldfare bounced along the hedgerows.  What was there not to like?

Eastern Yellow Wagtail of the nominate subspecies (Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis), near Sedgeford, Norfolk, 25th December 2019
Eastern Yellow Wagtail of the nominate subspecies (Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis), near Sedgeford, Norfolk, 25th December 2019
Eastern Yellow Wagtail of the nominate subspecies (Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis), near Sedgeford, Norfolk, 25th December 2019

I eventually tore myself away so that I could drive home on the near empty roads in the light and was back home by 15.30hrs to enjoy the rest of our family Christmas Day including the fine meal served up by Hugh.

The outstanding spread that awaited me later that evening….

Some final thoughts on the EYW.  If we accept the identification of this bird as an EYW on the basis of it’s flight call then maybe it can be ascribed as a candidate ssp tschutschensis on the basis of the blue-grey crown and nape (appears slate grey in some lights), white supercillium that stops short of the bill base and dark grey lores. As for it’s origins despite the “Alaskan” moniker tschutschensis breeds as close as NE Kazhakstan; nearer than many far-eastern species that reach our shores.  Conceivably analysis of DNA extracted from a stray feather or faeces may reveal more.  But for now that can wait as I savour a memorable encounter on a sunny Christmas Day.

Autumn Moths in the Garden

After returning from Georgia at the end of August opportunities to run a  trap in my West Norwich garden were limited by work, weekend trips away and the weather.  This post is a summary of the autumn moths in the garden that I caught between September and the beginning of December.

September

As expected numbers dwindled from mid-September onwards and diversity was never great.  However in keeping with the rest of the year I recorded a steady trickle of species that were new to the site.  For example the night of 3rd Sept yielded  137 moths of 22 species, 99 0f which were just five common species. But there was also a NFY (new for year) Maiden’s Blush and a micro-moth Epermenia falciformis (Large Lance-wing). There are just 3 previous records of the Lance-wing for the TG20 10 km square. And it was another new species for the TG20D tetrad.

autumn moths in the garden, Epermenia falciformis, Large Lance-wing, 11th September 2019, Norwich
Epermenia falciformis (Large Lance-wing) – 3rd September 2019

A trip to Cornwall meant that I didn’t trap again in the garden until 11-12th September. By this time the catch had a very definite autumn feel to it with Herald, Centre-barred Sallow, Angle Shades and Black Rustic all NFY.

autumn moths in the garden, Angle Shades, Phlogophora meticulosa, 11th September 2019, Norwich
Angle Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa) – 11th September 2019
autumn moths in the garden, Black Rustic, Aporophyla nigra, 11th September 2019, Norwich
Black Rustic (Aporophyla nigra) – 11th September 2019

Again the standout moth was a wandering micro-moth; Oxyptilus distans (Breckland Plume). This was also new for  TG20D and there are only four prior TG20 records.  Another micro-moth species Eudonia angustea (Narrow-winged Grey) was NFY and expected around this date.

autumn moths in the garden, Oxyptilus distans, Breckland Plume, 12th September 2019, Norwich
Oxyptilus distans (Breckland Plume) – 12th September 2019
autumn moths in the garden, Eudonia angustea, Narrow-winged Grey, 12th September  2019, Norwich
Eudonia angustea (Narrow-winged Grey) – 12th September 2019

Moths were a bit thin through the rest of September. Notable species on 21st included a  Barred Sallow (NFY) and a couple of smart Box-tree Moths. A rather battered Frosted Orange on 29th was new for the garden and Lunar Underwings peaked at 12.

October

I only ran four traps in October. However I still managed to record two new moths for the garden; Mallow 5th and Brick 19th.

autumn moths in the garden, Brick, Agrochola circellaris, 19th October 2019, Norwich
Brick (Agrochola circellaris)- 19th October 2019

Other NFY moths that appeared over the weekend of 18th/19th October included Yellow-line Quaker and Satellite.   

autumn moths in the garden, Yellow-line Quaker, Agrochola macilenta, 19th October 2019, Norwich
Yellow-line Quaker (Agrochola macilenta) – 19th October 2019
autumn moths in the garden, Satellite, Eupsilia transversa, 19th October 2019, Norwich
Satellite (Eupsilia transversa) – 19th October 2019

Plus the always stunning Merveille du Jour!

autumn moths in the garden, Merveille du Jour, Griposia aprilina, 19th October 2019, Norwich
Merveille du Jour (Griposia aprilina) – 19th October 2019
November

November began with a near perfect night for moth-trapping. The traps contained 28 individual of 14 species including a late migrant Silver-Y. There was also a splash of late autumn colour in the form of three recently emerged Red-green Carpets.  Feathered Thorn and Acleris sparsana (Ashy Button) were both NFY.  But pride of place was went to the slim and unobtrusive Blair’s Shoulder Knot  which was a new species for me.

autumn moths in the garden, Feathered Thorn, Colotois pennaria, 1st November 2019, Norwich
Feathered Thorn (Colotois pennaria) – 1st Nov 2019
autumn moths in the garden, Blair's Shoulder Knot, Lithophane leautieri, 1st November 2019, Norwich
Blair’s Shoulder Knot (Lithophane leautieri) – 1st Nov 2019

A mild, and mercifully dry night, towards the end of the month persuaded me to switch on the trap.  I was rewarded with four furry chocolate December Moths (NFY).  In addition a beautifully marked Mottled Umber which was new to the garden.  A final trap in early December made the expected Winter Moth the last of teh autumn moths in the garden.  It was time to wind things up until the first mild nights in February.

autumn moths in the garden, December Moth, Poecilocampa populi, 23rd November 2019, Norwich
December Moth (Poecilocampa populi) – 23rd November 2019
autumn moths in the garden, Mottled Umber, Erannis defoliaria, 23rd November 2019, Norwich
Mottled Umber (Erannis defoliaria) – 23rd November 2019

On the Beach

In recent years taxonomy, the branch of the life sciences concerned with the classification of living organisms,  has been revolutionised by the ability to rapidly, and inexpensively, read genetic material.  Whereas once upon time classification of species was  based largely on measurements and morphology (in the case of birds – structure and plumage) of museum specimens now differences in genetic make up provides important evidence as to the validity of a species.  In the case of birds an ability to turn a digital recording of songs and call into a sonogram – a graph of the frequency (pitch) of bird’s sound versus time that can act as a digital fingerprint has also become a valuable tool in the toolkit of both the professional taxonomist and field birder. This last technique has been pioneered and used to great effect by the Sound Approach team

Any birder who has travelled widely in Europe and Asia knows our familiar Yellow Wagtail is just one of about a dozen different forms with more or less defined breeding areas.  An encounter with a flock of migrating “yellow” wagtails in spring is always an exciting affair; sorting through the identifiable forms and guessing  their final destination.  The gallery below has a selection of images from Georgia (2014), Western Sahara (2018) and Kuwait (2019).

Recent work by Sander Bot and colleagues (Dutch Birding (2014) 36: 295-311 ) used a combination of genetics and sound recordings to assign nine western forms of yellow wagtail (including all of the above) to a species now known as Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) with the remaining four forms that breed in East Asia to a genetically and vocally distinct species – Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis).  Elevation of Eastern YW to a full species and greater awareness of both the different call  and the  monochrome look of typical first winter birds has led to an upturn in the number of records in recent autumn especially from the UK and Netherlands -although in most cases identification has been aided by sequencing of DNA extracted from faecal samples.  

As a consequence it was just a matter of time before a Eastern YW turned up in striking distance of home  – or to be precise Walberswick on the Suffolk coast where a first winter bird had been hanging about with a couple of lingering Western YWs during the first half of November.  

Fortunately I chose a fine, if cold, Saturday morning for my visit to its favoured beachside pool. I parked the car at Hoist Covert (52.310110, 1.638246) before striking out East across the marsh to the shingle beach.  There were plenty of showy Bearded Reedlings to slow my progress and by the time I got to the pools the bird had already shown itself to the assembled group  As I set up my camera and tripod I heard a loud and unfamiliar buzzing call and the Eastern YW flew directly towards us, landed briefly on the beach before flying strongly South! “Not to worry” I was told “all part of its daily routine”. Fortunately, whilst I waited for it to return, there was a delightful and confiding flock of 20 Snow Buntings playing hide and seek in the shingle in between visits to some seed that had been put down for them.

After about an hour and a half a “yellow” wagtail appeared in the vegetation at the edge of the favoured pool.  After a short wait it revealed itself to be one of the Western YWs. Unfortunately when the bird relocated onto the beach the entire group of observers  noisily moved  in order to get a better view As they did I heard a now familiar call overhead; its Eastern cousin had returned but took one look at the human activity and flew off South again!

Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) note the pale lores (area between the base of he bill and the eye) – Walberswick, Suffolk 17th Nov 2019.

By now it was lunchtime, noticeably cooler and the light was deteriorating.  I decided to give it a further hour before trying to salvage something from the day.  Luck was with me and after a further 15 minutes the Eastern YW returned and posed rather distantly on a shingle ridge.   Although I was  grateful for the 2x teleconverter on my 600mm lens it made focusing challenging in the dull light. That said the gloom accentuated the birds dark olive upper parts, dark lores and crisp white feather edgings.  Eastern Yellow Wagtail it most certainly was and #716 for my Western Palearctic list.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis) Walberswick, Suffolk 17th Nov 2019.

The following day I was back on the shingle in pursuit of a rare bird.  After an early morning walk around Happisburgh with Graham which yielded a late Yellow-browed Warbler and a Woodcock we enjoyed breakfast in Walcott before heading up to the North Norfolk coast to catch up with an Isabelline Wheatear found by Mark Golley earlier in the week.  Despite a diet supplemented by meal worms the bird appeared to be struggling spending long periods almost motionless on its favoured fence posts.  A sombre reminder that despite the joy we get from finding and seeing vagrants for many  ending up hundreds or thousands of miles from home may be the beginning of he end. 

Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina) Cley NWT Reserve, Norfolk 18th Nov 2018

We made a quick stop on the way home to see a rather distant Rough-legged Buzzard near Wells  which in many ways felt an appropriate way to end an autumn that had started 3 months earlier in Batumi.

Return to Cape Clear

Thirty-two years ago following a successful twitch of the Sullom Voe Harlequin  I encountered Mike Terry on the Aberdeen ferry.  This chance conversation led me to abandon further October trips to the Isles of Scilly.  A sense of adventure and a desire to see transatlantic vagrants away from the Barbour clad hordes led me to Cape Clear.  I  have mended my relationship with Scilly and enjoyed many successful birding and family holidays.   But in 1987 I only had eyes for Cape where my first trip started brightly enough.  A Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Myrtle Warbler in quick sucession  was followed by two relatively birdless weeks.  The following year’s Sapsucker sealed the deal and I returned to Cape regularly until 1996. Although the returns in American landbirds were poor, the scenary, company and craic was always first rate.

Thursday 10th October

After 23 years it was time to return. This time in the company of Graham who had spent many happy hours on Cape when he lived in Cork City.  Unfortunately the trip started badly when our hold luggage, including waterproofs, did not arrive. 

Lost luggage formalities completed we picked up the hire car. Left to his own devices Graham was easily seduced by the plastic trim and gizmos of a Mini. Despite its drive chain, it got us around.  As for the missing waterproofs,  toiletries  change of clothes etc  Aer Lingus  offered tocover the cost of “necessary replacements”. OK – this was a birding trip to Ireland and the day was decidedly “soft” and we took them at their word.  After 45 minutes we emerged from the excellent  Wildside Sports  in Bandon each €300 lighter kitted out with brand new  ‘proofs and other “essentials” .  I did wonder however if KLM/Aer Lingus might balk at Graham’s €35 pair of merno wool jocks.

Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtus) – Toe Head, Co Cork

Back in the game we headed for a very wet and windy Toe Head a less covered headland SW of Skibbereen.  A walk around the outer head offered very little. Instead we tried our luck slightly inland.  A well vegetated garden flanked by a line of trees just screamed rare. Not today unfortunately, but Graham did score a Lesser Whitethroat. But that was not bird of the day. As we left a very late and bedraggled Turtle Dove was walking along the entrance road. 

Onto the quayside at Baltimore.  Here we met Brian Lynch, a friend of Graham’s from his Cork days ,who was joining us for the weekend. It was not the smoothest crossing I have ever had over to Cape. Relieved to set foot on the quay I let Mary Cadogan whisk us away in her taxi to our B&B.  Located up the Lighthouse Road the charming Ard na Gaoithe  is a lovely place to stay. Reinvigorated by a shower and partial change of clothes we walked to Cotter’s Bar to find dinner.

Ard na Gaoithe
Friday 11th October

Our early morning exploration of the Glen failed to turn up either  the Yellow-browed warbler or Firecrest.  Returning to the B&B things looked up with news of a Hippolais warbler and a Wryneck. Even better was the splendid full Irish  and positive news on Graham’s bag.  This was scheduled to arrive in to Cork that morning before being couriered to the ferry in Baltimore.

Full Irish – the poached eggs were our only nod to heatlhy eating

However here was no news on my lugggage so Graham and Brian left me to a futile conversation with Aer Lingus. Forty minutes later I set out on a half-remembered route around Ballyreigh. Following  the Low Road  I caught up with top Irish lister Victor Caschera. I carried on through East Bog and up through the  Wheatear Field up onto Firbrega.  The highlight was a lone Skylark and  a chance to photograph the local Stonechats. 

Over by Lough Errul  I found Graham and Brian. They  had not seen either the warbler or the Wryneck nor a recently discovered Common Rosefinch.  Breakfast was now a distant memory and we stopped for lunch at An Siopa Beag (the island shop) and put our names down for pizza that evening.

Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) – Central Bog, Cape Clear Island

After lunch Graham and I headed up the Glen Road where we caught up with the Firecrest that had been hanging around the Sallows at the entrance to the Post Office.  

Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla) – Post Office, Cape Clear Island
Nick at the top of the Glen

Graham bailed out at the top of the Glen and headed back to North Harbour to meet the ferry .  Lost in memories I carried on walking through Knockannamaunagh as far as Comillane Bog before turning for home.  Walking down the A1 I was treated to a spectacular Atlantic sunset before retiring to Cotter’s . After 33,000 FitBit steps, I enjoyed a pint of Murphy’s and caught up with Dennis Weir who shared many of my past trips to Cape. 

Sunset over O’Driscoll’s Castle and Mizen Head

We took a short walk across the road to the shop where  25+ resident and visiting birders squeezed in for an impromtu pizza night.  The excellent pizza was followed by a couple more beers before tiredness kicked in.  An early night beckoned and we returned to the B&B. 

Pizza Night in the Cape Clear Island Shop
Saturday 12th October

Blue skies greeted us the next morning along with another monster breakfast.  The boys headed out whilst I checked the status of my bag online.  Good news – located and arriving at Cork Airport that morning!  Huge relief as it  contained my suit which I needed for a work appointment on my return to the UK.   

My joy was short-lived.  Leaving the B&B I turned right up the Lighthouse Road.  Had I turned left towards the Priest’s Garden I might have found the Red-eyed Vireo.  When I did get news of the Vireo it had crossed the road to the Youth Hostel.  Here I saw it briefly before it disappeared.   This was compounded by my schoolboy error of going back to the B&B to finalise arrangements with Aer Lingus.  In my absence the REV reapppeared in front of Graham’s camera (see here) and promptly flew off across South Harbout.  Later it was found along the Low Road and showed well to all comers over the next few days. Except yours truely who never got a sniff.

Interest in the Samoa v Ireland rugby match then ensured a couple of hours with  few birders in the field .  Despite this I had little to show for my efforts. Brief views of the Hippolais warbler suggested a Melodious.  Otherwise a pleasant walk around the Lough Errol pines offered nothing but stunning scenary. 

Looking North from the Lough Errol Pines

Graham and I had no luck with the Rosefinch in Michael Vincent’s (aka the Lough Errol Garden) and headed  towards the Waist.  En route I picked up the Wryneck atop a dead gorse bush.  Walking up the hillside with a drystone wall for cover we managed some rather nice views!

Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) – High Road, Cape Clear Island

Bag recovered and wearing a welcome change of clothes I enjoyed a classic Cape October  evening in Cotter’s.  A hearty meal washed down with  Murphy’s before the entertainment began.  First Jim Fitzharris’s theatrical log call. Then Stuarty McKee’s video compilation of  past Cape trips made by Northern Irish birders in the eighties and nineties.  It was  poignant to see Dennis, Anthony McGeehan and the late Willie McDowall as I remember them during our time on Cape in that era. Happy days!

Vic and Nick in Cotter’s
Sunday 13th October

Another glorious day,  another gut-busting breakfast and another failure on the Vireo!  Never mind the Hippolais finally came out to play and revealed itself as a Melodious.

Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polygotta) – Lough Errul, Cape Clear Island

Still no luck with the Rosefinch, but the Wryneck gave a farewell performance.  I spent my last forty minutes on the island not seeing the Vireo and chatting to Dennis in the bright sun.  The return ferry trip was a delight with blue skies and calm seas. Plus plenty to look at; Mediterranean Gulls, Razorbills, Guillimots and Tysties.  Graham and I said our farewells before another look at a birdless Toe Head and overnighting in Cork.  So ended another trip to Cape.  I  sincerely hope it won’t be another 23 years before I return.

Booby Traps on The Lizard

During my last couple of days in Batumi I became aware that a second summer Brown Booby was being seen irregularly near St Ives in Cornwall.  Although Brown Boobies are quite common on a global scale it would be a new species for me. But for two reasons one that would have to wait. Firstly I had been away for 2.5 weeks and had work commitments to fulfil. Secondly I had planned a weekend birding and trapping moths on The Lizard when I took Kat back to university.  I was just going to have to sit this one out! 

Last seen at St Ives around midday on 31st August this bird was seen again an hour later from Pendeen.  Since Pendeen is ca10 miles SW of St Ives it had surely gone.  However, in a strange twist a different, first winter, bird turned up in the rocks off Kynance Cove the next day. Just about a mile from the Lizard Youth Hostel I was booked to stay in for the weekend of 6th- 8th September I was just going to have to sit this one out!

A sucessful twitch

We set off on the evening of 5th September with a fully loaded car – even with the back seats taken out all available space was occupied either by the worldly goods of the student illustrator or mothing paraphanelia.  And why not? As the UK mainland’s most southerly point it is a prime site for migrant moths and a number of species restricted to the rocky shores of SW England and Wales.  After a rubbish journey slowed by mutiple diversions we reached the Okehampton Travelodge just after midnight and pitched in for the night before continuing on to Kynance in the morning.  

A full load for the journey South West

By the time we reached the NT car park at Kynance many happy folk, a number of whom had also made the long trip from East Anglia, were already drifting back to their vehicles. Reassured I headed up to the viewpoint only to find the bird had left its favoured rock.  After a bit of uncertainty the Brown Booby (WP #715) was relocated feeding in Pentreath Beach where I watched it at some considerable distance for about 40 minute performing laps of the bay before it returned to Gull Rock.  I managed on one OK record shot as it flew past about 100 m below me and was very envious of the lone photographer located on a low promentory about 0.5 km to the South who seemed to be going eyeball to eyeball with the sulid – maybe tomorrow?

Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster), Kynance Cove, Cornwall, September 6th 2019
Moving in

Time now to get Kat moved in.  After a brief stop in Truro to collect the house keys and for me to visit the excellent SouthWest Optics to buy some replacement eye cups for my Swarowski binoculars we headed into Falmouth.  By the time we arrived I was famished and left Kat to get settled and headed to a cafe 100m down the road which turned out to be the highly recommended Provedore with a fine choice of SE Asian fusion dishes and excellent coffee,

The excellent fragrant sweet potao and roasted cauliflower curry served with toated rosti and poached egg – Provadore, Falmouth Cornwall

After leaving Kat to unpack and catch up with friends I picked up some groceries and decided to take another look at the Booby which was now settled back on its offshore rock.  But not the usual spot – it had moved to the West face of the rock which meant a hike of about 1.5 km beyond Kynance Cove to look back and view it..  Compared with the morning this was less than satisfactory with the distant Booby shuffling uncomfortably in a crevice and never really looking settled it did cross my mind something was amiss.  

The Brown Booby was last seen on the right hand slope of the furthest rock
The walk back to the car park via the famous cafe at Kyanace Cove.
Lizard Point

I returned to the car and drove the short distance to the YHA’s Lizard Point Hostel.  This very comfortable four star hostel is located close ot the tip of the pennninsular and was a hotel in the Victorian time. Facilities are good, albeit a bit basic, but with the added bonus of otstanding Atlantic views and extensive sheltered gardens. As it was quite breezy I set one trap in the garden before walking into the village to enjoy a pint and a supper of locally sourced seafood at The Witchball mainland Britains’s most southerly pub.

LIzard Point Hostel
Trapsite the night of 6th/7th September

The next day was clear and still and offered an opportunity to photograph the Brown Booby in good light.  First I needed to attend to the trap and have breakfast.  I caught about 20 moths, nothing out of the ordinary, although a Frosted Orange offered evidence of the changing seasons. The catch did include Galium Carpet which was new for me and three Delicates. The Delicate is an immigrant, although these have been the progeny of moths that arrived earlier in the year and stayed to breed, 

Galium Carpet (Epirrhoe galiata) – Lizard, Cornwall September 7th 2019. Note the characteristic concave forewing.
The Delicate (Mythimna vitellina) – Lizard, Cornwall September 7th 2019.
A second bite of the cherry?

After breakfast I headed back up to Kynance Cove. An increase in visitor numbers required parking in an overflow carpark with help from a rather officious NT volunteer! It was hard to know if the Booby was present, but plenty of telescopes were trained on it favoured rock.  I headed in the opposite direction to get to the promentory before it started to feed.  On the way I was joined by a local photographer who had spent an hour or so on Pentreath beach.  He was far from  convinced our quarry had not gone.  I was just going to have to sit this one out.

The view looking North over Penreath Beach towards Kynance Cove

And I did for a couple of hours in the company of a steady stream of hirundines and the occassional passing Mediterranean Gull. But no sign of the Booby. The consensus from friends I met on the way back to the car park was that it had disappeared overnight.

The afternoon was spent retreiving more of Kat’s possessions from storage in Truro and moving them to Falmouth.  Job done I returned to the hostel to cook myself dinner. A very fine chilli con carne which was able to cool and mature whilst I set the traps.

Dinner on the YH kitchem hob

Given the calmer conditions I elected to run both traps on the cliffs just off the SW Coastal Path.  I powered up the gennie as the last jogger of the evening pounded their way along the path. Nobody would pass the traps  again until I emptied them in the morning. 

Trapsite – 7th/8th September 2019
Eat, sleep, moths…

I returned the hostel to enjoy my chilli and a glass or two of red wine before retiring.  In the end I managed as good a night’s sleep as the top bunk bed in a shared dormitary allows.  As one of my room mates observed at least the YHA don’t make you do chores any more!

Once again the morning dawned clear and still and  I walked down to the trapsnot seeing a soul.  Both traps held good numbers of moths with a nice balance between migrants local specialities.  The migrants included;Delicate, Dark Sword-grass and Scarce Broad-bordered Straw.

Dark Sword-grass (Agrotis ipsilon) - Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.
Dark Sword-grass (Agrotis ipsilon) – Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.
Scarce-bordered Straw (Helicoverpa armigera) - Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.
Scarce-bordered Straw (Helicoverpa armigera) – Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.

Whilst local coastal specialists were represented by Grass Eggar, Devonshire Wainscot and Mullein Wave.

Grass Eggar (Lasiocampa trifolii) Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.
Devonshire Wainscot (Leucania putrescens) – Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.
Mullein Wave (Scopula marginepunctata) – Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.

After breakfast I checked out and headed into Falmouth to help Kat with a supermarket shop.  By mid-morning I was on my way to Davidstow. Unfortunately my attempts to photograph a long staying Buff-breasted Sandpiper were thwarted by some over exuberant members of the microlight community.  At which point I accepted that I had enjoyed a pretty good weekend and set the Sat Nav for home.