Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Bred Sparrows

Last Friday evening courtesy of Sunderland Airshow I had a close encounter with the Red Arrows, which flew close, low and fast past our front window in two formation groups of four and five planes en route to the aforementioned event. A cracking garden tick in anyone's book, and best views I've had of this annual spectacle.

But back to the point of the post, every day for a while now the low-pitch chirps of tree sparrows can be heard through the kitchen window though rarely can I spot the perpetrators, apart from last week when the black garden ants (lasius niger)   swarmed in the tropical heat of Monday and Tuesday, resulting in a feast for many a local bird, especially the house martins, which circled around just below roof height (we live in a bungalow) and snatched any winged royal which attempted the nuptial flight (and there were many). The two tree sparrows and a robin though, preferred to scoop them up at ground level :

One of two tree sparrows eyeing up the feast

Looks like a face-plant but just scooping ants out of a crack

How many ants can a robin shove in its beak ?

the object(s) of their attention

A few days earlier, a blackbird had enjoyed an ant-bath in the very same spot, they didn't half take some casualties over the two days :

sitting on one of the nest entrances ensures a good covering

don't miss a single feather

don't forget the armpits

finish with a snack, ants on the menu again

But yesterday morning I was out in the garden and spotted one of the tree sparrows on a neighbours roof, which was then joined by a second, so a presumed pair. But then the second bird flew down to the nest box on the neighbours wall, and the chirruping from the box immediately drew my attention to the fact they've bred there, and I hadn't even noticed!

First tree spug chirping from the rooftop

second tree spug arrives with a mouthful

looks like he/she's about to alight again 

Wow! down to the nestbox - why didn't I see that coming ?

And yes there's a little tree spug beak coming to meet it

Would ya believe it, I didn't even know the box was being used :-/
wonder how many are in there, the noise emanating suggests more than just the one

If that wasn't good enough news, later the same morning I noted a flock of 20+ house sparrows flitting around the side hedge and feasting on the young berries, by far the biggest 'squadron' seen all year, boosted by at least 16 youngsters. Great to see :-)

An army of young house spugs, lovely sight

As I said, really great to see so many youngsters as the house sparrow population locally has been in decline over the years I've been here, whereas the reverse is true of the tree sparrows, which  seem to be thriving all over the borough as well as locally.

Happy days :-)


Wednesday, 20 July 2016

In the Heat of the Day

Tuesday was the hottest day of the summer so far and by far, and also my last day of freedom as the school hols began today, so I had to make the most of it in way of a last attempt to see Banded Demoiselles on the Derwent.
An inexplicably low count in previous attempts, considering sites on other rivers not too far away have yielded 20+ counts in a single visit since early June.

First stop Hagghill, 10+ on a hot July day not unusual here in recent years, today a 45 minute vigil yielded just one female.

One lonely female (dead centre) on the far bank of the river, patiently awaiting a suitor

Granted it was only around 11.15am when I gave up, (I couldn't resist a txt from a mate of mine who I hadn't seen in a while inviting me for a cuppa tea at Thornley Woodlands Centre) but the sun had been beating down the whole time so no excuse really, but more on that later.

After a cuppa and a chat at TWCentre I thought I may as well have a look at the pond before continuing my riverside search, and was lucky enough to find a newly emerged male southern hawker on the far side, and witness his maiden flight into the trees not long after. No photos as my camera was still packed away at this point.
I checked the emergent vegetation and another 5 new exuvia were found, meaning so far this year I have recorded evidence of over 30 Southern Hawkers emerging, a good count in anyone's book.

one of just half a dozen or so Large Reds on the pond early afternoon.

No Emerald damselflies but this Light Emerald Moth was nice.

Back to the demoiselles, a walk through the woods down to Clockburn Lake where the council improvements have left the outlet stream devoid of vegetation, so no chance of any here.
The inner stream however was awash with other damsel species, more good counts of Azure, Blue-tailed, and at the lake itself, Common Blue (which prefer the larger expanses) but sadly no demoiselles on the adjacent meadows today.

Blue-tailed damselflies in good numbers on the inner stream, 40+

Azure damsels in even better numbers, estimate 80+

Lesser numbers of Common Blue but c20 along one section of the lake 

The dreaded heat got to me now as I made the uphill trek to the viaduct, and then down again to the riverside meadows, my last stop of the day. Last year here I had a superb male posing for me on the sparse clumps of riverside vegetation, I'd be happy with a female today I thought to myself as I reached a fruitless halfway point of the slow-moving stretch of river.
Then lo and behold, a darting 'meal grab' by a metallic green demoiselle as I passed a clump of veg, and I had a female Banded Demoiselle posing nicely (though at the far side of the clump) for a few photos.

A nice close female Banded dem to photograph

Not as stunning as the male but a beauty all the same,
a jewel of the riverbank in the strong sunlight as it was today.

Note the bronze tip of the abdomen, indicating a mature specimen, the more bronze the older
they are apparently.

In close for a look at those deep black eyes and the iridescence of the thorax

I watched her for a while with the Papillios for HD views then moved on, hoping I might yet find a male on one of the other clumps along by the river. I didn't, but did find another female, which also posed nicely for the camera after playing hard to get for a while.

Further out than the first, but playing the same waiting game

It's not often I get the chance to get decent pics of a settled female, they come to the river to find a mate, so
are usually being harried by males. 

The strong sunlight played havoc with the camera settings today, and as you can see by the shadows,
I was having to practically shoot into the sun with this one as well.  

A successful sortie, and she was back in a better position for photos 

Not so much bronzing on the abdomen tip of this one so a younger individual than the first.
Before long I walked back up to see the first one again, and she too had been busy catching a meal.

This was quite a sizeable fly when it started

Watching the process of eating was like watching paper being fed into a shredder, but in slow-motion. 

Shame about the grass stalk

Bloody shame about the grass stalk :-/

Did I mention the grass stalk?
Away from the demoiselles, it was lovely to see massive shoals of minnows in the shallows, took me back to my early holidays in Jedburgh, and balmy days exploring the river Jed with my dad as we fished for trout, probably the grounding for my lifelong interest in nature.

Just time for a last session with number two female before heading home. I found her on her favourite leaf again, darting out for flies.

 As it was time to go, I thought I'd risk disturbing her to get a close-up, so stepped down the deep-cut riverbank onto a convenient mud patch in the shallows, and managed one shot before she was off.

Quite happy with how it turned out though :-)

Like I alluded to earlier, as female Demoiselles only come to the river to find a mate or oviposit, these two must have been (like me) waiting for a male to come on the scene. But there were none to be found today, so we were all left disappointed (though for very different reasons).

Looking back at my records for the Hagghill area doesn't give many clues to the lack of demoiselles there this year. Last year saw a good count on the back of the record year in 2013, as larvae overwinter twice before emerging, but 2014 wasn't a bad year either so we should have expected better numbers this. My guess is the frequent and prolonged floods of last winter (which also washed away the newly formed sand martin colony just fifty yards downstream) has had the effect of redistributing the larvae to devastating effect here.
One to keep an eye on next year certainly. 

Friday, 15 July 2016

Black-Failed Skimmer

I'd been looking forward to a visit to Kibblesworth for a few days, but come Wednesday (my only opportunity this week) the mainly sunny forecast had reverted to the usual mix of cloud with scattering of sunny intervals. But I had to risk it as I might not get another chance with the school hols on the horizon.

My number one target was Black-tailed Skimmer, Gateshead's only site for the species, and one which I hadn't now seen in three years (some dragonhunter me huh?). I didn't get to Kibblesworth last year due to the weather being bad on my available days, and the year before I dipped on my only visit despite good weather.

So to Wednesday; skipped breakfast for an early start, and three buses later I alighted at Lamesley Road Bridge. Still a 20 minute walk to the Brickwork Pools but sunny so I stopped to look for Banded demoiselles over the bridge. A Kingfisher was a welcome sight, but he saw me first and was off with a flash of electric blue. A couple of minutes later he returned but seeing me still at the bridge he veered off over the fields and out of sight. No demoiselles.

The sun kept shining as I finally got to the ponds, though the entrance and walkway 'ponds' are all but dry so can't really be described as such. Half a dozen common darters lined the route, and my first spot at the actual ponds was a Four-spot.
The sunshine lasted around 20 minutes by which time I'd seen many common blue and blue-tailed damsels, a few emeralds, maybe half a dozen each of common darter and four-spot chaser, and two splendid males of my secondary target, the Emperor Dragonfly.

Love the way they patrol the open water at a fairly leisurely cruising speed like they own the place, then suddenly accelerate into action when a meal or a rival closes in, marvellous.

But no sign of any Black-tailed Skimmer yet, though still early, but the disappearance of the sun for the next hour didn't help matters.
I had a good walk around the perimeter of the ponds, disturbed a few teneral common darters, added azure damsel to the day list but that was about it. The highlight of the overcast hour was a Garden Warbler showing very well down by the main pond, and the continuous calling of a Green Woodpecker close by but tantalisingly out of sight bar one glimpse. 

The next spell of sunshine lasted about 25 minutes, in which time up to 15 Four-spots and the occasional Emperor entertained me, but still no Black-tailed Skimmers, and when the sun disappeared for a second time it was gone for good. Though I waited a good while and got caught in another shower, by 1.45 I'd had enough, even the dog walkers had seen sense not to turn out today, so I ambled back to Lamesley, hoping the distant blue skies would be overhead by the time I got to the bridge, and a last look for demoiselles.
In the event, it was, but the demoiselles were conspicuous by their absence. An abject failure, the Emperors were nice, but otherwise a crap waste of a day. By the time I got home I'd been out six and half hours for a total of forty five minutes decent dragonhunting, sometimes I wonder why I bother :-/ 

Not even a good selection of photos to show for it :

imm fem common darter

the only four-spot to settle anywhere

rufescens-obsoleta form female blue-tail 

teneral common darter fem, one of many new emergers on the day

common blue damsel imm fem. Note the diagnostic spur under s8 of the abdomen, the only blue
damsel to have this.

imm male common darter

another imm fem common darter

No Emperor you notice, didn't attempt a flight shot, was expecting to get one settled or a female ovipositing, little did I know I was to be thwarted once again by the curse of the Northeast summer. But unlike the Black-tailed Skimmer, at least I saw some :-/  

Sunday, 10 July 2016

A Nice Spread

After the Friday morning showers I anticipated some sunshine so headed off to Gibside, the Lily Pond in particular, Emerald (or Spreadwing) Damselflies the target.

It's another of those annual events which is a 'must do' on the Dragonhunting calendar. Emerald damsels start to emerge from early July and the Lily Pond is a great place to see them and get photographs, as the long grass either side of the dipping area are ideal sheltering areas for newly emerged damsels. Generally I find this species to be the most tolerant of the damselflies whereby they don't mind too much to having a camera stuck in their face; possibly because they aren't the strongest of flyers, those disturbed don't tend to fly far anyway compared to the azures and large reds around the area.

And so it proved today; the wind proved to be my worst enemy, spoiling opportunity after opportunity but I got a good few decent shots in the end of a variety of stages and sexes.

As expected a few tenerals were seen as the
early July emergence continued, this one rose up
from the long grass.

Another teneral, a male, wings held parallel with the body
as is usually the case with fresh specimens.

Immature males offered some good close-up opportunities :

This one was opportunity missed, the photo I most wanted, head on from a thin stalk, but despite a few attempts I couldn't get the eyes in focus, then the wind took him away :-(

There were also a few mature males around showing the blue pruinescence which means they must have emerged at least two weeks ago :

But most of the Emeralds I saw were immature females, and very photogenic ones at that :

Wings held closed along the opposite side of the body made for a good photo

In close-up even better

This one with the traditional 'wings spread' 

Another 'spreadwing' gave fantastic views and allowed very close shots.

Lovely sunlit pose 

The ovipositor in close-up

And finally another nicely posed female

All in all a good session, with plenty of other creatures posing for the camera as well, longhorn beetles, grasshoppers, butterflies and moths to name a few, but that little lot will wait for another day, and another post ;-)