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Summer Diary 2009

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Whatever the weather does from now on we are already in a position to say that the late spring and summer is better than last year. As well as making us all feel hard done by, the wet summer of 2008 was a disaster for wildlife.

Young Tawny Owl

Apart from the very early nesting species such as Long-tailed Tits, which faired rather well, the failure rate for nesting birds was very high. Barn Owls lost valuable hunting hours because they are not equipped to hunt in the rain and as a consequence very few young were fledged and many young song birds met a miserable end in the wet and cold. Owls seem to be fairing much better this year, especially Tawny Owls which are often heard but seldom seen. The young Tawny Owl roosting in a very open situation at Hickling Broad was the exception to the rule.

Sedge Warbler

I am pleased to say 2009 is very different as the number of young fledglings in my garden testifies and indeed visits to the major reed beds in eastern England positively teemed with young warblers and Bearded Tits. They can be noisy places too with the rapid chatter of the Sedge Warbler (see photo) competing with the more rhythmic and repetitious song of the drabber Reed Warbler and occasionally punctuated by the explosive high volume rendition of a relatively recent colonist; the Cetti's Warbler.

This year is also much better for butterflies and other insects. Ringlets seem to be especially plentiful and there have been good numbers of rarer species in Lincolnshire such as White Admiral and Marbled Whites.

Painted Lady

Perhaps the most noticeable butterfly this year was the huge invasion of Painted Lady butterflies which occurred much earlier than normal. Huge numbers were reported from the southern counties of England in early May from where many moved up country. There were even plenty of these beautiful creatures in the central highlands of Scotland which I visited in early July.

As I write it is still early for many dragonflies but as a relative novice I was happy to see three species new to me. The first was the spectacular and totally restless Norfolk Hawker which we saw on Hickling Broad in Norfolk along with the brightly coloured Azure Hawker and the rare Swallowtail butterfly. White-faced Darters in Scotland were also new to me and perhaps not as rare as they used to be?

Regular readers will remember that I wrote about a pair of Spotted Flycatchers that nested in a neighbours hanging basket. They fledged four young last year; one of the few success stories. Well I am happy to report that they are back again in the same hanging basket and as I write the four young of this year are very close to fledging.

Pied Fly Catcher

Closely related is the much more specialised Pied Flycatcher. This bird favours Sessile Oak Woodlands that are found in the western parts of the British Isles. They nest in holes and the lack of natural holes seemed to be the main factor limiting their success. The provision of nest boxes on nature reserves has dramatically transformed the fortune of this graceful bird and made them easier to watch. Timing your visits to see these birds is crucial, as they are usually only single brooded and by mid June most of the young will have fledged making the birds are much harder to see. By mid July most will already have commenced their migration.

There are a number of good reserves where you can see Pied Flycatchers; the ones I visit are the RSPB Dinas reserve in mid Wales, Yarner Wood National Nature Reserve on the edge of Dartmoor and the lovely Wood of Cree, near Newton Stewart in Scotland. If you go then look out for the other special birds associated with Sessile Oak Woods; the diminutive Wood Warbler, the striking Redstart and in more open conditions and woodland edges the Tree Pipit with its lovely parachuting song flight.

Red Grouse with Young

My annual pilgrimage to the Scottish Highlands was rather later this year, I normally go in early spring, but although the birds are relatively quiet and skulking in July, making birding more difficult, it did give me the opportunity to see how the breeding season was shaping up. The shooting fraternity will be happy that there are more Red Grouse about.

Golden Plover
I watched several family groups with at least four well grown young on moorland near Lochindorb in close association with nesting Golden Plovers. I also saw a magnificent Short-eared Owl hunting voles nearby.

Ptarmigan Chick

I found the much rarer Black Grouse on the edge of Abernethy Forest and a hike up Cairngorm was rewarded with close view of the young Ptarmigan illustrated; a true arctic species.

Another Highland favourite of mine is the Slavonian Grebe which nests in secluded lochs. In summer their plumage is gorgeous with golden horns and rich brown body feathers, quite unlike their drab winter garb when they appear on the sea off the east coast of England.

Slavonian Grebe


However, the weather is not the only constraint on breeding success and the proliferation of gulls on the RSPB reserve at Minsmere and other reserves has resulted in all the Avocet chicks being predated.

Mammals are always more difficult to watch than birds or butterflies and most of my sightings are, frankly, chance encounters. One such pleasing sighting was when my wife spotted two Harbour Porpoises just off the beach at Cley-next-the-sea in Norfolk. Closely related to Dolphins and more usually seen from boats, these two performed for us for several minutes before disappearing out to sea.

Red Squirrel

Much easier to see are the Red Squirrels in Scotland, many of which visit bird feeders. To me the delicately proportioned Red Squirrels are much more attractive than the more robust introduced Grey Squirrel. A real effort is being made to maintain their numbers, largely by the control and prevention of the Grey Squirrels from invading the strongholds of the embattled Reds.

As summer progresses and we enjoy barbeques and holidays, autumn passage, particularly for wading birds is in full swing. Failed breeders moving south meet late migrants going north as early as May, but by July whole families of northern breeders may turn up on our estuaries and scrapes and a succession of different waders can be enjoyed until well in to the autumn. If you enjoy nature in all its aspects life has very few dull moments.

Ian Misselbrook
July 2009.


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