A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Red Helleborines in Buckinghamshire

Upon first opening my “Britain’s Orchids” book over 10 years ago, there were 3 species in particular that took my breath away. The curious Monkey Orchids that live on the Oxfordshire hillsides, the enigmatic and mysterious Ghost Orchid that only very rarely emerges from the depths of the dark woodland floor, and the exceptionally beautiful and graceful Red Helleborine, restricted to just three sites deep in the heart of our majestic beechwoods.

With large flowers tinted in a delicate shade of rose-pink, these stunning orchids instantly caught my attention, their extreme rarity just as alluring as their beauty. However the tight secrecy surrounding sites and the fact that flowering didn’t occur every year prevented me from seeing them – until now.
Red Helleborine - Buckinghamshire
With just three known sites in recent times, the Hampshire population has sadly now disappeared entirely, with no flowers having been spotted since 2003 and plants last occurring at the site in 2008. The Red Helleborines in Gloucestershire are unfortunately enclosed by a large and very high fence preventing close access to the flowers, and although having increased in number over the last few years, this year just one flowering spike has been seen. Visitors are also not encouraged. This just leaves the Buckinghamshire site as a location where close, but restricted and monitored access can be arranged - permits are required to visit and low key open days led by a warden are organised once or twice a year if the Helleborines flower.

Having managed to obtain a permit and taking a day off work to go on the second (and last) open day of the year, I arrived on site ready to finally see this most wanted of species. With just 3 visitors present on the Friday, our Monday tour had proved exceptionally popular, with record numbers booking on and meaning that we were split into two groups to ensure everyone got a chance to admire the flowers. With a brief tour of the site to enable the first group to take ample photographs, we soon swapped over and were led to the enclosure – impossible to find amongst the maze of trees unless you knew where you were going.
A view of the surrounding countryside before being taken to the enclosure
Like the Gloucestershire population, the Buckinghamshire Red Helleborines are enclosed by several fences, with a large inner fence surrounding the orchids to prevent grazing by deers or trampling by humans. With the decision taken a few years ago to no longer allow entry through the fence, I was extremely glad my dad suggested I take my 400m lens with me – the macro proved useless!

Crowding around the metal wires we peered excitedly under the trees, and there, nestled among the blades of grass was a single Red Helleborine spike. Even more beautiful in person than in any photos, the dainty pink flowers were in an absolutely perfect condition and luckily facing the fence – we couldn’t have asked for a better specimen. Thankfully the fencing had gaps big enough to fit my lens through, and was luckily just far enough away from the orchid for my lens to focus on the petals (the closest focusing distance is 3.6 metres!)
Red Helleborine - Buckinghamshire
Red Helleborine - Buckinghamshire
With no flowering spikes in 2014 and with just a single one this year, the future is looking quite uncertain at this site, with the population having been in decline here for the last 10 years. Following the lead of the Gloucestershire site where flowers increased after controlled management and the thinning of trees, the same seems to have had the opposite effect here in the Chilterns, with far fewer plants since the canopy was opened up. Even though there were several blind spikes nearby, the warden informed us that these were all clones of the same plant – not good for the long term survival of Red Helleborine at this site.

Whilst taking photographs, we noticed a small hoverfly visiting one of the flowers and I managed several shots of it caught in the act searching for nectar. With little known about Red Helleborine pollination, it is opportunities like these that enable us to further our understanding as to the needs of this delicate flower.
Red Helleborine and hoverfly - Buckinghamshire
Hoverfly pollinating Red Helleborine - Buckinghamshire
Platycheirus species of hoverfly - probably albimanus
With everyone satisfied with their views it was time to leave, and as a group we were led back through the trees and back on to the road, leaving the flower to its solitary existence once more.

With the Critically Endangered Red Helleborine on the very edge of its range here in Britain, and having already vanished completely from one of its former sites, it is a holding on to a very precarious existence indeed here in the UK. Several efforts are being made to aid with the conservation of this precious orchid, but with numbers declining, only time will tell how long the population here can cling on for. One thing for sure is that it would be a huge loss to the British countryside if this absolutely beautiful orchid was lost for good, unable to capture imaginations and inspire future generations like it did for me all those years ago. 

Monday, 14 September 2015

Wryneck at Fairhaven Lake, Lancashire

With a Wryneck having been present at Fairhaven Lake in Lancashire since last Thursday (along with 2 Barred Warblers that have sadly now departed) we paid a visit to see if we could catch up with what is usually a rare migrant here on the West Coast. 

Arriving at the pumping station compound to the right hand side of the lake where the Wryneck had been favouring for the duration of its stay, we joined the rest of the crown in anticipation of it showing and looking forward to seeing only my second of these delightful woodpeckers. 

After a spot of lunch while we waited, what must have been the quietest announcement ever that a bird was showing went up, and the crowds eventually realised someone had spotted the Wryneck, cryptically camouflaged as ever in the tops of one of its favoured Rose Hip bushes. Incredibly hidden and matching the bark to perfection, the (dreadful) record shot below exhibits perfectly the difficulty in picking out these masters of disguise!
Wryneck - Fairhaven Lake, Lancashire
With the bird only showing every hour or so when it chooses to perch in one of its preferred bushes or gorse, the Wryneck instead spent the majority of its time feeding on the ground and out of sight, taking advantage of the many ants on the sandy soil and abundance of grasshoppers in the area. Having previously seen my first and only Wryneck on the east coast at Spurn last autumn, it was great to catch up with this relatively local bird not too far from home.
Fairhaven Lake, Pumping Station Compound
Perfect scrubby habitat for a Wryneck to hide out in!
After the Wryneck had disappeared back in to the depths of the gorse thicket, we tried to find the now resident drake Scaup that had been present on Fairhaven Lake for several months, but even a 15 minute scout around the lake in one of the motor boats for hire failed to turn him up!

A quick stop at Preston Marina on the way home for the long staying 2nd winter Ring-billed Gull luckily resulted in success when I found it on the opposite jetty, putting an end to a string of dips for Ring-billed Gull this year in both Cornwall and Scotland! Much bulkier and larger than the Black-headed and Common Gulls, and with the black ring on the bill standing out even at a distance, there was certainly no mistaking this individual.
Ring-billed Gull, Preston Marina
 A great end to a fantastic day out in Lancashire! 

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Black Stork Stakeout - Sunk Island, Yorkshire

With a Black Stork turning up at Spurn just under a month ago, I sadly never got the opportunity to make it up there due to a combination of work and a week’s holiday to Scilly, and the bird had unfortunately moved on before I had returned. Since then, there have been sporadic reports around Sunk Island and Stone Creek, just half an hour to the west, but these were merely flight views – never at a nailed on site to twitch like it was at Spurn. However, this all changed on Friday, when photos on the Yorkshire Birders Facebook page showed the bird in question frequenting the fields and creeks in the Sunk Island area, with the posts seeming to suggest that it had been settled for some time, having favourite haunts around the Old Hall area. With one poster even reporting that the Black Stork had come back to one creek in particular to roost for two nights running now, I knew this was the best opportunity I had to catch up with this often hard to connect with species.
Black Stork - Sunk Island, YorkshireGetting precise info on exactly which creek it was, me and Alex made the 2 ½ hour journey to Sunk Island to see if we could track it down. With no sign in the creek at half 2, we turned to plan B – driving slowly up and down Cherry Cobb Sands Road to see if we could spot the Stork in one of the fields or ditches there. This was where the majority of flyover sightings on the bird reports had originated from, as well as some of the photos from just a few days earlier, and I hoped we could either jam in on it in flight or find it stood in one of the fields. Unfortunately it wasn’t that easy, and whilst a flyover Grey Heron got our hearts racing early on, there was no sign of our Stork. Several Curlew feeding in the fields were a nice consolation, as were 2 flyover Green Sands, and 7 Whinchats in just one small patch were clear evidence that autumn migration was well underway.

Knowing that our best shot was the Stork coming in to roost that evening, we headed back to the small creek at half 6, hoping the bird would return here again. A tidal creek, with water levels controlled by the Humber, the water was now much higher than earlier on in the afternoon, although there was just a single Little Egret and a Common Sandpiper taking advantage of the tidal pickings. The owner of one of the cottages told us that he had seen the Black Stork that very morning making its way up the creek, and we wondered whether the bird had remained feeding in the channel all day, out of sight at the other end of the field.

Alex’s theory was proved correct, as at around half 7 I spotted something large, black and white creeping around the far corner – the Stork!! We watched as it slowly crept through the reeds and in to view – the whole of its body now on show, along with the exceptionally long legs and bill. Eventually, the Stork worked its way down the channel, feeding on the morsels that the tide had brought in and coming to a patch in the open, giving us great views of this continental visitor.
Black Stork - Sunk Island, Yorkshire
Black Stork - Sunk Island, Yorkshire
Black Stork - Sunk Island, Yorkshire
With a bit of an influx of Black Storks this summer, this particular individual was a juvenile, ringed in France before making its way across the channel with at least 1 other sibling – the bird that had frequented the Loch of Strathbeg for some time. An extremely hard species to catch up with in my opinion, with the majority of sightings as flyovers in different parts of the country, it has been a few years since the last twitchable bird.
Black Stork - Sunk Island, YorkshireBlack Stork - Sunk Island, YorkshireWith the light now fading and the Stork seemingly settled down for the night in the creek, we left it in peace and headed home – 5 hours of searching had definitely paid off and I had finally caught up with a bird that had been tormenting me all summer!

With news out later that evening of its whereabouts, the bird was still there in the creek early the next morning with reports at dawn, before flying off at just after 7am. After a brief return, it flew off again at 10:10am, circling high over Stone Creek before gaining height and disappearing off south over the Humber where it was lost to view. With no reports on the Sunday afternoon or the bank holiday Monday, it was clearly a stroke of luck that I managed to catch up with it on the Saturday, and I’m exceptionally glad I made the effort! 
Sunk Island, Yorkshire

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