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....

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Pantaloon Bees and Bee Wolves at Minsmere RSPB!

Having admired the many photographs of Pantaloon Bees at Minsmere RSPB doing the rounds on Twitter over the past few weeks, I was longing to see these interesting insects for myself.
Pantaloon Bee - Minsmere RSPB
Pantaloon Bee - Minsmere RSPB
Sadly, at over 4 hours away, Suffolk was just a tad too far to travel just to get my fix of quirkily named bees (if they had been referred to as Hairy Legged Mining Bees I don’t think I’d have been anywhere near as smitten with them) and it looked like any chance to see them would be off the cards. Luckily for me, the stars aligned at the beginning of August when a Purple Swamphen touched down at Minsmere, positively forcing me to take a day off mid-week to go and see it and offering the perfect chance to simultaneously search for these fascinating bees.

With the Swamphen safely under our belts, we headed over to the sandy patches of ground along the North Wall where the Pantaloon Bees had been seen, a helpful member of RSPB staff on hand to guide visitors and help identify any bees or wasps.

After a long wait searching in the cloudy weather, a number of other interesting bees and wasps buzzing around to keep us occupied, we eventually struck it lucky with a single Pantaloon Bee, busy excavating a burrow in the sandy ground, the thick bristly hairs on the back legs getting caked with sand as it scurried backwards through the substrate before scraping it off revealing the beautiful furry hairs underneath.
Pantaloon  Bee - Minsmere RSPB
Pantaloon  Bee - Minsmere RSPB
Pantaloon  Bee - Minsmere RSPB
Pantaloon  Bee - Minsmere RSPB
It is only the female bees that have woolly “pantaloon” legs as they are the ones that sweep away the sand creating burrows in which to lay their eggs.
Pantaloon Bee - Minsmere RSPB
Pantaloon Bee - Minsmere RSPB
Truly fascinating creatures and the only species of Hairy Legged Mining Bee in the UK, we were totally captivated as we watched her dig out her burrow again and again, backing out of the entrance hole before dashing back in each time – amazing!!
Pantaloon Bee - Minsmere RSPB
Pantaloon Bee - Minsmere RSPB
Pantaloon  Bee - Minsmere RSPB
The majority of sandy burrows on the slope were also occupied by the ferocious sounding Bee Wolf – fearsome wasps that predate on the Honey Bees in the area, paralysing them and carrying them back to their nests in a rather menacing fashion.
Bee Wolf - Minsmere RSPB
Looking carefully, the Bee Wolves carry the Honey Bees in such a way that if they attempt to sting back, only the armoured part of the Bee Wolf’s body is presented.
Once stored in the burrow, the females will then lay an egg on the paralysed bee, ensuring the hatched larva has a sufficient food supply when it emerges. We saw several eyes peeking out of the occupied burrows, and these extensive tunnels can often hold up to 6 immobilised Honey Bees in chambers ready for the young wasp larvae to feed upon.

For anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to experience these delightful and quirky bees themselves, a trip to Minsmere in sunny weather next summer is definitely recommended! 

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Marsh Fritillaries!

Marsh Fritillary is surely one of our most attractive British butterflies – a striking checkerboard of fiery oranges and burnt umbers flecked with delicate hints of gold and cream. A true delight of the Lepidoptera world. It was also a species that I had been extremely keen to catch up with after learning two years ago that there was a small population just a couple of hours away from home. Unable to visit in previous springs due to a combination of poor weather and being away in Mull and New York respectively during the last two flight seasons, this year we planned in a visit during the half term holiday.

Parking in the local village and walking the short distance to the entrance gate of the reserve, after a brief stroll along the boardwalk we had reached the small patch of ground where the fritillaries can be found. Almost instantly I spotted our first one – zig-zagging low down above the grass before alighting on a nearby flower to nectar and allowing relatively approachable views. Far more used to the restless and dancing flights of other species of fritillary, it was a refreshing change for these mosaic patterned beauties to tolerate a close approach!
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
In total we managed to find 4 or 5 individuals – luckily the fritillaries are just managing to hang on here, despite being reduced to just a small isolated population in what is sadly the last site for Marsh Fritillaries in the area.

With Marsh Fritillary colonies undergoing periodic population crashes and extreme swings in numbers, individuals will recolonise the area from other nearby populations as part of one large meta-colony in order to replenish numbers if they drop too low. If there is an absence of adjacent colonies nearby however, this lone surviving population could be in trouble if numbers do ever crash to unrecoverable numbers.
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Once a relatively widespread butterfly, Marsh Fritillaries have undergone a serious decline in numbers, especially in continental Europe, and the British Isles are now considered one of the few strongholds left for this charismatic species. Despite this, they have suffered severe population drops even in Britain due to the draining of their fenland and marshy habitat for agriculture, making the Marsh Fritillary a definite species of concern. Appropriate conservation measures will hopefully see them continue to grace our wetland meadows for years to come.
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary sites may be susceptible to trampling (especially if there are caterpillars still waiting to emerge in the undergrowth early on in the season) so it is always best to tread carefully and view from the footpath where possible.
Marsh Fritillary
With their gorgeous chequered patterns of orange, yellow and cream hues, Marsh Fritillaries are one of our most attractive fritillaries, and it was fascinating to study them up close as they nectared and rested on the strands of grass - we even witnessed two individuals mating on one occasion.
Marsh Fritillary
Marsh Fritillary
An incredibly enjoyable day at a beautiful reserve, and I for one really hope that the population continues to hang on and delight visitors for years to come.

Friday, 5 August 2016

MEGA!! Purple Swamphen at Minsmere - should it get accepted on to Category A?

There is no arguing that Purple Swamphens in Britain have a very chequered history – the records are littered with unscrupulous escapees and the possibility of a genuine vagrant reaching our shores always seemed a very remote possibility indeed. Fast forward 6 years from the last twitched individual (an escapee that took a liking to a muddy ditch in Saltney) and Sunday afternoon saw phones bleeping and twitter coming alive in the birding community as reports surfaced of a Purple Swamphen at Minsmere spotted lurking amongst the reeds surrounding the pool near South Hide.
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere
Originally put out as ringed on the RSPB Minsmere Twitter feed before some hasty backtracking, it soon became apparent that this was the best candidate yet as a genuine vagrant, and most definitely had the potential to achieve what all British Purple Swamphens before it had spectacularly failed to accomplish – gain acceptance on to Category A of the British list.

Unringed, with full wings and most importantly being of the Western race of Purple Swamphen (‘Purple Swamphen’ as a species was split last year in to 6 full species, with Western Swamphen occupying Iberia and the Western Mediterranean), the chances were high that this could indeed be the real deal.
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
Digiscoped shot showing the full wings
Booking a day off work for the Thursday, Alex drove the epic 4+ hour journey to Minsmere from Cheshire, setting off at an ungodly hour in the morning and still managing to experience the joys of the M6 in all its glory (lorry fires, rolled over lorries, exploding lorry tyres and the inevitable motorway closures that come with it) eventually arriving on site at just after half 10. Approaching South Hide, I was surprised to see a relatively large crowd of birders and scopes present for a weekday, and we joined the waiting assemble to try and get a glimpse of the much talked about ‘Purple Chicken’.
Minsmere, Suffolk
The view over the pool at South Hide - the very same pool that held a Black-browed Albatross last year! 
After keeping us on our toes for around 45 minutes having disappeared in to a channel, the cries soon went up that the hen was back on show, and sure enough, we soon got a glimpse as it slowly worked its way through the reeds and crept through the shallows. At more than twice the size of the nearby Moorhens and being bright purple, it stuck out like a sore thumb, looking extremely out of place in a British reed bed and at one point positively startling the Mallards that had been dozing peacefully on the water’s edge.
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
Purple Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
With over 40 records of Purple Swamphen in Britain in the past and with all considered to be escapees, what's to stop the Minsmere bird joining them in the realms of escaped Swamphen purgatory? One huge point to consider is that the majority of records in Britain refer to the Grey-headed form of Purple Swamphen - found throughout Asia and the most commonly kept type in captivity. The Minsmere bird being of the Western type therefore immediately elevates it to the top of the list of likely wild candidates, with vagrancy potential from the Mediterranean and Iberia much higher than from across Asia and the probability of it being an escapee being significantly less.
Grey-headed Swamphen - Florida
Grey-headed Swamphen - more often to be found in captivity than Westerns
Whilst mainly found across Iberia, Western Swamphens have very recently colonised Southern France as a breeding location, and 2016 has seen an unprecedented number of birds disperse much further north than ever before – to date 8 records have surfaced of 9 birds found across Drôme, Rhône, Saône-et-Loire and even as far north as Morbihan. Granted, Suffolk is much further (and contains the added hurdle of the English Channel) but following the French records in a line north leads straight to East Anglia, perhaps displaying a natural path of dispersal.
Purple Swamphen Distribution 2016
Map showing the Northerly Purple Swamphen records during 2016.
Accepted as being genuine records in France if of the Western form, not all French birds have complied however, and a bird seen in 2014-2015 in Gironde relates to an African Swamphen of unknown origin and almost certainly an escapee, proving that not all records can be taken as gospel of being non-captive. 

Whilst at first glance the English Channel may pose as a stumbling block in the path of a Wild Purple Swamphen, it actually transpires that this species has made open water crossings before, with records from islands such as Malta, Menorca and Sardinia. The closely related American Purple Gallinule also has various records of long distance vagrancy (across the Atlantic Ocean no less) under it's belt, while other species of crake and rail have similarly shown instances of extreme distance flights, dispelling any myths that this family of birds are poor flyers. 
American Coot - Florida
American Coot and American Purple Gallinule - two species that have made the epic crossing across the Atlantic and dispelling the myth that rails are poor flyers
Often thought of as non-migratory birds, many species of Crakes and Rails do indeed move, often in the summer months, and it is entirely plausible that what at first glance may seem unlikely, is in fact a very real possibility.

However, one question to consider surrounding the Western Swamphen’s ability to travel long distances revolves around the large die off of Western Swamphens in France during the harsh winter of 2012, when several hundred birds were killed due to lack of food and starvation as their ponds froze over solid. If the conditions were so tough to the point of death, then why didn’t the Swamphens simply move elsewhere in order to survive?

Whilst most records of Purple Swamphens can quickly be attributed to being an escape, often traced back to a specific collection, two other great candidates for being Britain’s first genuinely wild Purple Swamphen have occurred in the past, yet have both been rejected; a bird found in Cumbria in 1997 that was rejected on the basis of being thought to be a hybrid between two races and therefore deemed to be of captive origin, and a promising individual at Sandbach in Cheshire back in 1971. Thought by many to be of the Western form, the record was rejected presumably on the basis that it couldn’t be proven that it wasn’t an escapee, especially with no pattern of previous natural occurrence in Britain. If the Minsmere bird does eventually get accepted, then surely this record must also be reviewed.  
Western Swamphen - Portugal
Western Swamphen - Portugal
Western Swamphens in their native Iberia
All in all, the chances of the Minsmere Western Swamphen getting accepted as the first wild bird for Britain look very good - rumours of a recent escapee in the area were put to bed after the bird in question was found to be of the common captive Grey-headed race, and with the unprecedented numbers of Western Swamphens dispersing in Northern France,  realistically it was only a matter of time before one made the leap over the channel and ended up on British shores. 
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...