Puffin at Hermaness, Unst

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Sunday, 25 July 2021

Dune Helleborine - 21/07/2021

Last week was spent in the Lake District with Sara where we couldn't have asked for better weather for a number of activities, mainly hiking, kayaking and wild swimming. During the trip, I hurt my knee to an extent where I needed a rest day. Therefore, I took this opportunity to head south to Ainsdale Dunes in Merseyside to hopefully find the colony of Dune Helleborines there. 

It was a two-hour drive, and early on, the temperature was already soaring on site. Sand dunes are tricky to search and there are constant undulations and I hadn't a idea of where to start. The expanse of the dunes was also unexpected, so I knew it was going to be a long quest. I knew this year had been a good season for Dune Helleborines, but it wasn't as easy as I'd imagined. 

Anyway, after three hours, I finally found one and it was thankfully in good condition, meaning I didn't have to find anymore. It was great to see a few Grayling butterflies and some enormous Broad-leaved Helleborines in amongst the pine trees there. 

I then walked back along the sandy beach, back to the car and onwards to the Lakes to enjoy the few days remaining there. I was aiming to go back via a Dark Red Helleborine site, but didn't in the end. 

In the Lakes, wildlife is very sparse and only a Ring Ouzel on Esk Pike was notable, whereas dragonflies comprised Common Hawkers, Golden-ringed Dragonflies and Keeled Skimmers.

Dune Helleborine at Ainsdale Dunes

Grayling at Ainsdale Dunes


Thursday, 15 July 2021

Red Helleborine...in the Chilterns

Last weekend was probably one of the most memorable from a botanical side of things. For years, I've been long wanting to see a Red Helleborine, whether it'd be in the UK or on the continent, especially after failing with the latter on multiple occasions. 

The status of Red Helleborine is not quite as extravagant as Ghost Orchid in the UK, but it still acquires its mega status with only four flowering plants at one site in 2021, and very few, if any, in recent years. With twitter in past weeks raging on about a handful of flowering Red Helleborines, it was an absolute privilege to head to a little-known site in the Chilterns, which is probably the last site and with only one plant in flower when I was present. 

Not only was this the last individual, it was in perfect condition, though shaking with adrenaline made it difficult to hold the camera still at times. 

Red Helleborines are very critical on light levels, so volunteers each year cut off any overhangs to ensure the correct light levels are maintained. However, a number of other factors play a key role in the flowering of orchids, and seemingly, this year has been unprecedented with other species of orchids sprouting up all over. This species can also lay dormant for years, emerging if conditions suit and only flowering in the very best of conditions. Unfortunately, luck isn't on its side, as the pollinator of Red Helleborine apparently doesn't exist in the UK! These reasons accumulated makes me realise how fortunate I was to see this superb orchid!

Red Helleborine in the Chilterns

Thursday, 1 July 2021

June (Part 4) - Cairngorms & the journey back south

It felt like I had been away an eternity, probably emphasised by not going abroad (like everyone else) for a while now!

Having cleaned up on the dragonflies in the west, Dad and I made tracks to the mountains of the Cairngorms, stopping off to find a small colony of Coralroot Orchids. Although I had seen this distinct species before in Cumbria, I was staggered by how tall these specimens were. The sun had emerged from behind the clouds so we quickly made our way to Loch Garten where we found more than a trio of White-faced Darters, but they were very flighty allowing poor photographic opportunities. The Northern Damselflies were easy as per usual, so we then did some more orchid hunting, finding two sites for the delicate Small White Orchids – a new species for me and very welcome after previous dips. 

Unsure now what to do, we opted on the Findhorn Valley as the cloud wasn't too low and Dad was keen to see Mountain Hare. Arriving at the usual car park, we weren't too sure where to go, so we opted for 'up and over'. A Mountain Hare's ears were seen bounding off over the hillside, but by far the highlight was a stunning near-adult Golden Eagle which swooped low over the hill and was watched flying off into the distance. A Red Grouse and several toads were also seen. 

Coralroot Orchid

White-faced Darter

Golden Eagle

Findhorn Valley

The weather had sadly not improved for our day planned in the mountains, which was a great shame as I was keen on showing Dad some Ptarmigan, but we still had a decent day in poorer conditions. Our visit to Loch Garten for the Ospreys was pointless as there were no Ospreys breeding this year! So, we quickly went back and photographed the Small White Orchids which were pure class; we then spent a decent hour getting a series of lovely photographs of the Northern Damselflies. 

We then walked a long circuit around Abernethy without finding a single Crossbill (!), nor much else for that matter, so we headed up to another valley where Dad got a better view of a Mountain Hare! It was wet and windy so we gave up for the day and made plans for the following day.

Small White Orchid

Northern Damselfly

What turned out to be our final day, today I drove the whole distance from Grantown-on-Spey to Seaford, with two stops: one for the Slavonian Grebes at Avielochan and the second at a site in Cumbria for the rare High Brown Fritillary. The Slav Grebe was stunning and showed really well (my camera was packed away), while the High Browns were difficult to catch-up with. We saw at least two, but with many Dark Greens on the wing and the temperature increasing, making a positive ID wasn't easy. However, the two that settled were much appreciated by us. 

So that's that, a lengthy time away resulting in seeing an incredible diversity of wildlife, starting off with the Black Hairstreak and ending with the High Browns, with so much packed in-between, for which I feel very lucky to see. It was great to get Dad away from home, and hopefully the next time we go the weather may have improved. 

Dark Green Fritillary

High Brown Fritillary

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

June (Part 3) - Loch Maree

After Shetland, I had planned to meet Dad at Inverness Airport and to spend the next four or five days together scouring some northern sites. My main quest was to find the Azure Hawker, which would be my 45th species of Odonata in the UK. 

Azure Hawker at Loch Maree

So, on Tuesday 22nd, I arrived into Aberdeen having only seen a few Manx Shearwaters and Puffins early on, but a cracking view of Fair Isle the previous evening on relatively bumpy seas was worthy. I went straight to the Ythan Estuary but somehow dipped on the drake King Eider which had been present for a few weeks... typically it had moved off further down the coast. 

I then drove to Inverness to pick up Dad and we headed straight for Loch Maree to give ourselves maximum opportunity of finding an Azure Hawker. Annoyingly, the weather had turned for the worse and we could only find a dozy Golden-ringed Dragonfly

Golden-ringed Dragonfly

Lesser Butterfly Orchid

So, the next day, with brighter skies and lighter winds, we went straight back to Loch Maree and started our searches at Bridge of Grudie. It felt promising from the off and over the next couple of hours we had some excellent wildlife sightings, including a White-faced Darter, Spotted Flycatchers, two Large Heaths, and amazingly, a Lesser Twayblade which I found tucked up amongst the heather. The roadsides were also littered with Lesser Butterfly Orchids, all being in superb condition. Despite checking every tree base I still couldn't find an Azure Hawker, therefore, we moved slightly further west to Slattadale and to search an area of cleared woodland. 

Lesser Twayblade

Large Heath

Almost straight away, upon entering the area, two hawkers flew up, and once settled, it soon dawned upon us that these were indeed Azure Hawkers. Over the next few hours, we may have seen around a dozen individuals making this, for me at least, an unprecedented total! They showed superbly but were buggers to photograph. What was interesting was observing the males which changed the colour of their abdomen when the temperatures became cooler. A summer-plumaged Great Northern Diver was also out on the loch.

Azure Hawkers at Slattadale

That very afternoon, Dad and I then went to Beinn Eighe NNR where we struck pure gold when after a few brief sightings of a Northern Emerald in the treetops, Dad then spotted one low down and found it perched on heather. Absolutely insane views were had of this stunning dragonfly, and despite the midge attacks, we obtained some decent images. To end this crazy day, we found a stunning pair of Black-throated Divers on a loch on our return journey to our digs. 

Northern Emerald

Sunday, 27 June 2021

June (Part 2) - Shetland

I arrived on Shetland as co-leader on Tuesday 15th with my Naturetrek group and the tour leader. It was to be an action-packed week with myriad highlights, with the top highlights in no particular order below:

  • A visit to Noss for the seabird colony
  • A nocturnal visit to Mousa Broch for the Storm Petrels
  • An evening twitch for the stunning Long-tailed Skua and calling Corncrake
  • Watching two Otters fishing 
  • Seeing Dave & Brenda which included a guided tour of their place
  • Watching the Snowy Owl and albino Great Northern Diver on Unst with Dave
  • Visiting Fetlar and watching the Red-necked Phalaropes
  • A brief Minke Whale and a pod of Risso's Dolphins on Fetlar
  • Going to Hermaness for the seabird colony
  • The daily balmy weather conditions
Two of the above, Mousa Broch and Hermaness, have been places I've been wanting to visit since I was a youngster, so all very poignant and even better to be there as a leader! 

I did also manage to escape from the group of an evening; as it stays very light well into the evening, I was able to take advantage of some excellent birds relatively local to both accommodations, in Lerwick and on Unst. The first excursion was to twitch the long-staying adult Long-tailed Skua, which I only saw in flight at 10.30pm, but it was still exceptional. Nearby, a Corncrake was going for it at the same location where I found a Great Reed Warbler back in 2012. 

The abundance of breeding waders and divers was another major attraction as was the continued feeling that just around the corner a rarity may be waiting to be found. Fingers crossed I can make it up to the islands in October, and having visited Fetlar, this island is now on my hitlist.

Puffin at Hermaness

Puffins on Noss

Common Seal at Sandwick

Arctic Tern at Sandwick

Arctic Skua at Sumburgh Head

Otters at Toft

Red-necked Phalaropes at Fetlar

Edmondston's Chickweed on Unst

Puffin at Hermaness

Muckle Flugga - the most northerly point in the UK

Puffins at Hermaness

Lesser Twayblade near Hermaness

Noss seabird colony

Mousa Broch

West Sandwick beach, Yell

Dave & I casually watching the Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl on Unst