Monthly Archives: June 2013

A Spoonbill at Slimbridge

A Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) is present at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Slimbridge currently. I visited the site yesterday afternoon, and the bird hadn’t been seen earlier in the day but just after I arrived at the Tack Piece hides, it flew in and started feeding very actively on the shallow pools just in front of me, and then rested up and started preening … cue the camera, and here is a selection of the best photos from the 150 or so that I took.

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Spoonbill is a scarce bird in Britain, although because they’re large and conspicuous, inhabit the sort of wetland sites that birdwatchers visit, and tend to hang around for days, weeks or months, they can give the impression of being more common than they really are. They are on the increase here however, and you stand a reasonable chance of finding one yourself if you spend enough time birding around the Severn estuary: I added Spoonbill to my “self-found list” with one on Goldcliff Pools in Gwent in 2009; this is the second one I’ve seen at Slimbridge and I’ve also seen birds at Steart. They are much less common inland, although my very first Spoonbill was at Chew Valley Lake over 20 years ago, and there was even one a few years ago on a small lake near Swindon.

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Spoonbill numbers elsewhere in Britain have been building up for a while, and double-figure flocks are now seen in most winters in Poole Harbour, with other favoured sites including the Taw/Torridge and Tamar estuaries in Devon. However, East Anglia is doing even better, as birds have now established a breeding colony on the north Norfolk coast. All of this increase is fuelled by a burgeoning population in wetlands in the Netherlands.

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Although their odd appearance might suggest that they occupy an ancient branch on the bird evolutionary tree, spoonbills are really just members of the ibis family that have evolved a specialised feeding technique and the apparatus to go with it. Spatulate bills seem to evolve quite readily in waterbirds, with Shoveler ducks, and a small shorebird, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, also having them. There are five other species of spoonbill worldwide: two in Australasia, one in Africa, the gaudy pink Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) in the Americas, and the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill (Platalea minor) in southeast Asia.You can see some videos of Spoonbills feeding on this page on the ARKive website.

Kingsweston Down

I visited Kingsweston Down yesterday: this is the large area of limestone grassland that runs along the top of the ridge which extends southwest from the Blaise Castle estate. Both the north and south sides of the ridge are covered in woodland, so the whole area is quite sheltered. In some places the grassland is nothing to write home about, but there are some quite extensive patches which are either dominated by Upright Brome (Bromus erectus) or rich in herb species, or both.

One of the most abundant herbs at the site is Yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus minor), in the left-hand photo below. This is a classic indicator of good-quality grassland: it’s a common species of old hay meadows, for example. Yellow-rattle is partially parasitic on the roots of grasses. As you can see in the photo, after flowering the calyx which surrounded the flower inflates: inside, the seeds which develop are loose, and when the plant is blown by the wind, they make a rattling noise inside, hence the plant’s name.

 Yellow-rattle  Common Spotted Orchid

The right-hand photo is of a Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), one of four growing together in one part of the site. Common Spotted Orchid is our commonest orchid, and colonises new sites readily, liking both grassland and woodland edges, so isn’t particularly indicative of a good quality site, unlike many other orchid species. This individual is a little on the pale side, prompting thoughts of the rarer Heath Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata), but the shape of the lower lip, with three more or less equal-sized lobes confirms that this is Common Spotted.

Avon Wildlife Trust previously managed the site, and then it was in better condition, with shorter grassland supporting species such as Restharrow (Ononis repens) and Harebell (Campanula rotundifolium). Today the grass here is quite long, and these species are probably crowded out.

The site can be accessed either from the Blaise Castle estate itself, or from footpaths leading in from Coombe Dingle to the south. Here’s a map:

Beautiful Demoiselles

Vic Savery sent me these excellent photos of Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo), which he took at Three Brooks Nature Reserve in Bradley Stoke yesterday. Demoiselles are our largest damselflies, and one of our most noticable and easily-recognised, and like the Common Clubtail I featured in an earlier post, mainly river-dwelling species.

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Beautiful Demoiselle, 14 June 2013, Bradley Stoke, Bristol, Vic Savery (

There are two species of demoiselle in Britain; Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens), the other species, has a narrow dark patch across the wings in males, with extensive clear areas at both the base and tip, and has a blue rather then blue-green abdomen. Female Bandeds are more similar in appearance to female Beautiful Demoiselle, but with green-tinged rather than brown wings. There are other species of demoiselle in continental Europe, including the Copper Demoiselle (Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis) with a copper-red abdomen.

Beautiful Demoiselle prefers faster-flowing streams with stony riverbeds, whereas Banded likes slower-flowing muddier-bottomed rivers; however the two are often found together, indicating some overlap in the types of river they prefer. Ther British distributions differ: Beautiful Demoiselle is mainly found in Wales, southern and western England, with an outpost in western Scotland, whereas Banded Demoiselle is found throughout England and Wales but only just makes it into southern Scotland.

Around Bristol, both species are found on many of our rivers and streams, including the Avon, Chew, Cam, Wellow, Yeo, and both the Bristol and Bath River Fromes. They are also often found away from rivers (e.g. around ditches on the North Somerset levels, or at ponds and lakes throughout the region).

Lesser Whitethroat

I paid a short visit to Briery Leaze Meadow in Whitchurch this evening. This is a small area of rough grassland between Hengrove Park and the Whitchurch district centre. As you can see in the photo, the meadow is almost surrounded by dense old hedgerows: good warbler habitat. This Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca) was singing more or less continuously from the hedge on the right while I was there.

 Lesser Whitethroat  Briery Leaze Meadow

Lesser Whitethroats are pretty skulky warblers: they do sometimes venture out on to the tops of bushes, but much less frequently than Common Whitethroat (Sylvia communis). Fortunately they have a song that’s easy to recognise: it starts with the usual nondescript scratchy notes that other scrub-dwelling warblers give, but then moves into a far-carrying rattling trill of five to ten notes: very distinctive once learnt, and helpful for detecting birds in spring. Unlike the Common Whitethroat, male and female Lesser Whitethroats look pretty much alike. If seen well they show none of the bright rusty-orange tones to the wing-feathers that Whitethroats have, and in general are a much duller looking bird.

Lesser Whitethroats are unusual among our summer visitors in that they winter in Asia (mostly in India), rather than in Africa. Unlike Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), they haven’t (yet) taken to overwintering in Britain, so are here from April and are gone by October. I’ve seen (or heard) them at a few sites in the city this summer, so possibly they’re having a good year.

Common Clubtail on the River Wye

I haven’t featured a dragonfly on this blog yet, so I’m going to remedy that now with a rather good one. This is a female Common Clubtail (Gomphus vulgatissimus), photographed by Martyn Hall next to the River Wye at Monmouth yesterday.

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Common Clubtail, 9 June 2013, River Wye, Monmouthshire, Martyn Hall (

The river here is a well-known site for this species, and with the good weather today, Martyn & I thought we’d give it a try. We walked north-east up the west bank from the Wye Bridge, and eventually found this individual on a stretch of the river to the north of St Peter’s church, at this location:

Older books just call this species the “Club-tailed Dragonfly” but there are several other closely-related species in Europe that this name could apply to, and this is the one with the widest range, hence the newly-coined name. In Britain, however, it’s not common at all, being confined to just eight river-systems. As well as the Wye, it’s found on the Severn, reaching downstream as far as Tewkesbury, on the Thames in Oxfordshire, the Lugg in Herefordshire, the Dee in Cheshire, the Arun in Sussex and two rivers in west Wales, the Teifi and Tywi. A slow water flow, lack of pollution, a silty river bottom, plenty of bankside vegetation and nearby woodlands are all essential habitat requirements, which explains the restricted British range.

Common Clubtail has quite a short flight period, but should be on the wing here for a few more weeks. After emerging in May, they leave the river to feed in surrounding woodlands and then return to set up territories, so numbers on the river may not yet be at their peak given the late spring. There were also around 20 Banded Demoiselles (Calopteryx splendens), but no other dragonflies on this visit, although this site does also have White-legged Damselfly (Platycnemis pennipes) later in the season.

Grass Vetchling

I took these photos of Grass Vetchling (Lathyrus nissolia) near Lawrence Weston today.

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This is a relatively scarce plant around Bristol, but it has some strong populations around the southern and northwestern fringes of the city. The solitary crimson flowers are distinctive; however, as you can see in the second photo, the leaves are very grass-like, and so noticing the presence of Grass Vetchling when it isn’t in flower is much more tricky.

This second photo is a representatve shot of Grass Vetchling’s habitat: grassy banks or verges. This particular site was at the edge of the disused lane which leads up from the end of Lawrence Weston Road to the footbridge over the M5 motorway.

Nightjars on the Mendips

I spent this evening at Burrington Ham in the hope of encountering European Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus), and was successful at about 10.15 when a single male gave a few bursts of song, and showed itself briefly, To visit this site, park at the location shown on the map below, and walk up the path which leads west along the plateau, parallel with Burrington Combe. You will arrive in Nightjar habitat (bracken with clumps of trees and shrubs) very soon.

Nightjars are present on the Mendip Hills in two main areas: Burrington and Priddy. Several are present each year in the Burrington area, where birds can be found at Rowberrow Warren, Burrington Ham and at Rod’s Pot, which is midway between the two. Here the habitat is scrubby moorland/heathland, but Nightjars also inhabit conifer plantations in their early stages, abandoning them when the trees become too high. This is the habitat used at Priddy, where the birds are found at Stock Hill forest.

If you’ve not heard or seen Nightjar, I’d highly recommend a visit to one of these sites. Pick a warm still night, and listen out for a highly distinctive churring noise given from just after sunset. This song is typically given from a tree branch above head-height. Birds will also take display flights and feeding flights, and will often fly very close to people, enabling their white wing and tail markings to be seen. They will be present through until August.

Dingy Skippers on Cleeve Hill

The Bill Smylie butterfly reserve, on the western slopes of Cleeve Hill, the highest point of the Cotswolds, is somewhere I’ve been meaning to visit for a while. As it looked like very good butterfly weather yesterday, I decided to give it a go, There was no sign of any Duke of Burgundy butterflies, the species for which the site is best known, but several other species were present: Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages) was the most numerous species, and I managed a number of half-decent photos.

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Although Dingy Skipper is widespread in central and southern England, it tends to be confined to fairly good-quality sites. Its caterpillar feeds on Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and other related species in the pea family. Bird’s-foot Trefoil is a common species in limestone grassland that hasn’t been agriculturally “improved”, and it’s in these sites that Dingy Skipper does best, although it also occurs in patches of open habitat within other sites, e.g. woodland rides and clearings, particularly if there are bare open patches where adult can sunbathe. There are strong populations on the Cotswolds and the Mendips, however it is a species which is in decline. In the 1970s and 80s, it was found at several sites in and around Bristol, but no longer occurs here. It is possibly still found on the east edge of Bristol, near Rodway Hill, although the last records here on the National Biodiversity Network website are from 1998.

Dingy Skipper could be overlooked as a moth due to its dull colours: in fact there are several species of day-flying moth which look similar, such as the Burnet Companion (Euclidia glyphica). In fact, in evolutionary terms, butterflies are just a specialised day-flying group buried deep within the moth evolutionary tree. Skippers have in the past been thought not be closely related to the remaining butterflies, although DNA studies from the last decade show that this isn’t the case, and that all butterflies, including the skippers, arose from the same common ancestor, and that no moths evolved from this ancestor (in biological jargon, butterflies are ‘monophyletic’).

Bill Smylie reserve is a few miles northeast of Cheltenham, on the edge of the minor road that leads up to Cleeve Hill common: