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I was prompted to write this summer edition of Country Eye by the onset of Autumn. No, not the weather, although it has not been anything to shout about, but the return passage of wading birds.
As early as July 6th I witnessed autumn passage in full flow at Cley nature reserve on the north Norfolk coast, and what a spectacle it presented with no less than 16 different waders on parade. Orange and burnt gold Black-tailed Godwits of the Icelandic breeding race probed the mud with their long bills for lugworms and scores of Ruff and Reeves in incredibly variable plumage took their prey from nearer the surface. Black-bellied Dunlins darted between the larger waders and the local Avocets loafed around in groups having endured an unsuccessful nesting season; their young lost to a combination of poor spring weather and predators.
We watched one small but vicious predator in action, a Weasel, scarcely bigger than my hand crossed the path on Cley's famous east bank with a chick in its' jaws. This is our smallest member of the Mustelid family which includes the very similar but larger Stoat as well as the much loved Otters and Badgers.
As always when waders are gathered at a suitable feeding ground there is a chance of something rare and Cley of all places in the UK has a reputation for attracting rarities that is second to none. The speciality of the day that I went was a Lesser Yellowlegs - a medium sized American wader that breeds in Alaska and Canada. This individual probably migrated south the wrong side of the Arctic Circle. Five Spoonbills combined with the more or less resident Little Egrets to give a Mediterranean feel to the reserve that was sadly not echoed by the weather!
The cool and unsettled weather pattern has not favoured our butterfly population which could really have done with a sun filled summer after last year's wash out. However, among the few individuals to fly I welcomed the return to my garden of a species that has not occurred there for several years; the Ringlet. Much darker than the more common Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper the Ringlet is best identified by the circles from which it takes its' name.
Apart from birds and butterflies I am also attracted to another group of flying animals, the dragonflies and damselflies. I have been lucky this summer in having a short holiday in West Wales as well as exploring suitable habitats locally in Lincolnshire, so I have already logged a number of different species with the best of the season still to come. The Welsh Wildlife Centre close to Cardigan yielded a superb variety of dragons and damsels including some "new" to me.
Without help I would surely have missed The Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly in a small pond with its more common cousin the Blue-tailed Damselfly and superficially similar Azure Damsel. Broad-bodied Chasers, gigantic Emperors and exquisite and aptly named Beautiful Demoiselles presented no such identification challenges. Back home even Bourne Wood ponds sent me scrabbling for my field guide with a rather late Hairy Dragonfly patrolling the same territory as Black-tailed Skimmers and delicate Azure Damsels.
Kittiwakes Collecting Mud
One of the summer wildlife spectacles of Britain that is the envy of the world is surely our seabird colonies. A pilgrimage to Skomer off the Pembrokeshire coast has been on my annual agenda for over 20 years but this year I substituted the usual landing and walk for an evening boat trip around the island. This not only gave me a different perspective of the cliff-side colonies of auks, kittiwakes, fulmars and shags but enabled me to get close to a burrowing resident , that is very rarely encountered on the island during the day, despite Skomer being the home of more than 100,000 pairs. I refer of course to the enigmatic Manx Shearwater of which Britain holds more than half of the world population. The adults only return to their burrows to feed their patient chicks after the cover of darkness because the shearwaters and their fish prey feature highly on the menu of the resident gulls. So to get close to Manx shearwaters you either have to stay the night on the island, or board a boat to get close to the flocks that gather offshore during the evening. I was lucky in that the weather was calm enough to sail from Martin's Haven and that the Shearwaters were flocking before the light faded too much.
Another seabird colony I visited this summer was Bempton Cliffs in East Yorkshire. This site not only hosts all our breeding Auks (apart from Black Guillemot) including Puffins but also is our only mainland Gannet colony. The noise of thousands of seabirds, crammed together, is incredible, and get the wind in the wrong direction the smell of guano is too!
Much closer to home, some very lucky neighbours of mine discovered that a hanging basket in their porch made an ideal base for a nest. A pair of Spotted Flycatchers, now becoming rare in Lincolnshire successfully raised four young which they fed largely on the insects attracted to the many and varied flowers of this well tended garden. The birds (and the neighbours) took on minor celebrity status as the many naturalists in our village watched the progress of the family, which I am pleased to hear had a successful outcome.
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