Thursday, 24 April 2014

Garden goodies

After spending the easter weekend down on the south coast, it was nice to be welcomed home by a new micro moth for the year in the shape of a carnation tortrix resting on a bush by the front door. I tried to boost the moth total a bit further by running the trap a couple of times, but clear skies and low temperatures meant that only a few of the hardier species which I've already recorded were lured in.
193: Carnation Tortrix
Carnation Tortrix
Whilst the nights have been cold, the days have been generally warm, sunny and generally very unBritish, although as I type this it's grey, windy and generally much more British outside! One sunny morning found me mooching around the garden, half-heartedly waving my camera at the hairy-footed flower bees before noticing a single dark hoverfly resting on a leaf. I quickly recognised it as one of the extremely difficult Cheilosia genus, but fortunately this was the relatively distinctive spring species Cheilosia caerulescens, which I'd recorded in the garden last year at a similar time. More straightforward was the queen garden bumblebee, Bombus hortorum, that was buzzing between the ornamental nettles that were planted to provide forage for long-tongued species such as this.

194: Cheilosia caerulescens
Cheilosia caerulesccens, showing the distinctively nobbly face
195: Bombus hortorum
Garden Bumblebee
As the forecast was for a cloudy night, and warmer temperatures, last night, I had another go with the moth trap. Hopes weren't high when I woke to a chilly wind blowing in through the window, and the trap was rather sparsely populated, with just 6 moths of 4 species present. 3 of those species were new for the year though, including the attractively patterned Waved Umber which is always a particular pleasure to see. Hopefully the weekend will prove to be a bit less damp and grey than forecast, and I'll be able to get out and break through the 200 mark.

196: Waved Umber
Waved Umber
197: Nut-tree Tussock
Nut-tree Tussock
198: Shuttle-shaped Dart
Shuttle-shaped Dart
Total: 198 Species - see all the photos here

Lifelist 1315 Species

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Picking up some plants

We were away over the Easter weekend enjoying the chilly delights of the south coast, but earlier in the week we spent a very pleasant morning walking along the bridleway to the lodge. The first addition to the list was a second tree climbing snail, this time a Garden Snail enjoying the morning sunshine. Along the sides of the bridleway the garlic mustard was just starting to come into flower, and nestled in one bit of the undergrowth was a tiny pinky red flower which turned out to be Shining Cranesbill.

175: Garden Snail
Garden Snail
176: Garlic Mustard
Garlic Mustard
177: Shining Cranesbill
Shining Cranesbill
Another common plant was added to the list at the end of the bridleway, the yellow flowered umbellifer Alexanders, apparently named after Alexander the Great, although I'm not sure what the connection is! At the lodge the short grass in front of the main house was studded with Common Storksbill flowers, and some interesting looking grasses which I'll need to pluck up the courage to try and identify.
178: Alexanders
179: Common Storksbill
Common Storksbill
At lunchtime I decided to head into the bluebell woods, as the bluebells are already well into their flowering season, about a month earlier than last year! There was plenty of other wildlife in amongst the bluebells, starting with the common hoverfllies Platycheirus albimanus and Syrphus ribesii. Butterflies were abundant, Peacocks, Orange-tips, Green-veined and Large Whites, Brimstone, Speckled Wood all fluttered past, with first and last species pausing long enough to be photographed.
180: Platycheirus albimanus
Platycheirus albimanus
181: Syrphus ribesii (f)
Syrphus ribesii
131: Peacock
182: Speckled Wood
Speckled Wood
Bluebells weren't the only blue flowers in the woods, around the edges of the bluebell patches were some freshly opened spikes of bugle and the dainty flowers of common dog violet. On the edges of the path to the gardens Green Alkanet was in flower, attracting the first red mason bees of the year, and a basking nettle-tap moth.
183: Bluebell
184: Bugle
185: Green Alkanet
Green Alkanet
189: Common Dog Violet
Common Dog-violet
186: Nettle-tap
In the gardens the first Holly Blue of the year fluttered past, unfortunately not stopping to have its photo taken, but a freshly emerged Large Red Damselfly was a lot more cooperative. Also very obliging was the strange hoverfly Rhingia campestris, with its horn like projection on the front of its face.
187: Large Red Damselfly
Large Red Damselfly
188: Rhingia campestris
Rhingia campestris
The walk home produced a few more plants for the list, starting with Sheep Sorrel in the short grassland by the quarry, followed by Yellow Archangel lighting up the woods with their golden spikes. Finally for the day I snapped the field maple in the hedgerow which I'd spent my previous walk fascinated by, but forgotten to photograph the plant which had attracted the hosts of bees and other insects which had held me so captivated.
190: Sheep Sorrel
191: Yellow Archangel
192: Field Maple

Total: 192 Species - see all the photos here

Lifelist 1315 Species - New additions, Garden Snail, Shining Cranesbill, Alexanders, Green Alkanet, Yellow Archangel, Dark Tussock, Cydia ulicetana, Tawny Shears, Smooth Sow-Thistle, Glaucous Gull and Harbour Porpoise (the last six from the south coast, which is a shame, as it would be quite a surprise to find a harbour porpoise in the local countryside!)

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Hedges are great!

I've been travelling around a bit recently, so the total was only kept ticking over by a few more additions to the moth list, as well as a common carder bee that came into the garden one evening.
155: Common Carder Bee
Common Carder Bee
The mothing continues to be excellent, with the second Gtey Shoulder-knot for the garden joined by the fourth Lunar Marbled Brown. Perhaps even more surprising were the three brimstone moths fluttering around the trap, I've never caught one earlier than May before. More predictable was the first light brown apple moth of the year, just as the leaves start to emerge on the apple trees.

158: Grey Shoulder-knot
Grey Shoulder-Knot
159: Lunar Marbled Brown
Lunar Marbled Brown
157: Brimstone Moth
Brimstone Moth
156: Light Brown Apple Moth
Light Brown Apple Moth
At the weekend I finally got the chance to head out into the countryside, with the intention of covering a fair bit of ground. Before I set off I had a quick rummage around the garden, and quickly turned up my first bee for the day, a female Gwynne's Mining Bee (Andrena bicolor) resting on a wallflower. Nearby a medium sized hoverfly was resting, which I initially assumed was another Eristalis tenax. On closer inspection it proved to be lacking the broad facial stripe of that species, and indeed all of the genus Eristalis with the exception of Eristalis arbustorum - so that's what it had to be.

160: Gwynne's Mining Bee
Gwynne's Mining Bee
161: Eristalis arbustorum
Eristalis arbustorum
I didn't have to wander far before another bee was added to the list, a female Andrena nigroaenea basking in the sunshine just outside the front door. On the bridleway the cow-parsley is just starting to come into flower, soon its delicate white sprays will line every pathway in my local area.

162: Andrena nigroaenea
Andrena nigroaenea
163: Cow Parsley
Not much further along, the white dead nettle stands are now in full bloom, and bursting with life. 7-spot Ladybirds seemed to be on every leaf, and those leaves which didn't have a lady present were occupied by Nursery Web Spiders. On one low leaf, the first Squash Bug, Coreus marginatus, was lurking and nearby was the attractively patterned Sloe Bug, Dolycoris baccharum. Two bugs soon became three, as a single Common Damsel Bug was also lurking in the dead nettles.

164: Coreus marginatus
Squash Bug
165: Sloe Bug
Sloe Bug
166: Common Damsel Bug
Common Damsel Bug
My attention then shifted to the nearby hedgerow, and I was delighted to see a host of mining bees and hoverflies buzzing around the maple flowers. I quickly added the common bee Andrena dorsata and the spring hoverfly Epistrophe eligans, before stumbling across a beautiful female Tawny Mining Bee in the vegetation below the hedge.

163: Andrena dorsata (f)
Female Andrena dorsata
167: Epistrophe eligans
Epistrophe eligans
168: Tawny Mining Bee
Female Tawny Mining Bee
Whilst photographing the tawny mining bee I noticed my first bee-fly of the year drop into the grass nearby. These furry harbingers of spring are parasites on bumblebees, which I find hard to forgive, but they are attractive little beasts with their fluffy coats and syringe like mouthparts. Less controversial was the Hawthorn Shieldbug basking on its host plant, and the queen Red-tailed Bumblebee which flopped into the grass for a rest.

169: Greater Bee-fly
Greater Bee-fly
172: Hawthorn Shieldbug
Hawthorn Shieldbug
173: Red-tailed Bumblebee
Red-tailed Bumblebee
Heading back to the maples I was briefly distracted from the bees by the multitude of ladybirds, mostly 7-spots, but with a few 10-spots and 2-spots mixed in. The final new species came in the form of my favourite springtime bee, the lovely Andrena haemorrhoa, clad in fox red hairs, set off by pure white trimming. By the end of the walk I'd added 15 new species to the year list, all without getting more than a few hundred metres from the house!
170: 10 spot Ladybird
10-spot Ladybird
171: 2 Spot Ladybird
2-spot Ladybird
174: Andrena haemorrhoa
Female Andrena haemorrhoa
Total: 174 Species - see all the photos here

Lifelist 1304 Species - New additions, Common Damsel Bug, Pale Pinion, Eriocrania subpurpurella and Phtheochroa rugosana (the last three from the moth trap at work)

Friday, 11 April 2014

Marrakech March 2014

We landed in marrakech at dusk, the cool air giving little hint of the desert heat we would soon be experiencing. After a particularly tedious wait at immigration, we were glad to find our transfer to our hotel waiting for us at arrivals. One short taxi ride later and we were wending our way through the souks to our hotel (we were staying inside the medina, whose narrow alleyways are inaccessible by car).

Our home for four nights was the Riad Dar Ihsanne, a charming little five room hotel, secluded in a quiet street away from the noise and crowds. I'd definitely recommend the Riad, as well as being quiet and clean, it was a short walk from the main square and had a lovely rooftop terrace which you could retreat to when in need of some peace and quiet.

On our first morning I woke up early and headed to the roof to see what birds might be around, but before I even got there I was greeted by a pair of house buntings which dropped into the enclosed central courtyard. These delightful little birds were common all over the city, their russet underparts a living extension of the ancient walls of the medina.

House Bunting
Male House Bunting
The buntings duly admired, I continued onto the roof, to be greeted by the screams and twitters of a whirling throng of swifts. Commonest were the stocky little swifts, their white rumps gleaming in the morning sun as they fluttered in tight knit flocks. Less numerous were scimitar-winged pallid swifts, their grace and speed in sharp contrast to their smaller cousins. It was a real pleasure to watch the latter at close quarters, the bright desert light providing the perfect illumination to tick off the subtle differences from our own common swifts.
Little Swift
Little Swift
Pallid Swift
Pallid Swift
Whilst the swifts resembled a bleached version of their northern relatives, the starlings that were chasing each other between the television aerials looked as though they'd been out in the sun too long, and been burnt to a jet-black crisp. Upon closer inspection these Spotless Starlings proved to share the iridescence of their congeners, flashing purple and green as they twisted and turned. The final new bird for the morning came in the shape of a pair of common bulbuls, another ubiquitous species throughout the city, which announce their presence with tropical sounding flutes and whistles.

Spotless Starling
Spotless Starling
After a simple but delicious meal of stone-baked bread and jam, washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice and strong black coffee, we headed out to explore the city. Wildlife was unsurprisingly thin on the ground given the throngs of people, but in the quieter areas of the many gardens many of the same species from the terrace could be found. A highlight was spotting a Peregrine sitting on the Koutoubia mosque which dominates the centre of the city, with a couple of kestrels keeping it company nearby.

Peregrine on Koutoubia Mosque
Peregrine on the Koutoubia Mosque
In the evening we made a visit to the decadent surroundings of the Mamounia Hotel, reported a favourite with Winston Churchill. As well as boasting opulent art-deco decor, the hotel has some of the largest gardens in the city. As well as the usual startings and house sparrows, we also had the unexpected pleasure of a hoopoe flying up from the grass, as well as our first sighting of an African Chaffinch. These are the same species as the familiar garden bird in the UK, but look rather different, with an all blue head joining onto a body coloured in with pastels. A word of warning about the Mamounia though, be prepared to pay the price of a meal for two elsewhere in the city for a single drink here!

The following day we headed out of the city and into the atlas mountains which lie just a couple of hours drive south. We stopped off at the village of Imlil in the foothills, and enjoyed a cup or two of mint tea in a traditional berber house, whilst red-rumped swallows flew overhead, and the song of serins rang out from the hillsides. Suitably refreshed we headed on to the primary destination of the day, the ski-resort at Oukaimeden. Before we got there though, we spotted a large group of people at the side of the road, sporting a variety of binoculars and telescopes. Never being shy to jam in on someone else's bird, I hopped out and asked what they'd got. "Woodpecker, calling from the trees, but we haven't seen it yet" came the reply, just as the bird announced itself again from the depths of a wooded slope. More in hope than expectation I raised my binoculars to my eyes, to be greeted by the stunning sight of a male Levaillant's Woodpecker sitting fully in the open about 20 metres away! These North African endemics strongly resemble our own green woodpecker, but have a plain grey face with a single streak of black.

After a bit of basking in the glory of finding this elusive bird (ok that might be putting it a little strongly), we made our way back to the car, ticking off a few familiar birds in the shape of a Great Tit, Robin and Blue Tit. The latter was a bit more significant though, as it belonged to the African clade of the Blue Tit group, which has recently been split to be a species in its own right, the African Blue Tit. The differences weren't immediately all that striking in the shade of the woods, but seen in bright light they flash a brilliant blue.

Our next stop was at the first car park at Oukaimeden, where we were greeted by a mixed flock of Choughs and Alpine Chough feeding on the grassland, and on a smoking heap of rubbish! Around the hotels and restaurants flocks of Rock Sparrows joined Black Redstarts and yet more Alpine Choughs.

Choughs and Alpine Choughs
Choughs and Alpine Choughs
We headed on to the second car park at the bottom of the ski lift, but decided against a bit of impromptu skiing, and set off into the rocky mountainside instead. We hadn't gone very far when we found the first new bird, a jazzy Seebohm's Wheatear. Technically this is just a sub-species of our Northern Wheatear, but given its distinctive looks and restricted range I suspect it won't be long before I get an armchair tick.

Seebohm's Wheatear
Seebohm's Wheatear
Finding the next birds took a little longer in the seemingly barren rocky slopes, but there was some alternative interest in the shape of an Atlas Day Gecko basking in the open. Finally we glimpsed some movement and caught a glimpse of an Atlas Shore Lark creeping through the rocks. One soon turned into four, and we enjoyed some excellent views of this recently split Atlas endemic. It proved to be the last new species at Oukaimeden, the hoped for Crimson-winged Finches were nowhere to be found.

Atlas Day Gecko
Atlas Day Gecko
Atlas Shore Lark
Atlas Shore Lark
Our next stop was the Ourika Valley, where scenery rather than birding was the main order of the day, but we did get some further views of African Blue Tits and Chaffinches, as well as a Grey Wagtail feeding in the fast-flowing river. We headed back to Marrakech, stopping off for a brief taste of the locally produced Argan oil.

The following day we headed out towards the El Badi palace, now largely in ruins, but whose walls still stood and hold a sizeable number of nesting White Storks. I spent an entertaining thirty minutes or so trying to get some decent photos of these spectacular birds, with brief breaks to snap the ubiquitous House Buntings. Down in the orange trees at the bottom of the palace we had the usual suspects in the shape of Spotless Starlings and House Sparrows, as well as several Barn Swallows presumably taking a break from their migration northwards.

White Stork
Stork nest with the Atlas Mountains in the background
White Stork
White Stork
White Stork
Pair of storks having a dance-off
House Bunting
House Bunting wondering what that big shiny thing being pointed at it is
After a busy day in the city we were grateful for the sanctuary of the roof terrace, and as the evening drew in, and the swifts started to gather, we had the unexpected bonus of a Booted Eagle drifting overhead, perhaps another migrant on its way north. This proved to be the first of four Booted Eagles over the next 24 hours, not a bad bird to see on a city break!

Booted Eagle
Booted Eagle drifting past
I have a feeling we'll be making another trip to Morocco some day to experience some more of the country, maybe heading down to the desert, and definitely having another go at finding crimson-winged finches! Marrakech was a great city to stay in for a short break, a real culture shock, glorious sunshine and surprisingly good wildlife, especially with the Atlas mountains so close.