Thursday, 21 June 2012

One of those days

I don't very often leave London. In fact, I don't very often leave Wanstead these days. The natural history of the local area is usually enough to keep me fascinated. But as I was doing a quick walkover of the Skylark zone on the Flats on Wednesday I had a sudden rush of blood to the head.

Perhaps it was the bright, warm sunshine? Maybe it was the weatherman forecasting weeks more wet and windy conditions? Anyway, I headed out of town to Iping Common, an area of sandy heathland in Sussex. True to form, no sooner had I arrived there, however, than the bright, warm sunshine was no more, with the celestial orb hidden by a bank of cloud. This was not good for my search for butterflies. The habitat, however, was good for my quarry: Silver-studded Blue, a species definitely not found in Wanstead and one I had never photographed. Its favoured heather was everywhere but it took a break in the cloud to prompt them into action. And then there was no stopping them. I counted 16 Silver-studded Blues, although - bizarrely - no other butterflies. I'd never been to Iping before but will definitely go back.

Rather than go straight back to London I headed east, eventually arriving at Old Lodge Nature Reserve in Ashdown Forest around seven in the evening. I'm familiar with Old Lodge - another heathland area - but it's usually windy, or wet, or both when I visit. Yesterday I struck lucky. High cloud was moving in from the west, but the forecast rain was still a few hours away. Walking along a ride between two blocks of pines I heard a Common Redstart, then picked it up with the bins. It was a male with a bill full of food, presumably destined for hungry chicks - and it looked very tatty. A little further along the ride there was a female, then five minutes later, another. I don't often get to see three Redstarts in a week, let alone inside 15 minutes. Little did I know that there would be more.

Retracing my footsteps, a calling Nuthatch flew overhead. Why can't they do that in Wanstead? More to the point, why don't they exist in Wanstead? Then I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye as a finch-sized bird flew up to the top of a stunted pine. Chaffinch? Then why no white in the wings? And why does it have a large bill with crossed mandibles? A stonking pine-cone-red male was perched right out in the open, with a green female a foot or so below. This was getting good. The birds flew down and after a half-hearted, and ultimately futile, attempt to relocate them, I moved on ... to where a Tree Pipit was song-flighting, alighting on an overhead wire to give excellent views.

By this time it was almost 8 p.m. and my thoughts were turning to Nightjars. Too early yet, though, so I scanned the rabbit-grazed turf near the car park. Two feeding Wood Larks soon became four, presumably a family party. Swap the species - Meadow for Tree Pipits and Sky for Wood Lark - and this could be Wanstead Flats. Apart from the fact that Old Loge is hilly, has a covering of heather and unleashed dogs are banned! A pristine male Redstart was nicely perched out in the open. Presumably this one had maintained its spring finery by abdicating its domestic responsibilities. A couple of roding Woodcock and yet another (female) Redstart later, a Nightjar started churring. Within minutes a male and a female were performing over the heathered hillside. The evening was complete.

Back in London in the wee small hours, I checked on the moth trap, which was filling up nicely. I'd have to be up again very early to get the trap in before threatened heavy rain materialised. I almost surprised myself by being up and about at 5 a.m. to open to trap and check on its contents. There were about 20 moths, including this recent colonist, Cypress Carpet.

Some days there just seems to be no end to the surprises that come your way: this was one of them!

Tim Harris

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