Monday, 30 May 2016

Bank Holiday

That went fast. Five days off and its Monday evening already.
Following the rather exhausting day out at Chelsea, Friday was spent recuperating and pottering in the garden, and doing a bit of shopping. Having bought a few plants (a couple of hopefully slug proof Hostas) some Lilies and a Cardiocrinum (don't know what I was thinking there very much an impulse buy) they needed potting up-though the Cardiocrinum needed a big tub. Also the area where the Bay tree used to be has been pretty much finished now, lots of Salvias, Cerinthes, a few Agastaches, plus a few other things. Everything has been chosen for bees and insects so hopefully once its all established it will pull in a few interesting things.

Colin is out of action so no day trips at the moment. So Saturday was spent at Amwell. The Hollycross Dragonfly walk has been open a month now, and I hadn't been there. I still haven't. The forecast was supposed to be warm and sunny. I arrived to very cool (11 degrees) conditions, light mist and drizzle. Things did not get much better in the three hours I was there.
The most noticeable thing was the expanse of sand and mud exposed-its been nearly a month since my last visit and the sluice had only just been opened then. As a result I have missed a few waders in the intervening period, along with the inevitable Little Tern. The Redshank are still around, the Oystercatchers are nesting again, and a pair of Little Ringed Plovers are present. The main action concerned Swifts-on several occasions large flocks of several hundred were present feeding mainly over the southern part of the lake. Early on there were also large numbers of Swallows and House Martins, but I only saw a couple of Sand Martins all morning
At least one Hobby is still present, just about the only raptor of note in the poor conditions though a couple of Red Kites and Buzzards eventually appeared.
William turned up and we spent most of the morning chatting about his recent exploits-a quick trip to the Hebrides for the Black Billed Cuckoo,  day spent on Dartmoor failing to see the Lammergeier, and a day spent in grid locked Surrey failing to get down to the south coast for the Caspian Stonechat.
When phil arrived, and with little happening on the bird front we spent a lot of time investigating the insect activity in front of the view point. Seemed to be predominantly Harlequin Ladybirds, with a few Two and Seven Spots. One or two Mayflys, a few beetles and a Carpet Moth were seen, plus another interesting looking moth that eluded Phil's net.

Sunday and Monday remained dull, cool and drizzly so I continued with the garden work. Don't think I missed much, though some more of my birding mates managed to get up for the Cuckoo. Beginning to think I will regret not making an effort to get up there and see it myself.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Chelsea Flower Show

I spent yesterday down at the Chelsea Flower Show and as usual had a great time, though I was absolutely shattered by the time I got home. Today is a day of recovery.
I learnt many years ago that the best plan is to get there as early as possible, and by judicious timing, caught the right combination of trains and  got to the gates at 8.15am, just 15 minutes after they opened. This gave me a couple of hours to get round the gardens before the crowds built up.
As usual I started with the Artisan gardens as they seem to be best in the early morning shade, particularly the wonderful Japanese combination of garage balcony and wall covered in Maples. As expected, it was the best Artisan garden and the designer (who does a garden every year) was happy to pose with the crowds of fans.
The main gardens were the usual mix of conceptual and more traditional styles, but all were planted superbly with clever plant combinations even if the overall design and structure didn't find favour. This was exemplified on the tv coverage with the overall best in show, by Andy Sturgeon, which split opinion, been seen as a very 'masculine' design with a lot of hard angular stone and metal work. I thought it was good, but preferred the Provence garden by L'Occitane, probably because of it's naturalistic appearance and because it had a lot of the sort of plants I like. The other really good gardens for me were the Mathematical garden, Rosy Hardy's chalk stream, and Cleve West's interpretation of Exmoor.
In the smaller gardens, Jekka McVicars apothacary garden stood out, and the Great Ormond Street garden was excellent. I also enjoyed the rather interesting plant choice in the Garden of Potential, using plants from Crug Farm nursery. The one garden I couldn't get to was the one in the stone cube-the queue was very long at I guess you would have to wait maybe half an hour to get to peer through the tiny holes.
Having spent just over two hours looking over the gardens, it took me a further two hours to make my way through the marquee. Hard to pick a favourite as there is very little I am not interested in, but the orchid stands, the carnivorous plants stands (picked up some useful tips for mine from one of them), and those specialising in the woodland perennials stood out (especially the Hepaticas). The team from Pennarth in Cornwall were present-I'm a sucker for some of their plants so stopped for a chat. I also had to stop at Plantbase with their Devil's Tomato and flowering Amorphophallus Konjac (another one whose plants I cannot stop buying). My Amorphphallus has yet to flower-theirs had just started and the smell was still tolerable.
After a bit of lunch I spent a couple of hours just wandering around taking in the sights, and looking at some of the trade stands, looking at the gardens again as the lighting conditions had changed, and revisiting some of my favourites.
Some of my photos have been put up on my Flikr site. They are all pretty much all snapshots, straight out of the camera, with maybe the odd slight tweak.

Monday, 23 May 2016


After a two week break it was good to get out and about yesterday-last weekend was a dead loss, a cold and hay fever is not the best combination.
I didn't fancy anything long distance, so the Dalmatian Pelican in Cornwall and the Lammergeier that hasn't exactly been pinned down in Dartmoor were non starters. The long staying Great Spotted Cuckoo on Portland was possible (though the Black Billed Cuckoo that was found on North Uist yesterday would have been even better, but not exactly doable in a day on my restricted budget).
So we decided to do the usual spring trip to Hampshire for butterflies and see what turns up. The trip down was ok but the news of the (presumed) Dutch Stilt Sandpiper at Pennington was tempting, but I had left some of my birding kit behind in order to travel light, and having seen a superb breeding bird many years ago there was no real need to divert.
We initially called in at Noar Hill, with rather worrying thick cloud and cool damp conditions and we weren't expecting to see much and so I just took my new 135mm Zeiss lens and the Nikon PN-11 extension tube with a view to get some orchid images. I stuck the 35mm lens in my pocket as well just in case something suitable came up.
We parked, as we have done recently at the west end, and it was a short but slippery muddy walk to the quarry. Not a lot in here so we didn't linger. The Cowslips were still looking pretty good, though a lot were going over (my garden ones peaked well over a month ago) and the few Early Purple Orchids were past their best. A few on the north facing slopes still looked good and there were a few really huge examples. I spent a bit of time trying and failing to get a good image of the abundant Milkwort and in the process disturbed a pair of Duke of Burgundys. Because it was still cool one soon settled down and was very approachable.

 As we climbed the hill, exploring one or two areas new to us the Sun tried to break through and it got a bit warmer.This brought out a few Dingy Skippers and Small Heaths. Common Spotted Orchid rosettes were seen here and there, and the Common Twayblades are starting to look good. We headed down to the south east gate (with some difficulty as the vegetation has grown substantially over the last three or four years). The wood edge here had been cut back a few years ago, to the detriment of the fine start of White Helleborines-my last search failed to locate any. The subsequent regrowth has helped, but the massive increase in nettles and Mercury, coupled with the rather late spring meant that the few plants I could locate were not looking good. Two were in bud, and the remaining four or five spikes appeared to be blind.
One bonus while I was surveying the area was that Colin picked up a Green Hairstreak. This posed for the 135mm/PN-11 combination (the first field test) but the limited focus travel took some getting used to. Might have been a bit better had I took the 100mm macro instead, but I think the results speak for themselves.

We picked up a few more Burgundys on the way back-maybe six all morning, a couple more Dingy Skippers and Small  Heaths and a pair of Green Hairstreaks.
Very little from a birding point of view unfortunately. Turtle Doves have been heard on previous visits-none today. One vocal Garden Warbler, a few Yellowhammers and Whitethroats, and some tits were seen, plus a few Swallows by the cottages.
With the poor showing of the Helleborines it did not seem worth calling in a Chappett's Copse so we went to Bentley Wood. The car parks were full, so we had to park off the road, it had really clouded over and showers were on the way so we didn't say long. The recently cleared area north of the stream was the most productive with lots of Bugle flowering-the southern side seems to be getting more overgrown. Did not take long to find the first of maybe four Pearl Bordered Fritillaries but they were very mobile and only one settled for a brief spell.

Walking north failed to produce the expected Tree Pipits in the usual clearing, so I spent a bit of time on one of the spurges and a rather small moth which I have yet to identify.

The showers arrived shortly after this so we called it a day. Got home to discover it had remained warm and dry all day, and the resident Holly Blue (plus a White) had been in the garden most of the time.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Transit of Mercury

No birding this weekend, due to a family do-it was in a nice part of the New Forest but I was banned from using bins and the camera. Lots of holiday makers, dog walkers etc so I probably wouldn't have seen much anyway.

I had the day off today as a Mercury transit is taking place. I observed the the 2003 event, and recorded it with the 80mm birding scope, an objective filter and imaged with the Coolpix995. Watched the entire event then, which took place from early morning. The next year I was using a TMB115 apo refractor, a Herschel wedge and the Nikon D1x for solar imaging, and saw the entire Venus transit, initially from home and then from Standalone Farm where we held a public viewing event. A few of my images were published in the British Astronomical Association report, and appeared on a few websites.
Using the refractor was a bit of a bind. Initially I had it mounted on a very sturdy photographic tripod and fluid head. This did work, but was prone to vibration and keeping the sun (or any other target) in view with head was very tricky. I eventually picked up an old Vixen Polaris mount which was put on the tripod and was far better, but the tripod was still an issue. The thing is, I already had a much better mount but had no means of connecting the refractor to it.
Before the TMB was purchased, I had obtained an Intes 8" Maksutov Newtonian and a Losmandy G11 mount. Neither item could be considered portable, but it was possible to break the components down and set up outside. Took a bit of time of course but eventually it got too much and everything ended up in storage for quite a long time.
Some time ago, one of the Letchworth and District AS guys, Tom Moss Davies offered to build me a pier so I could have the mount permanently set up outside. A bit of a dilemma then ensued. The refractor works best with a tall pier, the Newtonian needs one rather lower. I settled on a hight that I thought would work, bought a Losmandy-Vixen dovetail adaptor and Tom set to work and we had it all finished a couple of weeks ago.

This is the set up taken today during the transit. Its rather close to the house, but I can stills see most of the sky and virtually all my observing over the last 35 years has been from this spot.
The transit started just after local noon, and I had about three or four hours until the Sun would be hidden by houses. Hazy cloud was really a problem, though there were a few clearer breaks. The high temperature didn't help much either and as a result, the air was very unsteady.
I tried initially getting some video sequences with a 10mm eyepiece (80X) and the iPhone but had a lot of trouble lining everything up and internal reflections seemed to be a problem, so I concentrated on images with the D3s and a 1.7x converter.

This was soon after first contact and reasonably steady conditions. Its been cropped to show three sunspot groups and the much darker tiny disc of Mercury. BTW north is down and east is left in these images-courtesy of the Herschel wedge.

Cloud was a bit of a problem with the second image, and the air was rather unsteady.

A bit of a close up with Mercury getting closer to the two biggest sunspot groups (both are actually rather small and quiet compared to some we see, but still bigger than Mercury).

The last one I was able to get, and conditions are a lot better. The granulation of the solar 'surface' shows quite well here.
I could have probably got some more images with Mercury near the centre of the solar disc but heat from nearby houses would have been an issue, and thick cloud was starting to build up. The cloud got so bad that the Sun has not been visible since about 4pm-and with about three hours of the transit to go.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Images from Sunday

Don't know why I couldn't get them to upload yesterday, but here are some of Sunday's images.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Bank Holiday

Three days off and the weather is a lot better than expected, and I had two good days birding.

Saturday morning was spent at Amwell. The Hollycross dragonfly trail has opened and I was intending to have a walk around. With decent sunshine (when the cool breeze let off) there was a chance of a Large Red Damsel or maybe an early dragonfly. Not to mention butterflies. As it was I never left the viewpoint in the three hours I was there.
William was there with Julie who I hadn't seen for a very long time. A few Swifts were at the south end of the lake, along with a mixed hirundine flock. Three Redshanks and the Oystercatcher pair were present as was  Little Ringed Plover but that flew off towards Tumbling Bay. A bonus was the lingering Dunlin-two were present the previous night. William and Julie went of to search for warblers and I stayed along with Bill and Ade.
As expected we saw a few raptors, mainly Buzzard and Sparrowhawk, with one Red Kite and rather briefly, two Hobbies. The terns seem settled on the gravel banks-luckily the sluice has been fixed and the water levels are looking reasonable now, hence the Dunlin.
We saw a few butterflies, Orange Tip, Small Tortoiseshell and Small White and I picked up a Green Veined White when I left. Despite it appearing rather quiet, I managed to see or hear 61 species-had I gone for a walk I could have added another 5-10.

Sunday looked very good from a weather point of view, but Colin and I decided not to go too far and settled on a trip to Paxton.
We stopped off at the Newnham Ashwell manure heap, finding a minimum of three Yellow Wagtails and at least four singing Corn Buntings. We then stopped at the manure heaps on the Ashwell Eyeworth road. The first Wagtail was Grey, the second White, then several Yellow Wagtails appeared followed by a pair of Pied Wagtails. Again there were a few Corn Buntings present.
When we got to Paxton, it was rather busy and parking was limited. Garden Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat were heard from the car park-neither played ball and eluded our cameras. The first Nightingale did at least show briefly but was too far away and the rest remained invisible in the dense  bushes. Only two Common Terns were seen, and there were no hirundines-perhaps the chilly breeze played a part. The walk round the top of Heron Lake did not produce much apart from a Comma and a rather odd very dark dusky Blue Tit. On the way back I noticed a rather nice, complete solar halo. Colin managed a photo with his 15mm lens, but I could only get a partial on my phone. It attracted interest from a number of others as well.
On the way to Fowler, we called in to the manure heaps again, meeting Aubrey and his mate. Dave unfortunately is out of action again (but in Cyprus so it can't be  too bad). At least two Wheatear were seen on the heap some way off the road along a track, along with several more Yellow Wagtails.
Fowler was rather disappointing in that we failed to see the Turtle Doves. It was a pleasant walk though, with Brimstones and Orange Tips everywhere. As its been many years since I last visited, there have been some changes in particular the large mere in front of the raised hide, but its essentially the same as it was on my first visit 30 years ago.
We ended the day at Therfield Heath and Fox covert. The singing Firecrest that has been here for a while could be heard as soon as we got out of the car. Colin managed to get a few shots, but I didn't. I left him and went onto the heath to check out the Pasque Flowers. It was rather windy and most of them were showing signs of going over-some already had seed heads forming. However I managed a few images with the 135mm Zeiss.
Photos will have to be added later as blogger doesn't seem to want to lead them at the moment.