Follow in Nigel's Footsteps

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Baird's Sandpiper...

Dave Helliar's run of good birds continues!  No sooner had I posted the last blog than a Baird's Sandpiper turns up in Dorset and only a short distance from Weymouth where the other American waders had been seen (see previous posts)! Thanks to Dave for the photos...his fourth American wader in a week. What will be found next?

Baird's Sandpiper, Wyke Regis: Dave Helliar

Baird's Sandpiper, Wyke Regis: Dave Helliar

Baird's Sandpiper, Wyke Regis: Dave Helliar
Dave also caught up with a Grey Phalarope, which appeared on floodwater at Budleigh Salterton in Devon last week. Although generally very confiding birds, this one stayed out on the flood as wasn't particularly close.

Grey Phalarope, Budleigh Salterton: Dave Helliar

Grey Phalarope, Budleigh Salterton: Dave Helliar

Grey Phalarope, Budleigh Salterton: Dave Helliar

I haven't been able to get out much recently - work is just too busy leading up to a Canada trip in a couple of weeks. I did get to Seaton for a brief walk with my son at the weekend though - I'll have to make do with some commoner species.

Black-tailed Godwit, Seaton: R. Harris

Eurasian Curlew, Seaton: R. Harris
With a bit of luck I'll pick up one or two of the American waders I missed here when I get to Newfoundland at the end of the month.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Buff-breasted Sandpiper...

No sooner had Dave Helliar seen the Stilt and Least Sandpipers at Lodmoor, than he was back down to Portland the very next day for yet another American wader!  This time a very handsome Buff-breasted Sandpiper that pitched up in a horse paddock just outside Southwell.

A few have been seen around the UK already this autumn - more reminiscent of the 1980's when they seemed much more frequent visitors than today.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Portland, Dorset: D. Helliar

Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Portland, Dorset: D. Helliar

Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Portland, Dorset: D. Helliar

Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Portland, Dorset: D. Helliar
If the current fall of American waders is anything to go by, we could potentially see some exciting passerines too. It would be good to see another Parula...

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

American Duo...

Looks like the recent hurricanes off the south eastern seaboard of the USA have started producing some excellent birds here in the UK. Many places seem to be having a 'purple patch' at the moment and none less than Lodmoor at Weymouth in Dorset. A few days ago a Stilt Sandpiper was found there closely followed by a Least Sandpiper (Dorset's first). Dave Helliar saw them both yesterday and kindly supplied the photos below:

Stilt Sandpiper (right-hand bird), Lodmoor, Dorset: D. Helliar

Least Sandpiper: D. Helliar

Least Sandpiper: D. Helliar

Least Sandpiper: D. Helliar
 And finished it off with a visit to Portland where he saw this Wryneck...that's not a bad day!

Wryneck: D. Helliar

I'm sure with the current weather patterns on the other side of the Atlantic at the moment that we are certain to see more American birds on our shores very soon, hopefully in the southwest!

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Generating Interest...

It's easy to question (and despair) where the next generation of naturalists will come from. There are exceptions out there but as a parent I can vouch for the fact that very few children (none in my sons primary school!) seem to have an interest in the natural world around them; they get their nose in an iPad and it can be a challenge to get them outside. So when my thirteen year old Goddaughter phoned me last night and asked if I could take her to see a snake, I jumped at the opportunity.

Luckily there's a reliable site close by for Grass Snakes Natrix helvetica, so we went there this morning to try our luck. She was not disappointed. Upon flipping the refuge we found a female Slow Worm Anguis fragilis and a good size male Grass Snake who was close to sloughing. Not wanting the  inevitable 'musking' to put her off, she donned a pair of disposable gloves and didn't hesitate to hold both the Slow Worm and the Grass Snake - perhaps there's some hope yet...

Handle with care. The first time my
Goddaughter held a Snake...and it
was her idea! 
Rightly pleased with herself - she was worried
She might have hurt the snake but it was
feigning death in the hope she'd leave it alone.
You see this behaviour often but certainly more frequently when
sloughing and they feel at their most vulnerable.
I look forward to showing her more next spring and hopefully kindling an interest that will last her a lifetime.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

A Look Back at Botany...

As the prime botany season starts to draw to a close, Duncan Harris takes a look back at some of his excursions around Somerset and the local counties earlier in the year.

May is the time a lot of plants really kick off and it can be difficult keeping up with them all. After the trip to the Lizard early in the month the local area seemed less promising but a visit to the Blackdown Hills produced some more orchids.

Common Spotted Orchid

White Helleborine - difficult to photograph in
shaded conditions
Greater Butterfly Orchid
A week later at Batcombe Down in Dorset - my favourite wild flower, the exquisite Bee Orchid. Their eye-catching pink sepals and velvety brown lip make them one of the most attractive UK orchids and are always great to find.

Bee Orchid

Fairy Flax
Very small but a delightful little plant.
Just starting to flower were the Pyramidal Orchids. What they lack in markings they make up for in the vibrancy of their colour.
Pyramidal Orchid

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Barred Grass Snake...a new species but not new to the UK

Thought it worth adding a short post following the announcement in the media that the UK now has 'a forth species of snake discovered'.

Barred Grass Snake Natrix helvetica
Has always been in the UK, not just discovered

Information in the news has been extremely misleading (nothing new there) and in fact the UK has exactly the same number of species today as it had yesterday...three.

That's not to belittle scientific discovery. Indeed Europe now has a new species of snake but the UK still has the same number of species. The whole grass snake cline is confusing at the best of times but advances in genetic discoveries has opened up a whole can of worms (not just with snakes but across the board) where previously described subspecies are now being elevated to full species level in their own right. Something every birder loves...another tick!

Natrix helvetica
In the case of Natrix natrix helvetica (aka 'Barred Grass Snake' or just good old 'Grass Snake' if you prefer), it has been discovered through genetic analysis that it is in fact a separate species rather than a subspecies as previously thought. Scientists in Europe also found that where N. n. helvetica came into contact with Natrix natrix natrix (aka Eastern Grass Snake), there was little interbreeding between the two. You can read more about it here.

We must also remember the same thing happened not so long ago with the Iberian Grass Snake Natrix astreptophora, formerly a subspecies just like N. helvetica. Personally I've no doubt whatsoever that the same situation will arise again with some if not all of the other subspecies found across Europe - up to 14 depending on which author you side with. Next we could see N.n. cetti, N.n. corsa, N.n. fusca, N.n.gotlandica, N.n. lanzai, N.n. persa, N.n. scweizeri, N.n. scutata or N.n. sicula become full blown species. Great for anyone wanting an extra tick or two!

Perhaps all of the confusion in the media hasn't been helped by the use of English names to describe species either? So, just to put the record straight - yesterday we had 'Grass Snake' or 'Barred Grass Snake' Natrix natrix helvetica and today we have 'Grass Snake' or 'Barred Grassed Snake' if you prefer Natrix helvetica. Just a change in nomenclature.

Monday, 10 July 2017


Mr older brother (Twitter: @duncanharris5) and I were very lucky to get into dragonflies way back in the early 1980's. At that time very few people that you met in the field were interested in them, which made finding out where different species were a bit more difficult than today. Nevertheless we built up quite a list and photographed most of the UK species at that time (sadly all on tranparencies) including some very rare or restricted species.  We had White-faced Darter at Thursley Common (now vanished from this location), Club-tailed Dragonfly on the River Wye and numerous other scarce dragon and damselflies at various places around the southern counties, including Scarce Chaser.

Jump forward thirty years and things have changed considerably. Thankfully many of the once very rare species have now increased their range from the diminutive Southern Damselfly to the aforementioned Scarce Chaser and there are several new additions to the British list too.

I visited a local site last weekend to try and photograph a male Lesser Emperor that I'd seen the week before and which had been found by Steve Waite a couple of weeks previous to that. No luck with that one on this trip but plenty of other species to make it worth the £4.50 entrance fee.  All taken with the Nikon P900.

Scarce Chaser Libellula fulva
At least two or three of these seen.
Blue-tailed Damselfly Ischnura elegans
Emperor Dragonfly Anax imperator, male looking very tatty
Black-tailed Skimmer Orthetrum cancellatum, male
Four-spotted Chaser Libellula quadrimaculata
Small Red-eyed Damselfly Erythromma viridulum
First recorded in the UK in 1999, a recent colonist
Common Blue Damselfly Enallagma cyathigerum
1000's of these present
White-legged Damselfly Platycnemis pennipes

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Grass Snakes...

We're very lucky to have several excellent, thriving local populations of Grass Snakes - by far the only species you can guarantee to see these days in south Somerset.

Adders have all but vanished, no doubt due to a number of reasons from habitat loss and fragmentation to an increase in disturbance and lack of good hibernation sites. Grass Snakes are altogether more hardy though and given the right sort of habitat and a good food supply, they can often be found in relatively high population densities. They can be found in a number of different habitats but are most frequent around water with lots of rough grassy margins that have places to bask along with cover to breed and hibernate (though I have found them under refuges on seemingly dry heathland before).

After setting out some artificial refuges at a local spot a couple of seasons ago, it's now paying dividends with frequent sightings of up to four or five individuals (see Dave Helliar's excellent photos in the previous post). I found a couple of large adult males at the weekend, including this beauty:

Grass Snake Natrix natrix helvetica
When handled (as with most snakes) they always exude an unpleasant smelling musk from their anal gland to deter would-be predators, which makes some people back off immediately although I've got use to it over the years. This one was no exception. If that doesn't work they sometimes 'play dead' too, going limp, rolling onto their backs and letting the mouth fall open with tongue dropping out in the hope that the predator will give up and leave.

This one unusually decided to play dead while otherwise sitting up quite alert...which didn't have quite the same effect...

Grass Snake Natrix natrix helvetica
'Playing dead'
There's much more about Grass Snakes and other British reptiles on my reptile page.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Wildlife in May...

Thanks to Dave Helliar (Twitter: @DHelliar) for sending in some fantastic photos of local wildlife seen during the last month. May really is when it all starts happening around here, a great time of year to be out and about enjoying the local wildlife.

Kicking off with some localised birds from the southwest:

Corn Bunting, now sadly a Red List species due to its
dramatic decline over the last 25 years
Common Cranes from the release project seen flying
over Langport, Somerset
Common Cranes: D. Helliar

 A good bird for Somerset was this Gull-billed Tern which lingered around Steart Wetlands WWT for most of the day on 30th May.

Gull-billed Tern: D. Helliar
Gull-billed Tern: D. Helliar
Gull-billed Tern: D. Helliar
An influx of Red Kites towards the end of May saw in excess of
50 birds drift into the local region, including this individual nr Chard
Turtle Dove - very rare in the Southwest these days following a
dramatic decline in numbers. You now have to travel to see these
once common birds. This one from Hampshire.
Turtle Dove, a Red List species: D. Helliar
Tree Pipit at last! Doesn't seem to be as many of these
around locally this year. They seem to be in decline too.
Tree Pipit: D. Helliar

Insects are more prevalent in May but again many species are in decline and much rarer than they were just a decade ago.

Adonis Blue, Hampshire: D. Helliar
Brown Argus in mint condition: D. Helliar
Duke of Burgundy. Sadly the remaining local populations are
getting smaller and less viable every year. It seems inevitable
that this charming butterfly will soon disappear from some of
its traditional Somerset haunts.
Duke of Burgundy: D. Helliar
Grizzled Skipper seen near Chard: D. Helliar
Libellula depressa, nr Chard: Dave Helliar

Libellula quadrimaculata, nr Chard: D. Helliar

 And finally a few reptiles to finish on...good to see some things are thriving locally...

Grass Snake Natrix natrix helvetica
Large and well marked female: D. Helliar
Grass Snake - different individual under refuge: D. Helliar
Grass Snake: D. Helliar
Grass Snake, female. Basking on pile of old sticks: D. Helliar
Two's company...
Common Lizard Zootoca vivipara: D. Helliar
 Thanks to Dave for supplying such great photos - all taken on the Nikon P900 incidentally, a superb choice for getting good photos without the need to get too close.