Sunday, 17 January 2016

Wildlife and Weather Round-up 2015 - Part One

Yet more weather records were broken in 2015.

2014 had set the record for being the warmest year on the planet, since records began. 2015 has now usurped it, while 2016 is geared up to be even warmer than that. In fact, the years 2011-2015 have been the warmest five-year period ever. Climate change and the peaking of a particularly ferocious El Niño weather phenomenon are both expected to drive the global average temperature, in 2016, to new highs.

However, the weather was mostly quiet in the UK, until mid-November. The summer was rather cool and wet, but early autumn provided fine, sunny weather as compensation. Conversely, from late autumn a succession of Atlantic storms brought exceptional rainfall, causing widespread severe flooding.

The UK mean temperature for 2015 was 9.2°C - 0.4°C above the 1981-2010 long-term average. It was also the sixth wettest year ever.

Personally, it was another very successful year for wildlife watching. I managed to break 2013’s record for visits – 82! These included trips to Spain and France, the usual pilgrimage to Norfolk and several visits to new, but local, sites. Most of my visits, of course, were to the big four: Amwell 36 times, Cheshunt 19, Sawbridgeworth 6 and Rye Meads 5.

Mild conditions greeted the first month of the New Year, with the UK under the influence of westerly weather. The temperature dipped around the middle of the month, with the second half rather unsettled and much colder, with some sharp frosts at times. It was the UK's fourth-equal sunniest January, in a series from 1929.

I ventured out six times this month, split between Amwell and Cheshunt. The birding year started out brilliantly, with excellent sightings of Bittern and then Goldcrest, which were both seen on the 2nd, at Cheshunt. Goldeneye; Smew and Goosander were present throughout the month, at both venues. Water Rail was either seen or heard on all six visits. Siskin and Marsh Tit were both seen at Amwell mid-month, while Lesser Redpoll and a Pintail were spotted at Cheshunt on the last trip of the month.

I was also fortunate enough to see Bank Vole and Stoat at Amwell, while a Fox was seen on the prowl around Cheshunt.

At the start of the month, the UK was under the influence of cold northerly weather, bringing wintry showers, especially to the eastern counties. The second half saw temperatures fluctuating with heavy rain and strong winds, but also brief incursions of colder air.

Despite the poor weather, I somehow managed to get out eight times. Again, three times to Amwell, two to Cheshunt, the first trip of the year to Rainham Marsh and a new venue, Bramfield Village.

Barn Owl
Bittern continued to delight at Cheshunt. Dunlin; Golden Plover; Marsh Harrier; Pintail; Redshank; Shelduck and Stonechat were the highlights at Rainham. Goldeneye; Goosander and Smew were all still about and in some numbers. Red Kites were seen at several locations. A lovely Barn Owl had started to appear at dusk, around Amwell. My first new venue of the year, at Bramfield Village, saw Coal Tit; Goldcrest; Little Owl; Nuthatch and, the reason for going, several Hawfinches, my first ever sighting of these lovely birds.

Bank Voles were still at Amwell and were joined, on several occasions, by Muntjac. The first Snowdrops appeared early in the month, followed by Daffodils towards the end.

The winter of 2014/15 will be regarded as relatively benign and quiet, especially when compared to the exceptionally stormy weather of the previous winter. The UK mean temperature for the season was near average. It was the sunniest winter in a series from 1929, with some parts of eastern England receiving above average sunshine.

A Partial Solar Eclipse appeared this month, but it was yet another disappointing celestial event, with the moment again spoiled by heavy cloud cover.

The month itself began with cold weather bringing some wintry showers, but it became more settled by the end of the first week, under the influence of high pressure. It became gradually more unsettled during the last ten days of the month, with rain or showers and some very strong winds at times.

Although a wet month, I managed to pick out nine reasonably good days. There were visits to Amwell (4), Cheshunt (3), Barnes (1) and the first visit of the year to Rye Meads.

Cetti's Warbler
Further sightings of Bittern brought more joy at Cheshunt, early on, but they were to be the last. All the usual suspects were seen at Barnes. Goldeneye were still present everywhere, but the end of the month saw Smew and Goosander depart. Bullfinch; Oystercatcher; Redshank; Red-legged Partridge; the first Sand Martin and the last Redwing were all noted at Amwell. Cetti's Warbler and Chiffchaff were now very vocal and starting to show well.

Water Vole
Emperor Moth
The first Water Vole of the year was seen at Rye Meads, early in the month. A Mink popped up at Cheshunt on the 20th. Emperor and Oak Beauty Moths were a delight to see at Amwell. The first butterflies, Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell, started to appear, at Cheshunt. Crocus (4th) and Bluebells (20th) flowered at Cheshunt, while Primrose appeared at Barnes (25th). Hawthorn bloomed in most places from the 10th.

The start of this month saw the UK rather unsettled. However, it was followed by fine weather with some very warm days, with plenty of sunshine across many areas. Though the final six days of the month were unsettled and cold, with some sharp frosts. Sunshine was well above normal in most areas, making it the sunniest April in a series from 1929. Warm still conditions, combined with traffic fumes, pollution from Europe and Saharan dust were all factors, with eastern and southeast England most affected.

Apart from the highlight of travelling to Spain, I was also able to get out and about a further five times this month. I paid my usual three visits to Amwell, went down to Rainham again and lastly, travelled down to see what was about in London Zoo.

Black-necked Grebes
Black-necked Weaver at London Zoo
The last Goldeneye bade us farewell, from Amwell (7th). A lovely pair of Black-necked Grebes showed up instead, mid-month. Amwell also saw the first Common Terns and Swallows arriving. They were soon followed by Blackcap; Sedge Warbler and Whitethroat. Little Ringed Plovers joined a pair of nesting Oystercatchers here, towards the end of the month. Bearded Tit; Spoonbill and Wheatear were the highlights at Rainham. It was the usual fare at London Zoo, although I did come away with some reasonably good photos. A Bluethroat briefly turned up at Amwell, mid-month but it was to be my only ‘twitch’ of the year. Unfortunately, I ‘dipped’, as it flew before I arrived. That’s mainly the reason why I don’t ‘twitch’.

Common Lizards were basking in the Rainham sunshine. Weasels were also seen here and again at Amwell. Further butterflies appeared: Brimstone; Comma; Common Blue; Orange Tip; Peacock and Speckled Wood were all in-flight. It was the season for Bee-fly. Various Ladybirds appeared, in some numbers. I was also plagued by Midges, which continued to annoy me for most of the rest of the year! A lovely Ruby-tailed Wasp posed for me at Amwell. Daffodils were now blooming everywhere, while the first Bluebells started to appear.

Beech Marten
However, Spain took the honours this month. It was a feast of wildlife, at two venues – Coto Doñana and Extremadura. Too many highlights to list here but a special mention goes to Bee-eater; Great and Little Bustard; Hoopoe; Iberian Magpie; Quail; Savi’s and Dartford Warbler; Serin and Woodchat Shrike. Also seen here were Beech Marten and Spanish Festoon, plus fields of lovely Poppies everywhere.

May was another unsettled month, with spells of rain. And, although there was some fine spring-like weather at times, it never really became settled. There were no notable warm spells, so it ended up being a rather cool and wet month overall. It was the coldest May since 1996.

Norfolk in May
Black Swan
By now, I was getting the distinct impression that the weather, this year, wasn't going to be as good, overall, as last year. However, undaunted, I ventured out a further six times this month, with three visits to Amwell again and one each to Cheshunt, Norfolk and the first visit to my local patch in Sawbridgeworth.

Norfolk was supposed to be the highlight this month, but terrible weather spoiled all three days. In between the numerous rain showers, I managed to spot delights like Avocet; Black-tailed Godwit; Dunlin; Redshank; Willow Warbler and, oddly, a Black Swan. Chinese Water Deer and a Weasel were also seen.

Brent Goose
Reed Warbler
Locally, I managed to spot a gorgeous Brent Goose at Cheshunt. Amwell boasted more Common Sandpiper; Dunlin; Little Ringed Plovers; Oystercatchers and Redshank. There were now Common Terns aplenty. A Raven appeared over Amwell, mid-month. I heard my first Cuckoo of the year at Cheshunt, then spotted one whilst on a jaunt down the River Stort at Sawbo (27th). I also saw the first House Martin of the season here, while the first Swift had arrived at Amwell a few days earlier. They were escorted by more Swallows and then the first Sand Martin turned up. My one and only Nightingale appeared in Cheshunt (13th). The first Reed Warblers and Garden Warblers started to arrive.

Grass Snake
Hairy Dragonfly
I had the first of several sightings, this year, of Grass Snake at Amwell. A Red-eared Slider caused concern at Cheshunt, mid-month. Cinnabar Moth; Holly Blue and Green-veined White made their first appearances. Then I was delighted to see the first Odonata emerge – Azure; Blue-tailed; Common Blue and Large Red damselflies. I was also delighted to see my first Banded Demoiselles arrive on the scene, near Sawbo. They were found all along the River Stort, in some number and were by far the most numerous here, than anywhere else in the Lee Valley. Dragonflies also started to appear, with Hairy the first to turn up, as usual, at both Amwell and Cheshunt. They were soon followed by Four-spotted Chaser and Broad-bodied Chaser.

Dark Bush Cricket
Bombardier Beetle and Red-headed Cardinal Beetles arrived in force, initially around Sawbo. Dark Bush Crickets had also decided to get active. The first Mayflies materialized at Amwell on the 11th. In fact, insects galore began appearing in some numbers now, with Nettle Weevils; Soldier Beetles; Scorpion Flies; Thick-kneed Flower Beetle and Wasp Beetle all showing up. Bluebells continued to bloom, while the first Orchids appeared, in the appropriately named ‘Orchid Garden’ at Amwell.

Spring was quite unexceptional overall. March brought a mixture of typical early spring weather. High pressure in April brought some notably dry, sunny and warm days, whereas during May, an unsettled northwesterly weather-type led to cool conditions, with well above average rainfall.

View from the Grebe Hide, Cheshunt
At the start of June, an intense low pressure system brought rain and unseasonably strong winds to the UK. After this, the month was typified by rather quiet weather generally. Much of the month was rather cool in an often westerly or northwesterly flow, but it became very warm at the end of the month. Parts of the London area and East Anglia were especially dry with less than a third of average rainfall in some places.

A total of nine visits was achieved this month, with a record five visits to Amwell. I also visited Cheshunt twice, with a visit apiece to Thorley Wash and Rye Meads.

Marsh Harrier
Garden Warbler
The birding highlight this month, were a pair of Garganey, at Rye Meads (24th). Also seen here was a new Wader for the year, a Green Sandpiper. There was a Marsh Harrier at Amwell, early on in the month. The last Cuckoo was heard at Cheshunt on the 11th – they don’t stay very long! Warblers were now in full flow and voice. Goldcrest; Garden Warbler and Whitethroat appeared during a fantastic visit to Thorley Wash (18th). Treecreeper showed well at Amwell.

Bank Vole
Clouded Border
Bank Voles and Grass Snakes continued to appear, although not together! Clouded Border and Mint Moth were both seen at Amwell, towards the end of the month. They were complemented by the first Meadow Brown butterflies and Silver Y moths. The first Large Skippers and Ringlets were spotted at Rye Meads. Small Heaths and Small Skippers also started to turn up. On the odonata front, the first Red-eyed damsels appeared at Amwell (4th). A Black-tailed Skimmer then appeared, also at Amwell, mid-month, followed by the first Brown Hawker, towards the end. The first Emperor had also turned up at Cheshunt.

Norfolk Hawker
Scarce Chaser
However, by far the best sightings of the month and indeed the year were the first - EVER - Norfolk Hawkers and Scarce Chasers to be seen in Hertfordshire, appearing at Amwell, on the 25th. They follow the first sightings of Willow Emeralds last year. Could this be the year we get Beautiful Demoiselle?

Black-headed Cardinal Beetle
Green Shield Bug
My first ever Black-headed Cardinal Beetle appeared at Cheshunt, early in the month. A few Capsid Bugs showed well at Amwell. The first Dock Bugs and Green Shield Bugs appeared, together, in Sawbo. Hornets and Mint Leaf Beetles were on parade at Amwell. Red and Black Froghoppers were seemingly everywhere. Rose Sawflies; Ruby-tailed Wasp; Soft-winged Flower Beetle; Speckled Bush Cricket and more Wasp Beetles all appeared. Most probably because all the beautiful Orchids were still blooming. In fact, the flora was now putting on quite a display everywhere.

End of Part One.......