Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Orchids on Chapel Green wildflower meadow, Rocklands

Flower-rich meadow with orchids, Chapel Green, 12 June 2019
After an apparent absence of several years⁠—though these things can be notoriously elusive!⁠—Bee Ophrys apifera and Common Spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii are coming into flower on Chapel Green. In previous years the best area for these orchids has been the southern edge of the meadow adjoining the road, the spot that is driest and has lowest fertility thanks to years of removal of hay. This year, the orchids are close to the pond margin in a much wetter, more fertile area (see photo) that we have been managing precisely to increase floral diversity. This morning there was one flowering spike of Bee and two of Common Spotted-orchid.

Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera

Common Spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii

Update 30 June 2019

Today's count 1 Bee and 7 Common Spotted-orchids.

Update 7 July 2019

Today's count 1 Bee and 9 Common Spotted-orchids.


Monday, 10 June 2019

Ghost Moth lek on Rocklands' Chapel Green

Ghost Moths Hepialus humuli are one of the few British moths that have entered popular culture and are—or used to be—generally known to the non-specialist.  In earlier times, when insects were more abundant, meadows more commonplace, street lighting less widespread, and people abroad in the gloaming, an encounter with this species would have been a frequent early summer occurrence. Frequent but nevertheless remarkable. The memorable sight of a dozen or more large white moths hovering over the grass tops as if tethered to a thread in the fading light doubtless gave rise to their name.

Today this sight is considerably less familiar. In fact, unless they make a special effort, even moth-ers have rarely seen it. So when keen moth-man and wildlife writer James Lowen asked if anyone in East Anglia knew of a lek to cover in his forthcoming book, I racked my brains and suggested the two places that I had seen male moths in recent years: Old Buckenham village green and Chapel Green, Rocklands. This latter is a tiny plot of wildlife meadow that was restored by Rocklands Parish Council two decades ago through a Millenium Meadows grant, and financial support from Norfolk Rural Community Council, Norfolk County Council and guidance from Norfolk Wildlife Trust. It is a tiny (c. 0·015 ha) fragment of managed habitat that holds a surprisingly diverse and interesting flora and fauna, amongst which is a lek of Ghost Moths. I say lek, but when I checked back through my records I saw that I had only seen single males in June 2014, and (twice) in July 2016.

On D-Day, Thursday 6 June, despite a cool and windy evening, at 9.45 p.m.. I decided that I could no longer put off checking whether this year would produce an improvement on the singles that my memory had embellished into a weaving and bobbing troupe. I was fully prepared to tell James that the promised lek had not materialised and may have been unreliable in any case. What a relief to find two, then four, then finally a dozen male Ghost Moths "pendeculating" – Kettlewell's neologism for South's "swaying themselves to and fro without making progress".

The following evening, James was able to visit Chapel Green, arriving at 9.20 p.m. on his way back from another mothing assignment at Dungeness with moth expert Will Soar. For the first 20 minutes we enjoyed the meadow's wildflower display, twitching at passing Straw Dots Rivula sericealis and Common Swifts Korscheltellus lupulina (the latter a close relative of Ghost Moth) identified by Will. It was not until 9.40 p.m. that the first of our glowing white targets appeared, immediately followed by another, and another... Soon a group of six males were swaying and weaving on one side of the meadow, with another couple on the other. Our neighbour Carolyn, who coordinates the Chapel Green Management Committee, came out to enjoy the spectacle. We wondered if we might be lucky enough to see females, and shortly afterwards a dull yellowish brown female did indeed appear, immediately to mate with her chosen male. We found two pairs of mating moths, both on tall grass spikes, as well as a bloated female that was surely about to deposit her eggs. By 10.00 p.m. the display was over, and only these five Ghost Moths remained, clinging to their respective stems. The entire show had lasted exactly 20 minutes.

What is going on? A lek is an aggregation of male animals that come together, usually at a traditional site, to display together in order to compete for access to females. The phenomenon is especially well-documented in birds (particularly grouse and manakins) but not so widely-known in insects. In the case of Ghost Moths, the males hover over the grass, fanning their wings in order to release from scent brushes on the tarsus of the rear pair of legs a pheromone that attracts the females. The latter enter the lek briefly, select a mate, copulate on a grass stem and then fly off to drop their eggs over suitable grassy areas. The process was diligently observed and described by Mallet in his 1984 paper.

Formerly common, Ghost Moth is now a UK Biodiversity Action Plan species, listed because its populations are declining markedly. Conservation of this and a suite of other disappearing grassland plants and animals species is precisely the reason that Rocklands Parish Council manage this small area as a wildflower meadow.

More information?

Ghost Moth on NorfolkMoths here.

Rocklands Parish Council Chapel Green wildflower meadow page here.

Previous posts about management of Chapel Green wildflower meadow here.

James Lowen's blog here.


Kettlewell, H.B.D. (1973) The evolution of melanism. Clarendon Press: Oxford. 423 pp.

Mallet, J. (1984) Sex roles in the ghost moth Hepialus humuli (L.) and a review of mating in the Hepialidae (Lepidoptera). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 80(1): 67–82. PDF.

South, R. (1908) The moths of the British Isles, second series. Frederick Warne & Co.: London. 388 pp.


James Lowen's wonderfully illustrated account of tonight's display here.

On the evening of 11 June, despite cool temperatures (10°C), moderate drizzle and a damp SE 2–3 breeze, we counted at least 14 males lekking for exactly 20 minutes 2149–2209. The females are more difficult to spot, but we did see two come in and mate with males. The mild (15°C) evening of 17 June was even more active, with a high count for this year of at least 32 males and 4+ females between 2155 and 2215 (and perhaps later, as I left while it was still in full swing). A quick visit at 2210–2220 on the cool (14°C), evening of 22 June showed 24 males lekking, along with 1 female, though did not have time to check thoroughly.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Red Knot (Calidris canutus rufa) resighting in Venezuela and Canada

Red Knot FELG9HL, Falcón, Venezuela, 29 Mar 2019. Photo: Gianco Angelozzi
On 29 March, a team of ornithologists working on a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network project (Sandra Giner, Virginia Sanz, Gianco Angelozzi and I) were carrying out International Shorebird Censuses on the Punta Maragüey spit on the western coast of Falcón with Jose Ochoa. Gianco was able to get close to a flock of several hundred Red Knot (Calidris canutus rufa) moulting into breeding plumage, and using our best optics - a superb new Kowa scope donated in 2018 by Cley Spy - to pick out and photograph seven flagged individuals, of which only FELG9HL was legible; this bird also carried a geolocator (Gianco's photograph attached - more here).

Red Knot FELG9HL, Ontario, Canada, 20 May 2019. Photo: photographer unknown
Today I checked the bird's whereabouts and found that it had been photographed (attached - photographer unknown) 52 days later on 20 May in magnificent full breeding plumage at a reservoir W of Townsend in S Ontario, Canada. This elucidates only part of the jigsaw puzzle of migratory connectivity for this threatened shorebird, and quite appropriate given that this Manomet / WHSRN work is financed by Environment Canada. Next stop for these birds will be the high Arctic. The earliest data available for FELG9HL come from 30 May 2011 in Delaware, so the bird is perhaps 10 years old and will have made this journey as many times.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Book review: Birds of Central America: a field guide

Birds of Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama

Andrew C. Vallely & Dale Dyer
Princeton University Press | 2018
584 pp. | 16 x 23.5 cm | #### colour illustrations, ### maps
Softback | £40 / $49.50 | ISBN: 9780691138022

Just finished my review of the superb new guide to the birds of Central America, to be published in Neotropical Birding 25...

Thanks to Princeton University Press for providing a review copy.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Book review: Antpittas and Gnateaters

Antpittas and Gnateaters

Harold F. Greeney
Helm (Bloomsbury) | 2018
496 pp. | 18 x 24.7 cm | 24 colour plates, 250 colour photographs
Hardback | £50 / $65 | ISBN: 9781472919649

Just finished my review of Harold Greeney's magnum opus, to be published in Neotropical Birding 24...

Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a review copy. 

Monday, 12 November 2018

Book review: Birds of Nicaragua: a field guide

Birds of Nicaragua: a field guide

Liliana Chavarría-Duriaux, David C. Hille & Robert Dean
Comstock (A Zona Tropical Publication) | 2018
480 pp. | 14 x 21.7 cm | 1332 colour illustrations, 9 colour photographs, 810 maps
Softback | £32 / $39.95 | ISBN: 9781501701580

Just finished my review of the handy new guide to the birds of Nicaragua, to be published in Neotropical Birding 24...

Thanks to Cornell University Press for providing a review copy.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Birds of Vietnam goes to press

Birds of Vietnam, the second title in the Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides series has gone to press. More details can be found on the book's Lynx webpage. Sample page spreads are available for download too. This pioneering publication is the first ever field guide to the avifauna. The new flexicover version is available at a discount and with free worldwide shipping until 20 December. More information to follow soon...