Friday, 28 March 2014

Britain's Dragonflies

Britain's Dragonflies: A field guide to the damselflies and dragonflies of Britain and Ireland

Third Edition, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-691-16123-5

Dave Smallshire and Andy Swash

Published by Princeton University Press, Woodstock, Oxfordshire.
Production and design by WILDGuides Ltd., Old Basing, Hampshire.

I was extremely pleased to receive my review copy of this latest, third edition, of Britain's Dragonflies: A field guide to the damselflies and dragonflies of Britain and Ireland. The Odonata are a group that I have personally not had a great deal of experience but one that I have tentatively been meaning to investigate further. My initial reaction, is that this extremely well planned, comprehensive guide, may well be the excuse I have been waiting for.

The book clearly focuses on the ‘key features’ identification of 63 different species – and this it appears to do well. This includes 56 resident, migrant and former breeding species and, a touch I particularly liked, the inclusion of 7 potential vagrants. Detailed species profiles, complete with stunning images and useable identification charts, deliver concise information on identification, behavior, breeding habitats, population and conservation. I particularly liked, as a newbie to the world of dragons and damsels, the brief ‘where to look’, ‘look-alikes’, and ‘observation tips’ section at the bottom of each page. For those already with more experience, or wishing to probe deeper into their fascinating aquatic world, a section on the identification of larvae and exuviae is also included.

As a desktop reference guide it is clear and concise. As a ‘use in the field’ reference guide it is portable and perfectly designed. My copy came with a protective plastic cover, though I’m not sure if this is standard on all copies but a nice touch nevertheless. A5 in format it conveniently fits the pocket.

Recommended? Absolutely; I can’t wait to go and try it out …

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Late afternoon ...

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

The Black-tailed Godwit (L. limosa) is an elegant bird. Standing long-legged and with a bill to match, it is the Icelandic race L. l. islandica that winters in Britain, Ireland and Western Europe, including Sussex. Returning Black-tailed Godwits arrive in Sussex from July onwards, some stopping here to moult before moving further south, others staying on to overwinter. As the population in Iceland has expanded, the numbers visiting Britain have more than quadrupled since the 1980s; though the numbers visiting Sussex have remained relatively stable. Chichester and Pagham Harbours are both internationally important sites for L. limosa in winter, holding up to 3% of the UK total between them. Although this species is widespread and has a large global population, its numbers have declined substantially in parts of its range owing to changes in agricultural practices. Overall, the global population is estimated to be declining at such a rate that the species qualifies as Near Threatened.

Always a pleasure to see …


Barfield, C., 2014. Black-tailed Godwit. The Birds of Sussex. Thetford: British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Books on behalf of the Sussex Ornithological Society, pp. 271-272.
de Potier, A., 1996. Black-tailed Godwit. Birds of Sussex. Sussex Ornithological Society, pp. 270-271.

BirdLife International (2014) Species factsheet: Limosa limosa. Downloaded from on 23rd March 2014.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Posh birds ...

Pintail (Anas acuta)

The Pintail (A. acuta) is a fairly common winter visitor to my home county of West Sussex. Although they are recorded elsewhere, their main populations tend to be concentrated around Chichester Harbour, Pagham Harbour and the Arun Valley to the north; Amberley Wild Brooks and Pulborough Brooks. These sites are favoured as they provide large sheltered areas of open water or wetland. Overwintering birds start to return in late August and early September; the first arrivals showing a preference towards Pagham Harbour. An increase in numbers in the Arun Valley typically occurs during seasonal mid winter flooding.

Large, elegant and slim, the male Pintail in breeding plumage is perhaps the most 'well-dressed' of all surface-feeding ducks …

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

From small beginnings ...

Purple Hairstreak (Favonius quercus)

Hidden away in the folds of an oak bud a tiny egg glistens ...

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

A head for heights ...

Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)

Although their true home is over the wildest, windswept seas of the North Atlantic, the Fulmar (F. glacialis) can often be seen visiting breeding cliffs, even during the winter months, and can be viewed as they sail by on the prevailing wind currents. As one of my favourite sea birds I was pleased to visit one such breeding colony in recent weeks.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Solitude ...

Dipper (Cinclus cinclus)

The older I become the more I feel drawn to remote locations and the solitude of being at one with the natural world. I cannot think of anything worse than going on a 'twitch' for a rare bird or insect and being surrounded by hoards of overenthusiastic observers - many of whom with little or no concern for the creature’s welfare. Looking for solitude has recently taken me to a small fast flowing river in North Wales for a private audience with a bird I have not seen in many seasons; the enigmatic Dipper (Cinclus cinclus).

Saturday, 8 March 2014

In life and death ...

Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)

Just over a year ago I posted an article about my good friend and professional wildlife artist, Tony Ladd. Since then, a lot of detailed research and late nights have been undertaken in his studio. The result, a series of stunning limited edition prints and hollow, cast egg replicas of the Great Auk. During Tony’s research period he was invited to view, photograph and carefully measure, including shell thickness, 2 of the remaining 75 Great Auk eggs in existence. Tony describes ‘They were extraordinary, very large for the size of bird and covered in an array of intricate blotches, scribbles and fine brush like strokes’. This now gave him the most accurate data possible to produce his current range of replica specimens. Tony has already been commissioned to produce facsimiles of several of the 75 eggs known to be in existence today.


In June 1844 on the small remote island of Eldey, which rises from the North Atlantic about 10 miles (16km) off the south-western tip of the Icelandic mainland, the last pair of Great Auk’s met their fate …

Tradition has it that local fishermen had been paid by a Danish dealer to collect any specimens or eggs - their capture could attain handsome profits for the locals and satisfied the passion amongst natural history collectors of the era. With the hunters on the rocky outcrop the two remaining birds tried desperately to evade capture and mingle within the vast seabird colonies that also nested on the island. Once spotted, the Auks, unable to fly, were doomed. The fishermen quickly administered the fatal blows, unknowingly putting an end to this legendary species. Perhaps this was the final end. But, more likely, a few others still clung to existence in the lonely outcrops in the far north. What seems certain, however, is that soon afterwards, somewhere in the deep cold waters of the North Atlantic the last of the Great Auk’s died (Zonfrillo, 1994; Fuller, 1999).

The Auk was clumsy on land, but more than compensated for this when taking to water. Under the ocean the sculpted dagger bill, lead the torpedo like body through the water. For propulsion the Auk had large webbed feet set well back. This gave the bird its tremendous turn of speed, perfect for twisting seal-like through the currents, seizing its prey with its beautifully designed beak. The fundamental difference between the Great Auk and its living, breathing cousins - which includes the Guillemots, Puffins and Razorbills - was the small flightless wing. It would never enable the bird to take to the air, and had evolved to steer with amazing agility the large bulky body beneath the waves. These bursts of speed enabled the bird to spear with ease, the abundance of fish it targeted as prey (Fuller, 1999).

They would spend ten months of the year at sea; only needing solid ground for the purpose of attracting a mate, nesting and rearing their single chick. Being flightless the choice of island was critical – the terrain needing to provide ease of access at any phase of the tide. These far reaching places had no natural predators and life was good. Upon these colony strongholds, the Auks would jostle for their own tiny piece of real estate, fiercely protected by birds that would mate for life. Both parents incubated the single large egg, which had a pyriform (pear-shaped) appearance, designed to roll in a tight turning circle should it become dislodged from its craggy backdrop (Fuller, 1999). The islands formed a summer haven with safety in numbers - or so they thought …

During the 16th century, voyages to discover the New World meant that tired and starving ships crews passed close by these bustling outcrops in the sea. Landing parties soon discovered the abundance of a readily available food source that was easy to catch - a survival godsend. The birds put up little defence and provided much needed dietary protein and oils for candlelight. Almost overnight these supreme predators had turned prey. The killing for food was just the start of the their troubles. By the 1700’s, man had realised that the Auk’s extra thick layer of waterproof down was a desirable alternative to the down of the Eider and that the larger feathers made beautiful decorations for ladies hats. During the summer months make shift factories were set up on the Auk’s favoured islands. Here thousands of birds were corralled into holding pens before being killed and boiled down for their fat or stripped of their feathers. This systematic killing meant that over the subsequent years, vast colonies were completely destroyed (Birkhead, 1994; Fuller, 1999).

The Victorians were well known for their collecting of a whole array of natural history specimens including fossils, shells, eggs, taxidermy and newly discovered flora and fauna. Preserved specimens of the Great Auk and its eggs were highly prized and, due to their rarity value, traded ownership for vast sums of money. Although the collectors of this period may have been responsible for its final demise, the Great Auk had already been extensively persecuted to the point of near extinction (Birkhead, 1994; Fuller, 1999). There are only 81 mounted skin specimens, 24 complete skeletons and 2 sets of innards (the last two) in existence today. Of their eggs - these number just 75 examples (Birkhead, 1994).

If the egg is nature's miracle of new life, then the artistic fortitude and creations of Tony Ladd are the benchmark by which other avian wildlife artists must be judged. He is currently working on a new and exciting long-term project, which, for now, must remain under wraps.

Watch this space …

Tony can be contacted at


Birkhead, T., 1994. How collectors killed: One hundred and fifty years ago next week the last two great auks ever seen were killed at their breeding colony on a tiny island off the coast of Iceland. New Scientist. Issue 1927, pp. 24-27.
Fuller, E., 1999. The Great Auk. Southborough, Kent: Errol Fuller.
Zonfrillo, B., 1994. In Memorium: Garefowl or Great Auk. British Birds 87(6), pp. 269-270.

BirdLife International (2014) Species factsheet: Pinguinus impennis. Downloaded from on 22nd February 2014.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Waiting game ...

Wood White (Leptidea sinapis)

The Wood White (Leptidea sinapis) is one of our most beautiful butterflies, with undoubtedly the slowest and most delicate flights of all the British species. Along with the Small-pearl Bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene), whose population is currently at an all time low in the county, it is probably the rarest butterfly in Sussex. When at rest, the rounded tips of the forewings provide one of the main distinguishing features between this butterfly and other similar members of the Pieridae. Adults always rest with their wings closed. In flight, the male can be distinguished from the female by a black spot at the tip of the forewings that is greatly reduced in the female. L. sinapis lives in discrete colonies and was only recently separated from the morphologically identical Cryptic Wood White (Leptidea juvernica)L. sinapis is a local species and can be found in central and southern England; and also in Ireland on the limestone pavements of Clare and southeast Galway. L. sinapis is absent from Scotland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

The English colonies emerge in late April or early May and fly until the end of June. In Ireland, the emergence starts a little later, in late May, and the adults fly until the middle of July. Some locations, especially those in Surrey and Sussex, typically experience a 2nd brood, which is characteristically on the wing between mid July and August; this can often be more substantial than the 1st brood during good seasons.

As its name suggests, L. sinapis is typically found along woodland rides and their margins. However, colonies in the southwest of its range can also be found in more open areas such as disused railway cuttings and meadows. Suitable habitat is characterised as being warm, sheltered and damp, where both larval foodplants and suitable nectar sources are in abundance. Larval foodplants include various vetches and trefoils including Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), Bitter Vetch (Lathyrus linifolius), Greater Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus pedunculatus), Meadow Vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis) and Tufted Vetch (Vicia cracca). Nectar sources include a variety of woodland flowers. During periods of hot weather, males can often be found taking mineral salts from puddles and animal dung.

Its pupa, pictured above, is the most beautiful of creatures when examined in close detail. A silken girdle and the cremaster (a hook-like tip at the base of the pupa serving as an anchorage point), as shown above, attach it to the stem. Those pupae that do not give rise to a new generation in the year of their development, overwinter and emerge as the spring brood the following season.

Further information can be found at:

Season's first ...

I always wait in anticipation for my first butterfly sighting of the year; though I am often left rather concerned over sightings that are too early in the season due to the limited availability of nectar sources and the likelihood of adverse winter weather still potentially on the horizon. This year, on Saturday, 22nd February, I struck lucky and counted seven male Brimstones during a sun-filled walk in a Surrey section of Chiddingfold Forest. A flyby, in my garden, on the 24th was followed by sightings of five further males on the 27th; all in Sussex locations. In addition, a Small Tortoiseshell, found fluttering around a window in my local church on Tuesday, 25th February, bodes well for the coming butterfly year.

Fingers crossed!

My first species of the season ...