Well, I’ve had worse days……
The first day of the second half of 2020 starts badly, with a poor night’s sleep (courtesy of my two-year old) abruptly truncated by an 4:30am alarm call. I stumble downstairs, put the kettle on, and wander outside to recover the moth trap. A Hedgehog scuttles along the base of the hedge, looking rather guilty, reminding me of student days walking home through Southampton as the sun rose, after a night of too much wine, women and song!
An hour later I’m cycling out across the forest, heading for a Curlew hotspot and a rendez-vous with PhD student, Elli Rivers, who is starting a project on New Forest Curlews. As I approach my destination, I see a pair of Curlews near to a known nest site, but one where I had assumed they’d failed due to a lack of recent sightings; their behaviour makes me confident they are guarding chicks - given we’re down to a handful of surviving broods from more than 40 pairs, this is a major bonus.
I soon meet up with Elli, and we immediately hear distant Curlews from another site where we know chicks should be present - they are responding to the ominous croaking of a pair of Ravens in a nearby clump of conifers. Heading out across the heath, we see an immature Peregrine take off, probably the same bird that has been present in the area since last winter. A fledged Lapwing and its parent keep a close eye on the Peregrine as it departs, and we soon locate a pair of Curlews but can’t see the chicks due to a healthy cover of heather.
While watching the Curlews I pick up a large raptor approaching from the southeast that immediately rings alarm bells. I tell Elli to join me in a quick run for cover behind a convenient tumulus, while I hurriedly get my camera ready. My instincts were correct, and a cracking female Honey Buzzard passes directly overhead, taking a good look at us as she goes and causing alarm amongst the Curlews on the ground! After several near misses this summer, it’s nice to finally nail a pic of this rare raptor.
Female Honey Buzzard - note the colour ring
We continue our search, moving into a different valley that held breeding Curlews earlier in the season but is now ominously silent. A small seepage pool holds a dainty Small Red Damselfly, abundant Bog Asphodels gleaming golden in the morning light, and a thriving colony of carnivorous Lesser Bladderworts and Round-leaved Sundews, while a chipping Snipe precedes a brood of three erupting from our feet.
The next couple of hours are more subdued as we systematically work through several Curlew territories that now appear empty, although a couple more chipping Snipe suggest their breeding attempts are ongoing. A Little Egret and a family of Grey Wagtails are seen as we cross a small river, and we emerge onto an area of heavily grazed damp heath that contains three more prematurely vacated Curlew territories.
A noctuid moth that flushes from our feet gets my attention, as it looks to be a warm golden yellow colour and therefore different to the expected Silver-Y. After a careful approach I secure some photos and realise to my delight that it’s actually my first Shoulder-striped Clover - a rare Red Data Book species that is a real New Forest speciality. Despite much searching, this is one of very few adults seen in the New Forest this century, with most being found during dedicated nocturnal expeditions looking for larvae on their Cross-leaved Heath food plant.
Our spirits lift further when a pair of nearby Lapwings take flight, accompanied by at least one fledged juvenile, while another pair have three recently hatched chicks. However, the emotional rollercoaster continues when the male from the pair of Curlews that I saw earlier in the morning is seen trying to distract and deter a pair of Ravens that are systematically searching the heather. After what seems an age, the Ravens move off and the Curlew and his family get a brief period of respite.
We conclude our circuit, with just two out of 12 Curlew territories confirmed as still being occupied, with the remainder presumed to have been predated at the egg or young chick stage. There is plenty for Elli and I to contemplate as we each head home, in my case for a spot of lunch and a nap. I then check the previous night’s moth trap (the highlight being Lesser Cream Wave) before getting ready for an evening of moth and bat surveys.
I meet my colleague, Marcus Ward, at dusk, and we head to a nice patch of mixed habitat adjacent to a block of ancient woodland. We fire up the generator, set up two moth traps, and press record on the bat detector. A churring Nightjar and a roding Woodcock provide welcome background noise, with the former seen and heard in wing-clapping display directly overhead. A Serotine glimpsed in flight is confirmed with the detector, and Noctule and two or three different species of pipistrelle are also recorded.
A male Glow Worm is attracted to one of the traps as night falls, as well as a variety of dispersing caddisflies and water boatmen. Incoming moths are few and far between, not helped by the emergence of a nearly full moon and an accompanying drop in temperature. A quick wander produces a female Glow Worm - her luminous green light illuminating a small patch of heather, while inspection of the second moth trap under an Oak tree reveals a dozen or so lively Hornets! By midnight new arrivals have slowed to a trickle, so we gradually pack up, but not before recording a couple of nationally scarce Great Oak Beauty moths, a classic ancient oak woodland species.
Female Glow Worm
My cycle home produces Fox, Fallow and Roe Deer. I crawl into bed exhausted at two in the morning. But as I said, I’ve had worse days!