31 July 2012

REGUA at Birdfair 2012

This year, for the first time, REGUA will have its very own stand at the Birdfair! Rachel and I have spent the last month designing and producing new banners, leaflets, displays, checklists and T-shirts in frantic preparation. Alan Martin of the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest Trust will be helping out once again, along with passionate REGUA volunteer Sue Healey. Rachel, of RAW Baking fame, will once again be will be attempting to bribe everyone into visiting REGUA by handing out lots of free cake.

The Birdfair takes place at Egleton Nature Reserve, Rutland Water, from Friday 17th to Sunday 19th August. We are in marquee 5, stand 35 and would really love to see you there!

25 July 2012

Sun, sea and flying insects

Well it's taken until late July but it seems summer has finally decided to show up in the UK. A well timed weekend in Devon to visit our good friends the Cream Tea Bird and her other half, the Cream Tea Birder, saw us scraping any birding plans in favour of chillin' out in the sun, listening to music, barbecuing Plaice caught off Budleigh Salterton beach that morning, as well as unashamedly polishing off humongous amounts of Rachel's rather bloody fine home made lemon treacle slices.

With my Lepidoptera obsession showing no sign of diminishing, on Saturday evening we set the moth trap up in the garden. However, on Sunday morning we found just 3 moths had been pulled in! Yep, that's 3 individual moths!! We blame the clear conditions overnight - damn this hot summer weather!

Male Buff Ermine Spilosoma luteum

Female Bee Moth Aphomia sociella. So called because the larvae feed on honey
comb inside bee and wasp nests.

Female Bee Moth Aphomia sociella.

In the early Sunday afternoon we visited the excellent Bystock Pools Devon Wildlife Trust reserve. Things were very quiet bird wise, with a Common Buzzard carrying prey being the only noteworthy-ish sighting. This is a good site for Downy Emerald Cordulia aenea and Small Red Damselfly Ceriagrion tenellum and we found at least 1 of the former on the main pool with several of the later on the acidic pools on the heath, in addition to 2 Emperor Dragonfly Anax imperator, several Keeled Skimmer Orthetrum coerulescens, lots of Azure Damselfly Coenagrion puella, Blue-tailed Damselfly Ischnura elegans lots of Large Red Damselfly Pyrrhosoma nymphula, and an Emerald Damselfly Lestes sponsa.

Common Buzzard carrying prey.

Downy Emerald Cordulia aenea

Male Small Red Damselfly Ceriagrion tenellum

Male Large Red Damselfly Pyrrhosoma nymphula

Pair of Large Red Damselfly Pyrrhosoma nymphula

Male Keeled Skimmer Orthetrum coerulescens

Female Keeled Skimmer Orthetrum coerulescens

Newly emerged Keeled Skimmer Orthetrum

With all of us suffering from so much heat induced lethargy, other wildlife sightings worth blogging about were, unsurprisingly, thin on the ground. A Badger running across the road as we drove into Budleigh Salterton late Friday night was a good sighting, but nothing compared to the trail cam footage we obtained on Saturday night from a nearby sett (to be uploaded soon).

Just 2 Gatekeepers and a Large White were the only butterflies recorded in Jaffa's garden for Saturday's Big Butterfly Count, but a Raven overhead was a nice bonus.

Male Gatekeeper Pyronia tithonus

12 July 2012

The world's largest moth trap!

During my teens I was just as interested in butterflies and moths as I was birds. One memorable experience was finding my first Red Underwing Catocala nupta on my paper round and my friend Sam Woods, who did a paper round nearby, actually twitching it! My interest in Lepidoptera waned as I became more fascinated with birds, but my trip last month to Brazil's Atlantic Forest has reignited my interest, and I found myself spending just as much time mothing and butterflying (??) as I did birding.

My good friend Peter Alfrey has also become interested in flying things with scaly wings. Last night Rachel and I went for a meal at his flat, dubbed the Obs, which overlooks his local patch, Beddington Farmlands - one of London's best birding sites. I want to buy a moth trap and wanted some advice, but what I found is that Pete, being Pete, had taken things to another level!

In true Lepidoptera fashion, Pete's two bedroom flat has undergone a complete metamorphosis! Where once there was a bedroom, there is now the world's largest moth trap! Gone is the bed, and instead there is a moth trap, a net, shelves full of sampling containers, a pooter, a holding tank for photographing moths, books, cameras and a laptop and microscope. Even though Pete lives in a flat, attracting moths is easy - place the moth trap on the window sill, open the window, close the door, and what you have is an en suite walk-in moth trap! Situated right on the very edge of Beddington Farmlands, moths from miles around make an, ahem, mothline, towards Pete's flat!

Moths caught during the evening include 1 The Shark Cucullia umbratica, 1 The Clay Mythimna ferrago, 1 Silver Y Autographa gamma, a few Heart & Club Agrotis clavis, a Rustic spp. possibly The Rustic Hoplodrina blanda, 1 Riband Wave Idaea aversata and lots of Common Footman Eilema lurideola.

For more about mothing at the Obs and Beddington Farmlands see Pete's blog.

The Shark Cucullia umbratica

The Clay Mythimna ferrago

Riband Wave Idaea aversata

Heart & Club Agrotis clavis

The Rustic Hoplodrina blanda?

All this has got me even more fired up for mothing, although I am slightly concerned about Pete. He now sleeps on the sofa, no longer has a fridge, and is starting to bear an uncanny resemblance to Dr. Emmett Brown - see the pic below then watch this.

Great Scott!! I do believe this moth is a shark!

Admiring The Shark, which is actually a moth

6 July 2012

Review: Eden Quality XP 8x42 binocular

Eden Quality binoculars are a brand from Dutch company KATO Group (produced by a manufacturer in the far east). They offer a range of three roof-prism binoculars at the budget end of the market - the entry level HDs, the EDs, and the top of the range XP models. Back in March, Eden Quality contacted me offering a complimentary pair of their XP binoculars. In exchange for a field test and writing a review I could keep them, more than a fair deal I thought, so I opted for the 8x42s and a few days later they arrived.

The XPs are very well spec'd for their £250 price tag, with a carbon composite body (bringing the weight to 660 g), nitrogen filled (and so water/dust proof) and BAK-4 prisms (which have a higher density glass than the cheaper BAK-7 prisms, producing a sharper image). There is no ED (Extra low Dispersion) glass, but in addition to the usual phase-correction coatings (which increases resolution, colour rendition and contrast) the prisms do also have a dielectric coating (not found on the ED models) which increases light reflectivity and improves sharpness and clarity, along with fully multi-coated lenses (for a glossary of optical terms click here).

Eden Quality tell me that an ED model with a dielectric coating is in the pipeline, and it will be very interesting to see how these compare. The XPs come with a 25 year warranty and are supplied with a case with a useful front pocket (although the velcro fastener doesn't close with both the bins and strap inside), a decent neoprene strap (which I would have preferred to be able to shorten a little more), soft rubber rain guard, attachable objective caps, cleaning cloth and manual.

Initial impressions of the XPs were of a solidly built piece of kit (although the front hinge nut was loose on delivery and needed tightening) with a thin rubber armour protecting the body (including small indentations on the underside of each barrel for grip) and fairly sturdy eye cups. The dioptre adjustment is located under the right ocular and is fairly stiff to turn which prevents the setting being changed accidentally. After a few months of use the bins still looked good as new.

I find field reviews of binoculars quite limited unless direct comparisons are made between similarly priced/spec'd models from difference companies. My bins of choice are Swarovski EL 10x32s and so any comparison with these would be unfair, but my backup bins are Opticron Verano BGA PC 8x32s, a few years old now, but a similar specification and at the time a similar price. So, although they are a smaller objective some comparisons are worth mentioning.

I was able to test the XPs both in the UK and in Brazil's tropical Atlantic Forest - one of the most bird-rich biomes on the planet. I found them light and very comfortable to hold and at just 145 mm long, they are nice and compact and I often forgot I was using 42s instead of 32s. The eye cups twist out anti-clockwise and have three settings allowing good eye relief. For me, one click out gave me the optimal image but I found they moved position easily and I had to regularly readjust them (although no more so than the eye cups my Veranos). The focusing is particularly nice - very smooth and lightning fast, with just over one turn to focus from the closest distance to infinity. The minimum distance I could focus to was 1.39 m - not as close as the 1.2 m Eden Quality claim, but still excellent for their class, and more than close enough to study insects.

It took me a while to find the correct dioptre setting for my eyes but once done I found the image very sharp across the central 80% of the field of view, but noticeably softer in the outer 20% where a slight curvature of field is also detectable. The colours produced are natural although warmer than I am used to with my Swarovski ELs (although very similar to the Veranos).

The image is nice and bright, even when watching a passage Ring Ouzel at Staines Moor one misty April morning. In Brazil I had plenty of opportunities to test the XPs in low light conditions, such as watching skulking antwrens and foliage-gleaners in the rainforest interior and Giant Snipe and Black-banded Owl at night. Each time the XPs delivered a great image. The wide field of field (129 m at 1,000 m) makes locating birds easy, especially in flight, and despite the lack of ED glass chromatic aberration is very minimal (again similar to the Veranos) and you really do have to look very closely to see it.

Overall I found the XPs to be robust, comfortable and a joy to use. I was actually very tempted to keep them as my backup bins, replacing the Veranos, but from the beginning I had decided that after the test I would donate them to a ranger at REGUA - an NGO in the Atlantic Forest of south-east Brazil where I work as a volunteer.

REGUA now employs 10 rangers, all from local villages, and mostly ex-hunters. The rangers patrol the Reserve to deter hunting and prevent the extraction of valuable plants such as heart of palm, bromeliads and orchids, both of which are illegal. REGUA estimates that hunting on the Reserve has been reduced by 98%, and this has allowed the re-introduction of two locally extinct bird species - the Red-billed Curassow Crax blumenbachii and Black-fronted Piping-Guan Aburria jacutinga.

Spending so much time in the forest the rangers make numerous wildlife sightings, but good quality binoculars are a true luxury, so at the end of my trip last month I gave them to REGUA's head ranger Luiz Rogick. Luiz has been working for REGUA for six months, after previously working for the Três Picos State Park for several years. He is truly passionate about the Atlantic Forest and his position at REGUA, and as well as managing the rangers he is involved in REGUA's Education Programme. Luiz will put the XPs through their paces in this harsh environment, but I have no doubt they can handle it.

REGUA Head Ranger, Luiz Rogick, showing off his new Eden Quality binoculars.

Eden Quality binoculars are available in the UK only online through EdenWebshops. For specifications and prices please visit their website.

Review update

In September I returned to REGUA and Luiz informed me of a problem with the binoculars. On inspection, I found the bonding attaching the rubber eye cups to the the metal section that allow the eye cups to be raised and lowered had disintegrated. Probably as a result of the high humidity in the Atlantic Forest. It was disappointing to find the build quality to be not as good as I originally thought, but in some ways it's more important to see how the manufacturer deals with the problem. On return to the UK I contacted KATO Group and very quickly they requested I send the binoculars to them for repair. I've just received the binoculars from Brazil so I'll update this post once I know the final outcome.

The bonding on the rubber eye cups disintegrated after just two months use
in the humid Neotropics. (Photo by Rachel Walls)

Postscript: I'm please to report that Eden Quality were efficient at repairing the binoculars (at no charge) and they have now been returned to Luiz at REGUA.

3 July 2012

Black and blue

The Black-legged Dacnis is a rare and highly sought-after endemic of Brazil's Atlantic Forest. Described in 1989 by Ridgely and Tudor as "rarely seen", they remain very erratic in their appearances, with Intervales State Park in São Paulo State being about the only reasonably reliable site. At REGUA, in Rio de Janeiro State, Black-legged Dacnis was until recently, recorded only very rarely. Then in March 2009, a pair with young turned up at the wetland and since then very small numbers have occurred annually here between January and May.

By June the dacnises have usually gone, but this year many of the trees around the wetland have been fruiting simultaneously, attracting large numbers of birds. Social Flycatcher and Tropical Kingbird were the most numerous species, but also present were lots of Blue Dacnis, Swallow Tanager and exceptional numbers of Black-legged Dacnis, with perhaps as many as 20 or even 30 present, including flocks of up to 13 birds. Other notable species attracted to the fruit included small numbers of Blue Ground-Dove, Blue-winged Parrotlet, Planalto Tyrannulet, Bananaquit, Red-legged Honeycreeper and Fawn-breasted Tanager.

Adult male Black-legged Dacnis, REGUA wetland, 11 June 2012.

Severe loss of lowland humid Atlantic Forest is the main threat to the Black-legged Dacnis, but their rarity also makes them a target for the cage-bird trade. Until recently they were classified as Vulnerable by BirdLife International, however, similarity with the common and widespread Blue Dacnis may have led to them being under recorded, and so in 2004 their status was revised to Near Threatened. Last month, adult males, adult females and immatures males were all present at REGUA, allowing excellent opportunities to compare side by side with Blue Dacnis.

Male Black-legged Dacnis, REGUA, 11 June 2012. Very similar to male Blue
Dacnis but slightly smaller with a less extensive black throat 'bib', more blue on the
scapulars and wing coverts (note the lack of black around the carpal), blackish
rather than reddish legs, and a noticeably shorter bill.

Male Blue Dacnis, REGUA, 10 June 2012. Note the larger black throat 'bib', the
black centres to the wing coverts, black alula (and around the carpal), reddish
legs and longer bill.

Female Black-legged Dacnis, REGUA, 11 June 2012. Dull brownish-olive above
with a blue-grey on the flight feathers, rump, crown and ear coverts, and
creamy-buff below. They also hate being photographed, hence the rubbish photo!

Female Blue Dacnis, REGUA, 16 June 2012. Female
Blue Dacnis are easy to identify, being green all
over with blue on the crown, forehead and ear
coverts, and are complete posers.

Black-legged Dacnis breed between mid October to mid February and nests have been found in secondary forest1. Immature birds are often seen at REGUA, which suggests that Black-legged Dacnis breed very close to, if not actually on the Reserve. This year several immature males were present accompanied by both adult males and females.

Immature male Black-legged Dacnis, 13 June 2012. Superficially similar to a female
but with grey rather than buff underparts, more blue on the head and wing
coverts, patchy black throat and black lores.

Both Blue and Black-legged Dacnis have a similar diets of fruit, seeds, insects and nectar (both also visit fruit feeders). Black-legged Dacnis have been observed feeding together on nectar1, but last month at the REGUA wetland I observed both species feeding together on Trema micrantha and Miconia fruits, along with the occasional Red-legged Honeycreeper.

Black-legged Dacnis, REGUA, 11 June 2012. This bird was feeding with the
Blue Dacnis below.

Blue Dacnis, REGUA, 11 June 2012 feeding on Trema micrantha berries.

Trema micrantha are a pioneer tree species that has been planted in adundance around the wetland. They grow well in open areas and help develop a nutrient rich soil layer that successive interior forest tree species require. The clumps of small orange-red to yellow berries grow on thin vertical branches, and I observed Black-legged Dacnis, Blue Dacnis and Red-legged Honeycreeper all adopting the same feeding technique - reaching downwards from the top of the branch, often hanging upside down.

Black-legged Dacnis, REGUA, 11 June 2012
feeding on Trema micrantha berries.

Female Red-legged Honeycreeper, REGUA, 11 June
2012. One of only a few Neotropical passerines to
have an eclipse plumage.

The annual occurrences of Black-legged Dacnis at REGUA in recent years is a testament to the success of Reserve's reforestation programme. Planted between 2006 and 2008, the young forest around the wetland is already providing an important food source for many birds. The shear abundance of fruit last month also attracted a large influx of Swallow Tanager - a nomadic species usually only found at REGUA in any numbers between January and March - with at least 60 birds present. They were often seen feeding and resting with Black-legged Dacnis, so maybe Black-legged Dacnis and Swallow Tanager move around together searching for food sources? Perhaps this explains the unusually large numbers of Black-legged Dacnis around at REGUA last month?


1 Whittaker, A., Parrini, R., & Zimmer, K.J. 2010. First nesting records of the Black-legged Dacnis Dacnis nigripes, with notes on field identification, ecology, conservation and recent records from Espírito Santo, Brazil. Cotinga 32): 65–73.