Dungeness has long been a favourite venue for LNHS coach parties with its unique landscape and its geographic position making it a premier migration hotspot for both birds and insects. Previous trips have been held in winter and recently regularly in spring. This was the first August outing here and we were hoping for some summer birds assembling for departure to warmer climes.
Initially this trip had been poorly subscribed to but fortunately in recent weeks more bookings appeared. On the day 35 people turned up on what was possibly the hottest day of the year. Fortunately at Dungeness a gentle sea breeze made the whole day very comfortable and would have been a lovely day out even if we hadn't seen any birds!
Walking around the observatory area this was nearly what happened- I'd never seen so few birds! Scanning the power station for Black Redstarts proved fruitless with only a handful of gulls, a few Feral Pigeons and a couple of Pied Wagtails. Linnets, House Sparrows and Starlings the only birds around.
We found more species of butterflies here with Common Blue being the most numerous, It was nice to see a couple of Small Tortoiseshells on a Buddleja in the observatory garden (several more were seen on the same species on the RSPB reserve later). Other insects noted were several Stripe-winged Grasshoppers and a single hoverfly of the species Helophilus trivitttatus, which can occur as a migrant.
Fortunately sea watching was much more productive. Sadly we didn't see the Balearic Shearwater that had been around much of the previous week though it had been recorded the day we were there (possibly before we arrived?). Good numbers of Gannets were observed near the horizon and regular scanning of the sea provided numerous sightings of Harbour Porpoises. Both Arctic and Great Skua were noted, the latter seen by most people looking. Both were fly throughs with no harassment of the numerous terns (mostly Common and a few Sandwich). Very close to us was a juvenile Kittiwake giving excellent views. Peter also found some flying Common Scoter and I found a couple of Guillemots sitting on the sea.
Another group of birders shouted out "Yellow Wagtail" and as we turned around three of these delightful but declining passerines flew low over the beach. Rock Samphire provided some botanical interest with many of the other coastal flowers such as Yellow Horned poppy with just the odd flower remaining.
From here we got back onto the coach to head to the RSPB reserve. Many of the best birds reported were seen by the ARC Pits so over eager Andrew, Tom and Peter got off the bus at the road junction to the reserve while the rest of us headed to the visitor centre.
While in there looking at the sightings board most of the scarcer bird species had been seen at ARC Pits but I noticed a Lesser Emperor had been reported but the centre manager didn't know where.
Coming out of the centre I headed down to the nearby pond with picnic tables and I immediately spotted a couple of Common Blue Damselflies while Mark examined the algae which he said was a Cladophora species Then I spotted a species of hawker and it had a blue saddle. At this point my heart was racing, as this was looking like a good candidate for a Lesser Emperor. Temporarily I lost it and there were also two Emperors present, a male and a female we saw ovipositing, but then re-located it When next to the Emperor the Lesser Emperor was slightly smaller and was quite a distinctive looking dragonfly with bright green eyes ,a dark brown thorax (compared to the green on Emperor), bright blue saddle at the base of the abdomen with the rest of the abdomen being a dark brown with a dark dorsal stripe (not too obvious). I felt like a youngster at Christmas as I'd never seen this species in the UK before, although plenty in southern Europe, such was my excitement ! Amazing it should be the first dragonfly I spotted.
This rare migrant was first recorded in the UK in 1996 and has been seen just about annually since with some years providing quite a few records include a few of breeding. After our visit a pair has been recorded ovipositing at a site in neighbouring Sussex. We also saw quite a few Common and at least a single mature male Ruddy Darters on the reserve.
Other entomological interest was provided by a couple of Brown Argus settling on the sparsely vegetated path. Later in the day I could hear several Great Green Bush-crickets stridulating from the vegetation along the ditches but didn't see one.
From the hides we saw large numbers of Cormorants; many loafing duck in eclipse plumage; a moulting Grey Plover and a couple of Common Sandpipers. Jen spotted a yellow flower outside one of the hides which she didn't recognise but I could identify as Moth Mullein. A non-native but one I do occasionally find as a casual around London - a pretty plant.
LNHS coach parties to Dungeness have a fantastic record for getting rarities. Our previous two trips (both May visits) yielded Gull-billed and Whiskered Tern respectfully. Today we not only had a rare dragonfly but we also had good views of a preening Great White Egret on Denge Marsh that was flanked by two Little Egrets for size comparison. This species has been increasing in frequency in the UK in recent years and this year has been added to the list of breeding birds with two pairs having successfully bred on the Somerset Levels.
Continuing along the path towards the road we enjoyed the sight of a couple of Wheatears and a Whinchat in a bare stony field - these birds being returning migrants, a couple of Tree Sparrows were seen by the farm house.
Finishing up at the ARC Pits we didn't see the Yellow Wagtails or Knot that Andrew et al observed earlier but we did manage to locate one of the three Garganey present. Waders included several Common Sandpipers, Ringed Plovers and two Golden Plovers. A Marsh Harrier spooked many of the birds and we also saw an interaction between this species and a Buzzard. Leaving the hide, a Common Lizard scuttled across the footpath.
Returning to the centre we reflected on what a wonderful day we'd had with superb weather and a good variety of natural history.