James Lowen 

6. Booby prize

August was crammed full of family obligations, mainly ferrying my daughter around the country to play, or watch, cricket. I had just one 30-hour window available to twitch the Red-footed Boobythat had taken up residence on Wolf Rock lighthouse, off St Mary's. Everything had to go right for it to work... and it so nearly didn't because the booby was absent for the majority of our charter trip out west. In part, no matter, because the extravaganza of large shearwaters around the lighthouse - complemented by a cracking diversity of cetaceans there or from the Scillonian ferry - would have made for a fabulous day out. But patience brought rewards, as one of my travelling companions took a record shot of the lighthouse from a mile away - and realised that the booby was back. An iconic place for a personal milestone of a bird. 

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29 December 2023    2023, as was


Here are ten wildlife experiences during 2023 that particularly caught my eye and will remain in the memory bank for years to come. Counting down, from ten to one...


10. Owls

The photographer in me is a sucker for friendly subjects. Two birds I'd never properly photographed before this year were Long-eared Owl and Short-eared Owl. In July, a juvenile 'LEO' performed superbly at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen. And in November and December, I joined the band of joggers papping the St Benet's Abbey Shorties on a few occasions

3. Dusky falls

Moth of the year was surely Dusky Clearwing. Until 2021, this clearwing was generally presumed extinct in the UK, having not been seen for nearly a century. That year, a record of a female in an odd location (Warwickshire) gave hope that it might persist somewhere. Suddenly I had no longer seen all Britain's clearwings: there was a 'new' one to track down. But not in moth-ers' wildest hopes could we have imagined that this large, boldly patterned species would be found over a large part of England this summer. My first half-dozen attempts at finding the species all failed (as did several attempts subsequently, in addition to numerous garden failures). But on one fabulous June afternoon, I saw four - three courtesy of Alan Lewis, who got to the site we'd independently pinpointed ahead of me - and one of my very own, which came in and buzzed the trap. Oh, the joy!

2. River island

I greatly prefer finding rare birds to twitching them. In the past couple of years, I've done a really poor job of finding anything good. This autumn, things improved, as our Shetland team found a River Warbler. None of this 'obvious singing male' crap. This was a proper birder's bird, and a proper birder's find... flushed from nettles and crawling around on a bank (and, bizarrely, in pine trees). It was the standout experience of a very enjoyable week on Shetland, which brought one new UK bird (Veery) plus a few other nice rarities (e.g. White's Thrush) and a lot of quality food. David, Peter and Phil: thank you.

8. Snakedance

As regular readers of this blog will know, one of my favourite spring activities is to photograph Adders. This year, I had another very special day with our only venomous snake, this time in north-west Norfolk. Finding a male guarding a female, I waited and watched as the incumbent king fought off four rivals - at one point having two 'pairs' of male Adders scrapping with one another at point-blank range. Exhilarating.


9. Here, kitty...

Puss Moth is a stunning, striking and actually fairly common moth. I have caught it in Scotland. I have caught it in elsewhere Norwich. But I had not, until this summer, caught it at home. It was my garden bogey moth. So the leaping heart that resulted from seeing this feline cutie in the trap one morning was something to savour. It's so often all about context... 

7. WTF is that?

In April, I helped guide a tour of Lesvos, which brought me and the clients many new species that I covered in an image-rich blog. Several bird species were full-fat life ticks, and the same was true of herps (the wacky Worm Snake was right up there as a much-wanted), dragonflies, orchids and butterflies. But it was an absolutely remarkable-looking noctuid moth (part-insect, part grit-encrusted splash of bird poo), Eutelia adulatrix, that brought forth the expletives when I found it in the trap on the balcony of my third-floor hotel room.  

Wildlife

Wildlife

4. Best garden moth night

I recorded a remarkable 654 species of moth in my garden this year, breaking my previous garden earliest record by 68. Of the total, an astonishing 51 were new for the garden, bringing the garden total to over 830 species. There were many very good nights, including many exciting species and some astonishing single-night totals across my two or occasionally three garden traps. But one night sticks out as being particularly special. Granted, there were both more speciose nights than 21 June and nights with even more abundant moths, but 512 moths of 110 species was definitely noteworthy. But it was the quality that counted, far more than the quantity. The striking Gromwell Ermine Ethmia dodecea and rather more subdued Tufted Pine Moth Exoteleia dodecella were both new for me, the first being the furthest east the species had been recorded in Norfolk. On a normal night - in a normal week - both would have been stars. But both were eclipsed by the 10th modern Norfolk record of Dingy Hedge Grey Neosphaleroptera nubilana, a nondescript but rather local tortrix. And that, in its turn, was prevented from taking the top of the podium by the UK's 10th (and Norfolk's 3rd) Raptor Nest Moth Monopis fenestratella - by far the rarest moth, in national terms, that I have caught at home. It wasn't only moths either: out of nowhere came a Tasmanian Eucalyptus Beetle

5. Scoterfest

During the week after my return from Lesvos I travelled many a mile to see three new UK species (out of a total of ten this year - probably the first time I have broken double figures since the 1990s!). The first was a grip back: White-crowned Sparrow (I was living in Argentina when everyone saw the Cley bird - although the story is actually more painful than that). The second could easily not have happened: we were celebrating my 50th birthday on an all-day boat trip on the Norfolk Broads when news broke of the UK's first Grey-headed Lapwing (voted 'bird of the year' by the masses... if not by me). Fortunately it stayed, and I ended up seeing it twice. But definitely the best experience of the three was the mad concentration of rare scoters in Largo Bay in early May. Seeing the drake Stejneger's Scoter was payback for having dipped it in Lothian the previous December. And every scan through the flock of bobbing black blobs seemed to reveal something new: two American White-winged Scoters and three Surf Scoters comprised a mighty supporting act. I could easily have spent all day there, had two of the travelling companions not needed said Grey-headed Lapwing...  

1. Triple crown

I may just have said that I prefer finding my own birds to twitching them, but to have participated in what is likely to be the best ever day's twitching in the UK will remain with me forever. There will never be another bird-related day like Saturday 23 September. In the space of eight hours, Dave Andrews, Stuart White and I (and many others, clearly, but that was our carload) saw the UK's 3rd Magnolia Warbler, 2nd Bay-breasted Warbler and 1st Canada Warbler, within scant miles of one another on the Pembrokeshire coast. (Indeed, had we been bolder still, we could have added the UK's 4th Alder Flycatcher, but we mustn't grumble...) The astonishment, the adrenalin, the camaraderie and the birds will remain with me forever. It is indisputably my wildlife experience of 2023.