Sunday, 19 October 2014

Figure of Eight

This is a species that I don't get to see very often - Figure of Eight - this being only the second record from the garden in 27 years. It appears to be one of those species that is on the decrease, so catch one while you can!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Smaller still

I first became aware of the Raynox DCR-250 a couple of years ago, via Leicester City's very own mascot, Mark Skevington - you can read his initial thoughts here. It is basically a magnifying lens that is clipped onto an existing DSLR or bridge camera lens. Skev's results with this combination are, I think, spectacular. Because many inverts are so small, and, when you look at them close-up, beautiful, I've longed after the means of obtaining some worthy images. This week I took the plunge and purchased one - and at around £40 it is not silly money.

Time was a bit tight this morning, but I wanted to try it out. I clipped it onto the end of my 60mm Canon macro lens (itself attached to my now old Canon 400D). Everything was set up for autofocus, so I knew that the depth of field would be shallow. The result was very pleasing.

This is, I think, Pinalitus cervinus (and if you know better, please let me know). It is tiny and to my failing middle-aged eyes lacked any colour or markings at all. The Raynox lifted it out of obscurity! Tomorrow I will rescue any small creature from my MV haul and attempt to obtain Skev-quality shots with a combination of tripod, timer and patience.

Another subject I attempted was this Plutella xylostella. For a first time, ten minute session on auto focus I was well pleased with the results.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Do I really need a book about seaweed?

I cannot walk into a bookshop without heading straight to the 'natural history' department. This normally results in disappointment as the bookseller invariably stocks his/her shelves with a mixture of the banal  - 100 Penguins to see before you die - the twee - Lady Cattermole's Edwardian Ladies Country Diary - or the plain useless. Where have all the field guides gone? What about a few proper monographs? Atlas's? ANYTHING...

I happened to be in Torquay at the weekend and there is some sort of sea safari park along the promenade. You can access the shop attached to it without needing to pay to look at penguins, so, under the vain hope that THERE WOULD BE BOOKS, I went in. And there were!

I ended up buying the rather splendid Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland, a photographic guide that claims to be able to help you confidently identify over 200 species of them. As with most things, there are plenty that do need a microscope to clinch an identification, and I'll leave those well alone. I almost - almost - picked up The Sea Anemones and Corals of Britain and Ireland as well, but thought better of it. I wish I had now. Both are published by Wild Nature Press / Marine Conservation Society / Seasearch and will only cost you £16.95. Not bad for such a well produced book. My natural history book choices are getting more specialised and obscure by the day.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

A Woodchat and some geese

Dungeness June 1981
Dorrian Buffery is away for a week and I’m acting warden. It’s like being back in the summer of 1979 again as I survey my shingle kingdom before me. I might not own it but as far as the birding goes I’m in charge. Sean Clancy remains as assistant warden and together we have a laid-back and enjoyable time. Each morning we swap mist-nets for moth traps, lunchtime field work is replaced by quaffing of beer, but we still see plenty of interest: a summer-plumaged Black-throated Diver sitting off-shore behind the patch, a Hobby arriving in off the sea, a Melodious Warbler that we find and then trap in the station gorse. But the highlight is a Woodchat Shrike which graces the bushes of the Oppen Pits on my final Sunday morning. I arrive at the RSPB reserve to be taken to one side by the RSPB warden Peter Makepeace. He tells me of the shrike’s arrival and kindly gives me permission to go and look for it. There is a catch – he doesn’t want anyone else out there. I am soon watching it. A smart bird. I return to the observatory to be met by the Chantler family who are staying nearby and have been tirelessly searching the shingle for birds over the past couple of days. They are regular DBO visitors and friends of mine. The shrike is visible from a public footpath that Peter and his RSPB empire have no control over. I cannot possibly deny these people from seeing such a desirable bird and feel happy that my betrayal of confidence is not going to allow any disturbance of breeding species on the reserve. So, I suggest that if they wander over to the Oppen Pits via the public footpath and scan the bush tops they just might see a Woodchat Shrike. I ask them not to question me further but that if they take up my suggestion and see anybody from the RSPB there that they feign surprise at their luck of jamming in on such a good bird. Of course they go and of course Mr Makepeace is there, who demands to know who told them about the shrike. ‘What shrike?’ the Chantler’s plead, but he’s onto them and doesn’t believe the coincidence of their admittedly unusual choice of route. I later go back onto the RSPB reserve where an angry Peter Makepeace tells me that he’s annoyed that someone has told the Chantler’s about the shrike. “I’ve got my suspicions about who told them,” he tells me. “Just you wait until I see him again!” I hurry away before he puts two and two together.

We’ve noticed a family party of Canada Geese on the Water Tower Pits and have returned to try and capture the youngsters for ringing purposes. They cannot fly and we think it possible to round them up by encouraging them to make their way along a chicken-wire perimeter fence that funnels into a dead-end. Well, that’s the theory. It hasn’t helped our intentions that the geese are, at present, all sat out in the middle of the water. They usually loaf around the shoreline and forage on dry land. We stand at the waters edge trying to fathom out our next move. As if reading our minds they just stay still. We try to move them by clapping our hands, shouting and throwing stones wide of the geese. They won’t budge. After twenty minutes of cat and mouse (or should that be ringer and goose) I decide on drastic action. I strip down to my underwear and plunge into the cold water, much to the amusement of my companions. My intention is to coax the geese out of the water by my swimming toward them, slowly, so not to panic them. It isn’t a coincidence my choice of swimming ‘slowly’ as it is the only speed that I can swim at. At first the geese start to make for the waters edge, but then double-back leaving me between where I want them to go and the middle of the pit. I have been swimming on a regular basis but after a few minutes find my limbs are tiring.  After another aborted attempt to corral the geese I’m knackered, I’m slap bang in the middle of the water and have started to feel mildly alarmed that I might not have the stamina to get back to the waters edge. A small island is closer to me so I set off for it, gasping for breath. Hauling myself onto the stony, goose-shit splattered shore I lie flat out panting for precious air, listening to the hoots of derision coming from dry land. The geese, as if revelling in my situation, swim by only yards away, seemingly watching this strange pink shape that has shipwrecked on their island. My rest over I once again brave the cold, murky water and reach terra firma. I’ve ballsed-up again however and have to walk around to the other side of the pit to retrieve my clothing. Walking barefoot on shingle is painful. I now realise that I haven’t taken my watch off. It isn’t waterproof and it’s stopped working.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Vicarious birding

obtained or undergone at second hand through sympathetic participation in another's experiences

For the office-bound or 'otherwise-engaged' birder, the past two days have been purgatory. The east coast, south coast and selected inland sites have been awash with birds. From dawn until dusk, the twitter feeds, texts and web updates have alerted us to the unfolding ornithological dramas - from a giant wave of Yellow-browed Warblers; to a sprinkling of Radde's, Pallas's and Dusky Warblers; Great Grey Shrikes leaping over Red-breasted Flycatchers and an obscene number of Ring Ouzels at my favourite shingle beach. I could also mention an unprecedented arrival of Bonxies up the Thames estuary and onto the London reservoirs. I've seen absolutely none of it.

It's my fault. In this supposed year of 'semi-retirement' I took on an eight-week contract throughout the months of - you've guessed it - October and November. I was planning on being at Dungeness this week until the offer of work popped up. So I missed the spectacle of 500 Ring Ouzels, of 3-4 Yellow-broweds, a Cattle Egret and a three figure movement of Sooty Shearwaters. I could just count the money at the end of the contract and feel vindicated of my decision, but you cannot buy days like these - ho-hum...

I torture myself, checking the twitter feed every so often, feeling keenly (no, worse than that, personally) every update from Dungeness. And from Beddington (Brent Geese, Short-eared Owls, 1000+ Redwing over the past two days, and Little Gulls, I almost forgot them). Spurn has been on fire all autumn (but it always is, isn't it). Not content with a Masked Shrike it now boasts an Isabelline (no doubt fighting all of the Great Grey Shrikes present for a perch). Each update is like a little stab in the heart. But I am genuinely pleased for those souls who are out there, braving the rain and testing their field skills. The retired, the shift worker and the shirker, they have all engineered to be out and about at this special time. I share their birding experience through the wonders of 'social media'.

Best I can do at the moment is hope that a skein of Brent Geese fly over me as I walk from the car to the office, or a Yellow-browed Warbler does the decent thing and calls from a front garden sycamore. It has been known!

Monday, 13 October 2014

Burning stubble and a dose of reality

Dungeness August 1979
The farmers are burning the stubble in the fields, the failing light magnifying the intensity of the flames against the deep mauve and orange sky. Vast palls of smoke hang in the still air. We are outside the gates of the ARC pit, opposite Boulderwall Farm, bewitched by the farming activity taking place beyond Lydd Airport. Our mission tonight is to erect mist nets on the sand bowl at the back of ARC in the hope of catching waders for ringing. During the day a fine selection of wader species have been observed here, peak numbers coinciding with high tide, when feeding birds are driven off of Lade Sands.

After setting the nets in darkness, aided only by torchlight - there is a new moon - we retreat to the sand banks that have been created by the industrial machinery now motionless nearby. The air we breathe still has the warmth and smell of the faded day and on it hangs the call of waders as they return to the sand bowl from where we have recently disturbed them. I can identify Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Knot, Greenshank and Redshank. We settle down, sitting on top of coats or rucksacks. Sound carries great distances over the shingle and between our spells of whispered conversation we can hear the farm machinery in the burning fields even though they are several miles away. Each net round is producing birds, mainly Dunlin and Ringed Plovers but also a few Knot and even a couple of Curlew Sandpipers. It’s turning into a good nights ringing.

When things start to quieten down I lie out on the sand and stare up into the sky, vast and black, splattered with stars. There is no cataract of a cities orange glow to obscure these celestial bodies. I’m swallowed up in its emptiness and feel tiny, insignificant, humbled. A meteor tears across the firmament, then another. Goosebumps. I’m mesmerised by the whole scene before me. A feeling of wonderment is coupled with awe. In this astronomically induced high that I’m experiencing anything seems possible. As each meteor tails across the heavens another ‘hit’ arrives. I have to be prised from the sand to go and take the nets in. The day’s warmth has gone and been replaced by the chill of the early hours. Back at the observatory, my sleeping bag beckons.

If it’s quiet bird-wise and there are enough of us staying at the observatory we sometimes play football on the grass in front of the cottages. Our makeshift pitch straddles the road and car park, but traffic rarely interrupts the game. On this particular afternoon we’ve got a good turn-out, including one of Keith Redshaw’s dogs that chases the ball manically and survives more than one full-bloodied tackle.

An attack breaks down and the opposition ‘rush-goalie’ punts the ball high into the air. As I position myself underneath it, eyes focused on the spinning ball, my thoughts involuntarily turn to my imminent return to art college. The lucidity of these thoughts are surprisingly strong. I’m aware that the current life of ease I’m leading is about to finish. My recent summer's of idleness will be replaced by employment and responsibilities… things will never be so easy and uncomplicated again. As these negative, but possibly true vibes crowd my mind, I remain totally focused on the ball that is still hanging in the air, seemingly defying gravity.

My period of introspection is ended when my forehead finally connects with the ball and play continues. I can honestly say that as I’ve headed that ball something deep inside me has changed. The carefree part of my character has taken a reality check and responded by retreating. Is it still buried away somewhere?

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Brixham break

A family short-break to Brixham was not embarked upon with natural history in mind, but you know how it is... my binoculars came along, I kept one eye firmly on the skies and just around the corner was Berry Head! The view above is from our well-appointed cottage. The garden was the size of a sixpence (remember them?) but the view and elevation made it a birder's dream. I sat there and visualised the viz-mig potential (which was born out by a trickle of pipits and wagtails), plus overflying Peregrine, Raven and Turnstone.

I cannot help but wander around such places with a fantasist birder's hat on - checking out the migrant hot-spots, imagining Yellow-broweds and Red-breasted Flys (at the very least), flicking from bush to bush. A Brixham birder has a wealth of habitats to check, from sheltered bays, open seas, tidal harbour, copses, vegetated headlands and - the jewel in the crown - Berry Head.

Talking of which, this was the scene on Friday (looking back towards Brixham). I had hoped that I might jam in on a late-flowering Goldilocks Aster, but with no firm site I drew a blank. Maybe it was all over, maybe it isn't found plentifully here, but I reckon that I looked in the right areas (that is, if the right place to look is where the other rare plants are to be found). Berry Head has been kind to me in previous visits, with Honewort, White Rockrose, Small Hare's-ear and Small Rest-harrow all being seen, not forgetting a rather splendid white Gyr Falcon back in April 1986.

Clouded Yellows were still on the wing, regularly encountered. What with the temperature reaching 19C in a very warming sun, it was more like summer than autumn.