Monday, 1 September 2014

Must try harder

Maybe I'd find one of these Wrynecks, Barred Warblers or Melodious Warblers if I actually went out into the field, rather than watch re-runs of Mad Men, listening to The Fall and reading William Boyd. Oh, and there is the debacle of staying in to pay Sky for the privilege of observing Tottenham getting a spanking from Liverpool.

Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder.
Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder.
Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder.
Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder.
Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder.
Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder.
Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder.
Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder.
Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder. Must try harder.

There, that feels better, just need to beat myself over the back with a birch branch, rub salt in the wounds and then get up tomorrow morning, polish the bins and stride out onto a prime Surrey inland patch and pretend that I'm on the east coast. One of those drift migrants will surely be waiting for me...

Friday, 29 August 2014

Blogging, stats and stuff

I have now been pumping out this North Downs and beyond drivel for over six years now - albeit with a brief break in 2010 when I deleted the entire show and then started up again in August of that year. Since then I have posted 670 times. That's an awful lot of waffle, rant and, at times, observation. I have considered giving it a break on a number of occasions, mainly when I've felt fed up or disillusioned with my 'natural history lot', but thankfully I haven't pressed the destruct button and things always seem better the next day.

Those of us that use Blogger as a platform can see who visits our blog, where they come from and what they look at - don't worry, it doesn't identify exactly who you are! These stats are just a bit of fun to me, although it is always pleasing when the visitor numbers are high, as we all like to think that we are doing something that others may wish to read. I'm going to talk numbers now, something that some bloggers guard with secrecy (I suppose it is a bit like comparing penis size), but hey, I'm easy going...

When I started (back in 2008) my daily visitor rate would be between 25-50 a day, more often at the lower end of those figures. When I relaunched two years later I would normally just edge over the 100 mark. Now, I can normally expect between 150 - 200, with maybe 200-300 every third or fourth day. My record is 600+, but these sort of figures are unusual. I do not attempt to bolster these numbers by joining blogging networks or advertising a post on Twitter. I don't know how these numbers compare to other blogs and it really doesn't matter to me. I would, however, guess that there are some birding blogs out there that must get four figure hits on a regular basis.

I cannot predict what type of a post will prove popular. I used to believe that the more contentious a post the more traffic would be garnered, but that clearly isn't the case. My most visited post is a review I wrote on Robert Macfarlane's excellent book The Old Ways. This is followed by a rant (yes, they do work sometimes) about self-promotion in birding. In third place is my appreciation of Ray Turley's legacy to birding, with my piss-take on the use of the word BOOM! in fourth. Following up behind, in order, are posts on 'Internet-based birding' and the Chinese Pond Heron - Bohemian Rhapsody lyrics. If you missed any of them or want to revisit them, you can just click on the links. Sometimes a post will be boosted by somebody, somewhere, publishing its link. This happened with my post about Ray (which Lee Evans highlighted) and the Pond Heron (via Bird Forum).

It used to be said that a newspaper could gauge its health by the size of its postbag and to me, if my blog is getting comments sent to it, then all is well. Comments do tend to come in waves (and, if I'm being honest, 75% of them come from the same dozen people), but I'm very grateful when I do receive them. There have been a few posts that have developed a life of their own in the comments section, the most memorable being a theological debate between Peter Alfrey and Mel Lloyd. It's well worth a read, but please spare half an hour and make sure that your brain is clear when you do so!

One way that a visitor can come across this blog is by referral from another blog (my own referrals can be found in that 'Worthy Blog' list found over to the right of this post). Who are my top referrers? They can now be revealed...

1st Surrey Bird Club
2nd Wanstead Birder (Jono Lethbridge)
3rd Not Quite Scilly (Gavin Haig)
4th Birding Notebook (Peter Alfrey)
5th Boulmer Birder (Stewart Sexton)

Thanks all!

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

What am I offered for my spare Wallcreeper?

This morning, on the Rare Birds of Britain and Ireland Facebook group, Simon Smethurst pointed out  that, although certain species can become our bogey birds (with frequent dips), there are others that we cannot but help connecting with. He has seen three different Green Herons in the UK. What rare multiples do others have, he asked? The response was revealing:

Multiple American Robins, Yellow-browed Buntings, Mourning Doves, Scop's Owls, Alder Flycatchers, American Redstarts, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Thick-billed Warblers, Tengmalm's Owls (that's just being greedy, Martin Gray!) and - I had to mention them again - my two WALLCREEPERS... I then posed the question, if these birds could be traded like football cards and stickers, what would I be offered for my spare Wallcreeper? The best offer came from Martin Goodey, who upped his initial offer of a spare Scarlet Tanager to also include a Cliff Swallow and a Northern Waterthrush. I'd be tempted! How did he know I needed them all? Does my reputation as a low-lister travel that far?

But just imagine if listing did involve bartering. And was not just confined to swaps. What if you got fed up with birding and wanted to cash in your list and start on moths. How much would a White-crowned Black Wheatear fetch - is it worth a Willowherb Hawkmoth and a Patton's Tiger? Would somebody be prepared to give me a Ghost Orchid for my Varied Thrush? (come to think about it, I'll keep the thrush...) This would be worth watching, seeing what desperate listers would be prepared to give up for that one elusive seabird, that possibly extinct plant or a horrendously rare migrant moth.

I would make sure that any new kid Surrey lister would pay dearly for my spare Cirl Buntings and Willow Tits, now sadly extinct in the county and unlikely to pop up again any time soon. I could sit back and wait for the offer of their hard won skuas and petrels before coughing up any of my (many) spares. If only we could play such games, this listing lark would be much, much more fun...

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Silver-spotted Skipper

Park Downs is a fairly small south facing chalk slope only a mile outside of Banstead. This morning revealed two highlights for me - this Silver-spotted Skipper plus a female Common Redstart. I could actually claim a third highlight as a couple of Hobbies were dive-bombing a Common Buzzard in the skies above. I don't visit this modest site very often, but I really should do more often.

Friday, 22 August 2014

A mini ├╝ber patch

I need a purpose behind the time that I spend out in the field. If I don't have a purpose then I tend to wander about aimlessly and the result is a thin notebook populated by meaningless observations. So, to put the time that I spend locally back onto a positive and worthwhile footing, I am keeping my observations focused on the area illustrated above.

It is a combination of downland, farmland, common and woodland. It has very little water. There are no rivers. Botanically it is rich. It is an excellent area for butterflies and moths. As for birds, well, it will be hard work, but anything discovered will be all the more appreciated.

To keep me sane trips to Dungeness will be essential!

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Beddington's new media blitz

My old stomping ground - Beddington Sewage Farm (or Beddington Farmlands as it is now referred to) - has undergone a bit of a social media makeover. You can visit the new web site by clicking here. If you are on Facebook they have created an account and you can visit it by clicking here. Are you into Twitter? Well, so is Beddington, under the account name 'Beddington Farmlands'. Last but not least you can keep abreast of all the birding, mothing and political highlights (and lowlights) by visiting Peter Alfrey's excellent blog 'Non-stop Birding' (and you can get there by clicking here).

I have banged on about Beddington frequently on this blog, but for those who haven't visited this blog before (or those of short-term memory), this is the place where I cut my ornithological teeth. It has been birded for almost a century and has an almost unbroken ornithological record stretching back to the 1930s - how many places can boast that? The roll-call of Beddington old boys is one of quality, including such names as Bob Scott and Peter Grant. For an inland site the bird list is lengthy and has some species that even a bird observatory regular would salivate over - Glaucous-winged Gull and Killdeer anyone?

Peter Alfrey deserves a medal for the efforts that he has put into promoting and trying to protect what is left of the old sewage farm. I did a runner long ago, no longer able to accept that the old flooded field systems, the settling beds and the hedgerows had been destroyed in the name of corporate profits and landfill. But Peter is made of sterner stuff, so he carries on battling against the companies and bodies that seem unable to fulfil the environmental obligations that had been agreed upon prior to their desecration of the farmlands. The grand plan for a premier urban nature reserve seems a long way off at present. A trawl back through the posts on Peter's web site will very quickly give you a feel for what he, and the local population, have been up against.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Birding characters

Yes, it's another one of those 'in the good old days' posts, but before you think 'here he goes again' just remember that today will be your good old days in thirty years time...

The seed for this particular post came via a number of Facebook posts and tweets emanating from last weekend's Rutland Birdfair, mostly from grizzled old geezers who are all the wrong side of 40 - but what with global warming, social unrest, looming financial collapse and our impending doom courtesy of a rogue black hole, I reckon it might just be the right side to be of 40! But I digress. These chin-dribblers were all reminiscing about the good old days and how exciting, fulfilling and friendly it all used to be. I looked at the pictures that were posted, populated by long-haired, denim and/or ex-military clad youths, smiling out from the past, looking at us in our gull-obsessed present (stay there boys, you've only got five species of gull to worry about in 1977!!) Of course this was more than enough to encourage me to think back to the late seventies, to remember hitching to Norfolk and Suffolk, to recall ticking off famous birders in The George Pub at Cley, to bathe in the glory of big passerine falls at Dungeness (passerine migrants, remember them?) and to realise that, as birders, we were surrounded by characters. A right old motley crew of characters, but people who made you put down your Nickel Supra telescope and gawp. Do such people exist in birding circles today?

There were the nicknames - not just nicknames that were known locally, but nicknames that were known nationally - Mutley, Spiny Norman, Captain Ticker, Dipper, IBP - I could go on. And then names that, when mentioned, could silence a room as these names carried instant respect, awe and myth - these names had found rarities, travelled to exotic countries, slept in every bus stop between London and Cornwall. Many had worked on Shetland, earning vast sums of money (by late 1970s standards) by cleaning and cooking for the oil industry, only to spend all of the said amount on foreign birding trips, dope and beer. And that was another thing about a lot of these characters, they were social misfits, certainly as far removed from the stereotypical birdwatcher as could be imagined.

Some were considered dangerous - even prone to violence. Fools were not suffered gladly. Cliques were formed and you could forget about joining them as they wandered around in their own universe, where shit-hot birding and an unparalleled knowledge of the best places to pick up lifts to the next big bird were just for starters. A gaggle of such men (they were all men) standing at a bar at Cley/Portland/St. Mary's was given a wide berth unless you were trying to ingratiate your way in. I've seen people try, buying the 'names' drinks all night only to be cruelly rejected as the last orders were called. A few sported lurid hair cuts, think Travis Bickle (Google him) crossed with a Firecrest.

They all had the contacts. Those hard earned phone numbers that were the key to building up a network of rarity informants. And here we meet another set of characters, the hardy souls who acted as the conduits for bird information. They must have had very understanding partners or parents, as every evening, especially on Fridays and Saturdays, they were taking calls from all over Britain, from oiks like me asking "Anything about?" I hated having to phone one of these numbers as I didn't really know the people involved and felt self-conscious doing so. I used to wait for Nick Gardener to do the phoning as he had a swaggering confidence that would always result in getting the gen (good 1970s birding word there...) I believe that 'our' information came largely from Dave Holman, John Miller or Phil Vines. Having said that, there was always a supporting cast of back-ups, such as the 'Incredible String Band' from West London, populated by a load of geezers with nicknames (Surf, J, Bolin and that's just for starters)

Does the way that we communicate today eradicate personality, at least on such a national level? I'd like to think that there is still a right old cast of rum characters out there birding, people that, in 30-40 years time will be remembered fondly (or with fear!). Birding wouldn't be half as much fun without them...