Wednesday, 7 October 2015


I have just re-watched Shane Meadows excellent documentary 'Made of Stone', a film about the history, and reformation, of the rock band The Stone Roses. He is a massive fan of the band and the project was (obviously) a labour of love. There was a scene in which the band announced a free gig, in which the first 1,000 people to arrive at the box office (with an item of band memorabilia) were issued with wristbands to gain entry. All of this was filmed. Within minutes, people arrived at the box office, running, sweating, in a panic. Many were interviewed. They couldn't believe it. They were beside themselves. Their favourite band - no, not their favourite band, one of the reasons that life was worth living - were playing at this venue after a gap of 20 years! Forget about the second coming, this was up there and beyond it! Such devotion was obvious, but such oneness - a collective understanding about the relevance of this event - was even more palpable. They entered the gig as one, and left it believing that they could change the world. I recognised it...

Last September I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to see Kate Bush's comeback tour. Here was an artist that I had a strong affiliation with, through a love of her music and identifying with the era that her music was a backdrop to. Some artists 'speak' to you. Kate spoke to me. On arrival at the Hammersmith Apollo on that special night, it was obvious that the 3,500 other souls who were attending the gig felt the same. When the, admittedly, mature woman in her mid-50s entered the stage, we all saw the same Kate of our youth. Nothing had changed. We all saw. We were all one. We left the venue thinking that we could change the world.

Whether or not I am in the car singing along with One Direction, Katy Perry or Taylor Swift with my wife and daughters; or sitting in Mark's front room getting misty eyed with a healthy dose of Neil Young, music is a great unifier. It makes you believe.

And so does natural history.

I have been at some great twitches in my time. The (yet again mentioned) Wallcreepers. The Cornwall Varied Thrush. The Scilly Orphean Warbler. The Portland Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The Kent Golden-winged Warbler. The Norfolk (How Hill) Black-and-white Warbler. I've seen rarer. But I've not been present at other birds that have elicited such oneness, such connection. Each was anticipated. Each was welcomed with collective gasps and appreciation. The same could be said for sea-watches, visible migration spectacle and falls of migrants that I have been lucky - no, privileged -  over the years to witness. The sharing of wonder, the knowledge that you are not alone in the appreciation of and, yes, obsession of the world around you.

You are not alone. This collective power should be used to shape the way humanity treats our fragile world. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to plunder my music collection for a healthy dose of unity.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Big skies

Why is it that we are drawn to open vistas, panoramic views and big skies? I've read somewhere that it may be that it is hardwired in us, a throwback to our ancestral savannah home, and our need to see into the distance to prepare for possible danger.

Such reasons are largely null and void in 2015, but my need for the 'big sky' is a strong one. I'm drawn to such places, be they Dungeness (above), the North Downs (middle) or humble Canons Farm (bottom). They all supply me with peace. Thinking time. They strip away the immense detail of our daily lives, the media tittle-tattle, subdue the human bustle and act as a balm to the stresses of today (and if you don't think you have any, the way that we live in the so-called civilised world, we are surrounded and bombarded by them).

Human traces are reduced in such situations, so distant towns become islands of lego, roads thin grey snakes wriggling through the green and pylons just silver insects marching across the fields. Traffic and aircraft noise is diminished and has to compete with natural sounds. Time is expanded, there is an opportunity to bathe in it.

And you can see the weather forming, coming and going. Distant rain bands take on an altogether more beautiful form, sunbeams falling on ground twenty miles away full of promise and the night sky, if clear, is uninterrupted and awe inspiring.

And of course, we can see the birds. They, too love the big skies. It is their playground, and when the trees and buildings are stripped away we can watch the birds in all of their aerial glory, be it tumbling Lapwings, hunting raptors or migrating finches.

If I find myself in a town, or a wood, I gravitate towards a park or a clearing. It's second nature.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Autumn at Langley Vale Farm

The fields of Langley Vale Farm called me back again today. I seem to be making a weekly visit at the moment, and although the place is not totally devoid of birdlife (or potential), I once again left without too much use of the notebook. However, on such a fine autumnal day, with warm sun, blue skies and drowsy butterflies, it would be churlish to demand more.

This farm was recently purchased by the Woodland Trust, who intend to turn it into woodland to commemorate the centenary of the Great War (now 101 years since its start, so the centenary tag might be a little out of date when the project finally comes to fruition). As already remarked upon here, this move has been met with mixed feelings, as the area has been farmed sympathetically for decades and boasts an incredible arable plant assemblage. Another endearing aspect of the farm is that it retains ancient hedgerows, copses and woods, home to many species of tree, shrub, flower and, no doubt, an interesting invertebrate community (yet to be investigated as far as I know). The definition of a hedge on this particular farm is not that of a wispy line of vegetation leaning up against a strand of wire - these are vibrant things, metres deep and comprised many species of wild tree and shrub. The copses and woods are many, and harbour such delights as breeding Buzzards and Green Hellebores.

At this moment in time the farming practices are winding down (there may be a year to two more) and exploration is possible as the shooting syndicate no longer meet here. The rare arable plants will struggle to survive without a helping hand, but all parties are aware of the situation and the plants themselves have some big hitters on their side. It is a priority to survey the area now, to add to the already impressive list of plants present and maybe identify any areas that really should be removed from the threat of woodland planting.

Last year saw a change to the way the farm was managed, which meant that the wide open margins around the field edges were not maintained, which resulted in crops growing up to the hedge line or coarse grasses swamping the crop less areas. It was a struggle to find many of the notable plants this summer. Finger's crossed that the recent dialogue between the interested parties will result in a more sympathetic managing of the land for the true rarities that are to be found on it - but they will only remain if something is done, and done immediately - it may already be too late in some instances.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Hidden resources

In a recent tri-blogger's discourse between Stewart Sexton, Dylan Wrathall and myself, we have been exploring the lessening of blogging, the reasons behind it and why, indeed, people bother blogging at all. In the past 24 hours I was twice reminded of why it is worth carrying on with it and how a humble post can do good even years later.

Firstly, Karen Woolley (of the excellent Wild Wings and Wanderings) got in touch. She is hankering after going to see the rare and frankly bizarre looking Starfish Fungus (Aseroe rubra) that can be found in a Surrey woodland at Oxshott. She either remembered a post of mine from 2013 or Googled the fungus and was sent to my site. Either way, knowing that I had been there and that Oxshott Woods is quite big, she emailed me to see if I would 'point her in the right direction'. I was only too pleased to oblige.

Then last night I received an email from David Gowing, Professor of Botany, (Environment, Earth and Ecosystems) at the Open University. They are hoping to host a studentship looking at the conservation of Starfruit and wish to advertise the opportunity. He had seen my images of the plant in a post from September of last year and asked if he could use one for the advert. Again, no problem at all.

Blogging can be seen as just an ego trip, another way of shouting out "look at me!" or "look what I've done!", but then something like the above happens. These posts that we send out into cyberspace really can be of use to others. I have often been alerted to a species being 'out there' by a bloggers post (such as the daffodil fly), or picking up a handy ID pointer; I have been royally entertained (especially if someone goes off on one); I have even made 'virtual friends' (even if that does sound a bit sad). Maybe there is a point to all of this malarky after all.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Moth Snowstorm

A strange, but affecting mix of autobiography; an exploration of the joy and wonders to be found in the natural world; illustrations of man's relentless trashing of the planet; and the author's hope for how the worst can be averted by a mass-embracing of the hard-wired connectivity that homo sapiens have for wildness and wilderness.

Michael McCarthy is an environmental journalist who grew up on the Wirral and had his first 'road to Damascus' moment with a buddlieja bush that was covered in butterflies. A troubled childhood was further soothed by his discovering of the wild, open places of the Dee estuary.

The author explores how the human connection to natural history has been largely buried in recent times, but explains how this connectivity is still strong, being forged over the 50,000 generations before homo sapiens became farmers of the land. The title of the book is taken from one example of the recent loss of biomass - that of the thinning of the volume of moths in flight that used to be picked up in car headlights during night-time journeys along country lanes. If you were born after 1965 you may not have seen such a sight. This 'thinning' - of our moths, butterflies, birds and flowers in particular - is firmly put down to 'Farmer Giles' through the political machinations of subsidy, grubbing out of hedge and copse and the use of chemicals on the land.

There are harrowing accounts of the destruction of far eastern estuaries, through vanity projects at the cost of the welfare of vast numbers of wading birds. The fall of the House Sparrow is also discussed, with some revelations as to the probable reasons behind its decline. This could have been a book of sadness, but the examples of joy (and wonder) are ultimately victorious. These range from the winter solstice, the first butterfly of the year, the first snowdrop to flower, blossom, colour, form... there are examples aplenty, with the author's awe and thanksgiving writ large.

As someone that, as I get older, can appreciate the sheer wonder of the natural world ever more strongly, this book captured my mood. We all have our personal reasons for being touched by what we see, or smell, or hear, and it is affirmative when somebody else expresses such joy at them - you are not alone!

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Finished, and thoughts on the flycatcher

A few posts ago there was a sneak preview of my latest daubing, and today it was completed. I could have carried on adding layers, tweaking leaves and embellishing the owl, but there came a point where enough was enough. My next piece is a long-promised picture for my sister-in-law. She might just get it by 2017...

Meanwhile, down at Dungeness, the dust has settled. The Acadian (for that is almost certainly what it was) Flycatcher remained until dusk on its day of discovery, but decided to move on (or succumb to the efforts of its journey) and has not been seen since. BBC film crews have been down to obtain footage for the regional news, newspapers have run sidebar stories about the 'first for Britain' and Martin Casemore has no doubt been bemused by his current celebrity status. It couldn't have happened to a more dedicated and unassuming bloke - I just hope that some of his magic dust comes my way when I'm down there later in the autumn.

Part of the romantic in me likes to think that somewhere, maybe in a parallel universe, such birds and the gatherings that they attract are maintained as a permanent visual record. If there were such a thing then we could see the 1975 Crested Lark striding around the Britannia Pub car park being twitched by long-haired, denim clad birders with draw-pull brass telescopes; the 1916 Cream-coloured Courser is still coursing over the shingle towards the Oppen Pits with its sole observer (HG Alexander) in attendance; and the sea-watch hide is full of an excitable, if motley collection of Kent's finest, as they marvel at the 2001 Black-browed Albatross. Such birds leave behind traces, as do those who were fortunate enough to see them, particularly the finders. Well, I'd like to think so, anyway.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Empidonax!! When you know that you're cured...

Only a couple of posts ago I laid bare my Dungeness bird list on the back of my reconnection with the shingle peninsula. Although there have been 'Dungeness ticks' that I could have gone for in recent months, they have either not been terribly rare or highly mobile. So there really hasn't been the need or the opportunity to do so. Listing can be a corrosive infliction. If taken too seriously you can become irrational, tetchy and ultimately unfulfilled. It's all OK when the listing behaves itself, and you connect with all the possible targets, in that case life is brilliant. But when you dip, things can go dark. I wondered how I would react when a real stonker turned up at Dungeness. Well, at 10.00hrs this morning I found out...

"Dungeness mega. Empidonax Flycatcher at the fishing boats now. Showing well"

That little gem of information appeared on Twitter via Martin Casemore. I took it all in with more than a little wonder and a feeling of pleasure for the hardworking Martin, who spends more time in the field than most livestock do. There was also a feeling of detachment from it all. I had no thought of going to try and see it, even though the car was waiting in the driveway and I have no commitments for the rest of the day. Why not?

Had I been staying at the observatory this morning I would have dashed over to the boats pronto, not only to see the bird but to take on the role of a bystander in the unfolding drama (it is the third Empidonax flycatcher to be recorded in Britain and a first for Kent). It is without doubt one of the all-time great Dungeness birds, most probably never to be repeated, and the tales of its discovery will be told down the years. It will become legendary. I would have observed all of the locals arrive, panicky with fumbling optics, and watched them calm down as they got onto the bird. But then I would have retired, once the hordes from 'elsewhere' started to descend on the place. And there lies one of the reasons that I am not going down - the crowds that would be waiting to greet me. That scenario does not have a place in 'my' Dungeness of 2015. It would have the feeling of gate crashing a party. There are many birder's at this very moment sweating in their places of employment, clock-watching, working out how they can bunk-off early and head to Dungeness. I do not envy them those feelings as I've been there before. In the 'old-days' my overriding reasons for twitching the bird would have been so that I didn't miss out, be gripped off and somehow be a lesser birder. But, as I sit here typing this, I do not feel an ounce of any of that. And for that I feel really happy. My peace for staying put and doing so out of choice, is total. Twitter is now throwing up 'back-of-the-camera' shots of the bird (nice) and also pictures of the ever increasing throng of birders, many of the faces people that I know. I'm really happy for them. But I won't be joining them.

My time in the field has become one in which I am connecting more with the places themselves - the geography, the geology, the weather conditions and the assemblage of species before me. It has all become a far more personal and, dare I say, spiritual experience. It is of the moment, not twitched, not pre-ordained, these moments just happen. Rarity is always a great bonus (I was more than thrilled when I stumbled across the Long-tailed Blue earlier this month). I am going back down to Dungeness for an extended stay next month. It is undoubtably a good time for rare birds, BUT - the overriding reason for my choosing that particular time of year is the hope for visual spectacle in the form of falls and visible migration, moments in time that will be of a personal nature and cherished. But if the numbers are missing, those intimate moments can still evolve - a Goldcrest foraging in a lone broom bush out on an empty beach; a Redwing falling out of a clear sky and pitching down in front of you; a late Swallow arrowing out to sea in search of an African savannah - all redolent of the need to survive, of witnessing big moments in a single species life. I recently blogged about spectacle over rarity. Last autumn, the Dungeness boys and girls witnessed a day of Ring Ouzel migration that numbered in the hundreds. I hankered after that, I wished that I had been there to witness it - and I'm not feeling that with this Empidonax flycatcher.

Most of those who are there today, witnessing this very rare American flycatcher, would not understand where I'm coming from. I'm not suggesting that they should. Of course, for the finder, coming across such a rare migrant by the vegetation-less fishing boats, will be something that he will never forget. But for me, the events of today, and my reaction to them, are comforting indeed.