Friday, 5 February 2016

Down the pan?

My pan species listing total has stalled somewhat over recent months. It currently stands on 3393 with the last addition being the migrant micro moth Syncopacma polychromella. And that was back in December. My embracing of the pan species concept hasn't loosened, but I have come to an acceptance that I am not one of those naturalists who has the inclination to name everything that they come across. I thought that I did, but I don't.

In the past couple of years I seem to have wandered back into birding as my first port of call when it comes to spending time out in the field. Lengthy stays at Dungeness Bird Observatory have undoubtably fostered this, along with the sharing of quality time with the great and the good folks who haunt the shingle. This has lead to less time being spent birding locally (which was becoming trying anyway) and a rediscovery of going that bit further afield. My recent visits to Pulborough Brooks have been not only enjoyable, but have made me realise that I cannot get my ornithological kicks closer to home. I've tried it and I (or it) has failed.

But my local area is not all about birds (just as well really). I am fortunate to have an incredible assemblage of plants, butterflies and moths on my doorstep - quite literally, as it happens. These three disciplines have been constant companions over recent years, and there is much to learn still. And this is where my pan species listing effort has fallen away.

When I first 'got into' it, I went out into the field and tried to identify it all - mosses, beetles, lichen, flies, fungi - you name it and I tried to put a name to it. But the harder I looked the harder it became. There is no short cut to correctly identifying a lot of this stuff. To do it right takes an awful lot of effort, not to mention the collecting of an awful lot of reference material (printed, online and specimens). Ironically, even though I now have more time to spend on this, I do not have the inclination to do so.

BUT.... just because I will not, as a course of action, attempt to name everything that I come across (or comes across me), I am still inquisitive enough to be curious as to the name of certain organisms that take my fancy. It might be an ornate fungus. A striking hoverfly. Or even a large and colourful beetle, like that pictured above. It is Carabus problematicus, that I found under fallen timber on Reigate Heath a few summers ago. I didn't mind trying to identify it, as there was only one confusable species, and even I could manage that.

I may well be saying "goodbye" to rising up the pan species league table (and have got used to saying "hello" to sliding down it), but that's all fine by me. Maybe this is the gentleman's way of joining in. I can sit back and applaud the players from the side-lines.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Scilly the first time

Continuing with my reminiscences regarding the first time that I visited iconic birding sites, say hello to... the Isles of Scilly! Dateline Friday 13th - Monday 16th October 1978.

"There's a Semi-palmated Plover on St. Agnes."

"Don't you mean a Semi-palmated Sandpiper?"

"No, plover, first for Europe. It's American."

The species that Tim Boultwood had just mentioned I had never heard of. I didn't even own an American field guide.

"I'm going down this weekend. Leave Friday night and drive back on Monday. Interested?"

As a burgeoning twitcher, the fabled Isles of Scilly had yet to appear on my birding CV. That was something that I was desperate to rectify.

Tim picked me up from outside West Croydon station Friday mid-evening. There were two other passengers - Nick Gardner and Steve Robinson. We settled down for a leisurely drive to Cornwall, taking in service stations, much birding banter, and all mixed with not a small amount  of apprehension - would the bird still be there? I also got my hands on an American field guide and came face to face with an illustration of our quarry. Was that it? Looked just like a Ringed Plover! My disappointment was tempered with the thought of possibly seeing my second 'first' for the UK that year, following on from the Stodmarsh Pallid Swift back in May.

We arrived at the Hayle Estuary for a dawn vigil. We did have a reason for being here and that was the presence of a Sociable Plover. Now, this WAS a stunning wader - at least, the illustration in the book looked stunning, but the bird itself was nowhere to be seen. Never mind, we had a boat to catch, so trundled off to Penzance to board the Scillonian 3, our transportation to the promised lands. We spent all our time on the deck, convinced that rare seabirds would come our way, but had to make do with 200+ Gannet, 20+ Shag, 10+ Great Skua and 25+ Razorbill (my notebook from the time is full of + counts). As for that rare seabird? Just wait for the postscript to this particular tale...

After two and a half hours we docked at Hugh Town, St. Mary's. I was terrible excited. A middle-aged birder was lounging about on the dock, laid back and nonchalant, apparently one of the names. He exuded coolness. As we disembarked he relayed the news that he knew that we'd want to hear, that the plover was still present. In a whirl of activity, we boarded a small motorised ferry to St Agnes, and jogged from the small quay to Periglis beach, where, running along the tideline was our target. A desperately underwhelming Semi-palmated Plover. As birders did in the 1970s, we lay down on the ground, drew out our draw-tubed telescopes, balanced the far end on our crossed over leg, and focused the dim image into something approaching 'OK'.  It looked like a Ringed Plover. We heard it call. It called NOTHING like a Ringed Plover, more like a Spotted Redshank. I could pretend that the fact that it was smaller, exhibited palmations and exhibited white-barring on the coverts all hit home with me (they are all noted down in my notebook), but I would be lying. Apart from its rarity, it did nothing for me. After a short while (none of us wanted to grill it for very long), we wandered off towards the vegetation around the buildings. This was better! A Red-breasted Flycatcher was sharing a weedy strip with a Spotted Flycatcher. Nearby, in the legendary Parsonage, an Icterine Warbler was on display along with two Firecrests. No time to dwell though, as we moved onto the dump, where a promised Red-backed Shrike duly performed. Our time spent watching it was cut short as a birder's shout from a nearby field had us scurrying along to share in his good fortune of a Little Bunting, creeping through the low growth. All this in half-an-hour. Our return to St. Mary's was one buoyed by our successes, where we quickly visited Porth Hellick pool to pay our respects to the 'resident' Long-billed Dowitcher.

Back in 1978, birders still slept rough on the islands (and were tolerated doing so). All four of us found a quay-side toilet/changing room and laid out our sleeping bags on wooden benches or the hard floor. I hardly slept all night, due to a mixture of exhilaration and sheer discomfort.

The following morning, after a quiet wander on Penninis Head, we took a ferry to Tresco, home to another underwhelming American vagrant, this one even more underwhelming (if that was possible) than the plover - a Black Duck. We saw it on the open sea as we approached the island and later on the Abbey Pond. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a Mallard. But, to my greedy tickers blinkers, that didn't really matter, as it was a lifer! Another tick come along shortly afterwards, as an Ortolan Bunting had been found nearby and played ball to the assembled crowd. The rest of the afternoon was spent back on St. Mary's, walking along the clifftops between Hughtown and the golf course. The weather was glorious. The islands were showing off their full beauty. It was a good place to be. Before we retired to our makeshift hotel for another nights broken sleep, news broke of a Red-tailed Shrike at Winspit in Dorset (as we then referred to Isabelline). That night, as we lay in our sleeping bags amid the dripping of taps, the realisation hit us that there wouldn't be enough daylight for us to attempt looking for the shrike on the way back home. -our boat docked at Penzance too late in the day to guarantee any birding time in Dorset. However, if we got on board an early helicopter, we would have time to burn. We decided to get up early and be waiting at the airport gates to ensure we got off the island - we already knew that there would be others attempting to do so as well.

To cut a long story short, we were first at the airport. We got the last four tickets on the first flight out. We had time to stop at the Hayle Estuary and successfully see the magnificent Sociable Plover. We arrived at Winspit with hours to spare. Hours in which we wandered around a virtually birdless valley. The shrike had gone...

Do you remember my earlier reference to rare seabirds from the Scillonian? As we were walking back along the valley footpath towards the car, we were met by a carload of birders who had driven like the wind from Penzance, on the off-chance that there would be enough daylight left for them to see the shrike. The light was just starting to go, and they could tell form our forlorn faces that the shrike was nowhere to be seen. But they were all positively beaming!

"You boys really thought you were the cat's pyjama's when you got on that chopper" one of them said, "but I tell you what, I'm really glad that you did and we didn't. On the crossing someone picked out a Black-browed Albatross sitting on the sea. Everyone on board got to see it!" And they had. Go  and look in the BB rarities report for 1978. October 16th. Black-browed Albatross between Land's End and the Isles of Scilly. You couldn't make it up.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Murmurating godwits

For the third time in a little over a fortnight I found myself at Pulborough Brooks*, unable to stay away from another helping of Black-tailed Godwits. Numbers today were a little down on last week, but there were still 800+ present, and they put on a spectacular show. There seems to be three default settings for the Pulborough godwits:

1) Roost. Do little, look bland.

2) Feed. All at the same time, eager and animated, much calling.

3) Fly! Turn from grey/buff humdrum into zebra-striped humbugs with a flick of the wing and a turn of the body, in glorious synchronicity.

Today saw quite a lot of aerial activity, as a particularly stubborn Peregrine was hassling birds over the flood throughout the day. I didn't see it, but there is now one less godwit on site tonight, but also one satiated falcon! When spooked, the flock, (which had been feeding or roosting in close proximity), would split into three or four sections, wheel around for several minutes, and then join up again, at other times break up and scatter into the distance, moving as far as the edge of Pulborough village or even leave the north flood altogether. There came a point when the flocks appeared to, just for the sheer joy of it, engage in extravagant manoeuvres - aerial ballet. A comparison with the murmuration of Starlings is not that far-fetched. When they felt safe, or got fed up, they would finally settle.

Also seen were: Canada Goose (350), Shelduck (24), Pintail (250), Wigeon (2,300), Teal (1,100), Shoveler (400), Lapwing (2,350), Ruff (8), Red Kite (3), Common Buzzard (6), Water Rail (2), Marsh Tit (1).

*There is no truth in the rumour that I have forsaken a certain shingle peninsula in Kent for this Sussex floodplain. Normal service will be resumed in the not too distant future...

Monday, 1 February 2016

The 2016 ND&B collection

I've been fiddling around with the blog header recently, and have settled on replacing them each month. So far has seen Goldfinch (January) and Kingfisher (February), but I thought that you might like to see what is coming up, in monthly order. The subjects are chosen to reflect the time of year.

Can anyone out there identify the species depicted in all twelve headers? First prize is the admiration of all the cyber wildlife community...

Winter bees

Yesterday afternoon saw Katrina and I playing the part of a stereotypical middle-aged couple, National Trust membership cards in hand and ambling around the walled gardens of Polesden Lacey. The construction of the grounds date from the beginning of the 20th century, and are a mixture of formal garden, wild planting and vegetable plots. Whatever time of year that we visit there is always colour, even on this particular grey January afternoon. Admittedly there are sleeping earth beds and bare trees that are the expected fare, but there is also a 'winter' garden, constructed in the mid 1960s which was an oasis of flower. Hellebores, snowdrops, winter aconites, crocuses, viburnum, Christmas box (sarcococca) - they really cheered the soul. But what really stirred my blood were the bees. At least 15 of them were busily visiting the hellebores (plus the odd snowdrop) in defiance of the January gloom. It was mild, but even so they were like a message from the coming seasons - "We'll soon be here!" They were all Western Honey Bees (Apis mellifera). I did see one bumblebee in the distance and a single hoverfly, both of which escaped specific identification. That didn't matter. It was their presence that was reward enough.

Saturday, 30 January 2016


When I was recently asked why I go birdwatching, my response was lengthier than I had expected. I gave a few reasons why I did, and then I added some more...

The hunt
Our 'hunter-gatherer' instincts are still buried deep within us. It will take more than a few thousand years to completely lose them, so it can come as no surprise that modern man invents situations and scenarios in which to still exercise them. Birding scratches this 'memory itch' very well indeed. Every foray into the field is a hunt, a test of our ability to track down what is there.

The knowledge
The ability to seek out and retain information is practiced every time we lift our binoculars. What is that species? What age and sex is it? Where best to go and look next? And what time of day is it best to do so? That we hone this ability into an immediate diagnosis in our minds - reflex reactions -  is the reward to be gained from putting in the time in the field and the hours spent poring over guides.

The rarity
Go on, admit it. It might not be the 'be-all and end-all' of why we do it, but when rarity comes along (and that rarity might be subjective), we feel rewarded, blessed and happy.

The spectacle
A murmuration of Starlings, in their tens of thousands, wheeling and wrapping into ever more confusing and gyrating smoky shapes; low-flying hirundines, sweeping inches above the ground on frantic migration, arrowing, scything, feathered bullets of urgency; geese and waders coming into roost, jostling for position, restless for sleep, hungry for company. Go out and seek, and you shall find such things. Scenarios that are played out each and every day. And they are all free.

The unexpected
When you least expect it, the unexpected happens. It might be born of rarity but it could just as easily be the everyday that is seen from a different perspective.

The landscape
Unlike botanising, (when we walk head-down and with eyes just a few inches in front of our feet), birding invites us to look long - it demands it! So we take in all that is around us. The more open the panorama, the further we look. We see the estuary, we observe the seascape, we take in the sweep of downland, we lose ourselves in the canopy of woods. We become at one with the landscape, are consumed into it.

The weather
Our time in the field is entwined with the weather. It dictates not only what we do and where we go, but also what species will be present and how many of them there will be. But on a more basic level is our own experience of, and our reaction to, the conditions. Be it wrapped in waterproofs; liberated in t-shirt and shorts; protected from the cold by hat and gloves - our birding time is coloured by these conditions. We don't just physically feel the weather, we are visually stimulated by it as well. To be out in a wild and open vista and see an approaching storm is as invigorating as the birding itself.

The joy
Put all of the above together and you have got wonder. You have seen life-affirming sights. You will have found joy.

So ask me again. Why do I go birding?

Monday, 25 January 2016

Back again to Pulborough

I had so much fun at Pulborough Brooks last week that I went back and did it all over again...

This time, armed with a bit of local knowledge (thanks Mr. Winder!), I started off at Hale's View about an hour after first light. Two birders were already in position, standing at a gate and looking out across at a most stirring sight indeed - thousands of Lapwings. They were quite restless and skittish, with much calling and taking to the air in broken flocks. An immature Marsh Harrier then decided to fly through the airspace, sending at least 2,500 Lapwings into a heaving panic. In amongst them were four Ruff. Apart from the waders the air was also full of duck, as they too decided that large raptors were not to be tolerated overhead. Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler and Pintail burst above like some wildfowl-themed firework. It was some spectacle. The birder standing alongside me casually mentioned that he had the wintering Great Grey Shrike in his scope. Did I want to take a look? Yes please. Distant, but acceptable!

I did a sweep of all the reserve hides and viewpoints, once in the morning and again in the afternoon, finishing up where I had begun, at Hale's View. The Black-tailed Godwits stole the show once again. They were all peacefully roosting on the close islands just off from Jupp's View, so allowed relatively easy counting. I reached 1,110 before running out of birds to count. There would have been more tucked down and out of view on the far side of the island, but I could only count what I actually saw, as tempting as it was to 'bung on' an estimate.

Selected day totals were: Canada Goose (680), Shelduck (25), Wigeon (3,100), Teal (1,000), Shoveler (250), Pintail (150), Lapwing (4,000), Black-tailed Godwit (1,110), Ruff (6), Red Kite (2), Marsh Harrier (1 imm), Common Buzzard (5), Great Grey Shrike (1).

In the middle of the day I went off-site briefly to take a look at eight adult Bewick's Swans that had joined a few Mutes on flooded meadows close to Amberley Castle (above). This really is a splendid area.