Friday, 19 September 2014

In the beginning

Throughout our birding lives we will forge links with certain places that will become special to us. Some we will call patches, others even sanctuaries. But what of our very first visit to these places - was it love at first site (geddit)? I thought I'd investigate my two longest ornithological love affairs. Number One: Dungeness.

My first impression of Dungeness is not a favourable one.

It appears an open waste of shingle, strewn with ramshackle dwellings and set against the backdrop of a vast nuclear power station that has squeezed perspective to such an extent that it appears two-dimensional, as if it were merely an enormous theatrical backdrop. Peering from the car making its way along the single road towards the peninsula’s point, I’m wondering what on earth I have let myself in for. I am about to join a four-day bird-watching course being held at Dungeness Bird Observatory.

I have a tenuous link to Dungeness from family trips taken to Camber Sands back in the early 1970’s.  From there I had stared at the lines of pylons disappearing eastwards to converge menacingly at some distant point which I knew, from looking at my Father’s road atlas, to be a place called Dungeness. It had a nuclear power station. Even the name sounded disturbing, not unlike ‘dangerous’ or ‘dungeon’. To leave the comparative safety of the dunes at Camber and visit this nuclear theme park would be sheer folly, as I imagined it to be a poisoned shingle desert where all life had mutated.

But being driven there is what is happening to me on this early spring day. The focal point of our passage along to the peninsula’s snout is always the power station, dwarfing the two lighthouses that as recently as 1960 had been the tallest buildings for miles around. My attention then turns towards the shacks, half in wonder as to who could possibly live in them, the other half searching frantically in their small gardens for any movement that will betray the presence of a rare migrant bird – after all, Dungeness is famous for rare migrant birds. In my naivety I somehow expect that there will always be one about. (It will take years of disappointment to finally rid myself of this optimistic outlook.) I pass the new, smartly liveried lighthouse on my left and am soon upon the older, decommissioned version, which looks far more like what a lighthouse should do. It is squatter, fatter and looks as if it has stood firm and seen off many a storm.  I can imagine heavily bearded men in cable sweaters manning the light during times of peril at sea. The new one smacks of not needing people at all – which in some respects it doesn’t. Terribly efficient no doubt but terribly bland all the same.

At the old light the road violently kinks and sends us on our way along the perimeter fence of the Power Station. We virtually cower from the monstrous buildings, not just one vast station but two, with a plethora of outbuildings, pipes, huts and industrial bric-a-brac spilling like innards from their sides. As we approach the cottages, which house the bird observatory, we note that they have seemingly been barricaded from the threat of nuclear fall-out with a high-sided moat. The road breaches this earth mound as if it were a lowered drawbridge. Entering the inner sanctum of the mound, there is, before me, the not unattractive end cottage, 11 Royal Naval Service Signal Station, Dungeness, Kent – otherwise known as Dungeness Bird Observatory. I don’t know it now, but I have just started an infatuation that will stretch obsessively for 15 years and carry on in a more sedate fashion for life.

I get out of the car with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, binoculars at the ready around my neck. My East German Zeiss 10x50’s swing as a heavy pendulum as bedding and food boxes are carried into the observatory. The building is musty. It obviously hasn’t seen any interior decoration for a while, if at all. The carpet is threadbare. The furniture has seen better days. Third-hand cooking utensils that live in a permanent damp fug populate the kitchen. I love it.

The common room door is unceremoniously flung open. In walks the warden of Dungeness Bird Observatory, Nick Riddiford. Five foot six in his socks, sporting long hair and a bushy beard. He’s dressed as if just returned from the High Arctic. When he speaks he betrays his West Country roots. His welcome is in the form of alerting us to the fact that there is a Mediterranean Gull hanging around the area. Christ! A Mediterranean Gull! We have barely even heard of one.

Buoyed by this exciting news I venture out onto the area of shingle due East of the observatory. I’m overflowing with excitement and anticipation as only the young or the naive can. A Skylark is flushed and soon lands. I know it is just a Skylark, but this is Dungeness! Try as I might to turn it into a Thekla Lark or at least a Short-toed it refuses to be anything other than what it actually is. Some compensation comes when a Black Redstart flashes into view by Lloyd’s Cottage. This is a new species for me. Slowly, but surely my trepidation is melting. I'm really going to like this place...

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Toadflax Brocade

This rather attractive caterpillar is Toadflax Brocade. At the moment the Purple Toadflax plants in my garden are yielding quite a few of them. Every time I walk past I cannot help but have a peek. It wasn't that many years ago that this species was but a fantasy moth in this part of the world.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Another helping of Avocet, my dear?

It is no secret that Peregrines have used Quadrant House in Sutton, Surrey as a nest site for a number of years now. They did so again this year and successfully reared young. The team that monitor these birds venture onto the rooftop after the birds have fledged and collect the remains of the food cache, which is highly illuminating. Look at this lot:

You can click on the image to get a better view of the prey items - and you're in for a surprise! Bear in mind that Sutton is on the outskirts of London, so the Avocet, Black-tailed Godwit, Woodcocks and Lapwings are exotic food compared to the Feral Pigeons, Starlings and Ring-necked Parakeets that might be expected. It is likely that the main source of the waders will be Beddington Sewage Farm (some 2 miles away), although Woodcocks are but a very scarce hard weather visitor there - so maybe the falcons head off to the Surrey heaths (roding birds are still a good seven miles away). It also begs the question as to whether the Woodcocks are being picked off at night time. (Peregrines have been known to leave a nest site after dark).

In the photo above there are the remains of a Great Spotted Woodpecker, which may tie in with an observation that Peter Alfrey made a few weeks ago of one being taken by a Peregrine at Beddington. The very same? I wouldn't bet against it.

The images here were taken by Rob Dolton, who, together with Steve Thomas, I thank for providing the information contained in this post.

Three guesses...

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

A Starfruit is born

I've longed after seeing Starfruit for many a year, but the trouble is it is rarer than the proverbial hen's tooth. But I was thrilled to find out that, after a nationwide gap of six years without any records at all, three sites in Surrey have come up trumps this year - one of them a site with no previous record! Now, whether these reappearances are down to habitat management (or surreptitious seed sowing), I do not know. But this morning I hot-footed it to one of the known historical sites and spent a good while in the company of Damasonium alisma, managing to obtain a pleasing set of images to boot.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Food and the birder

I have found that, on the whole, birders are very fond of food. Trenchermen to a man (or woman). Never ones to refuse a proffered bite. Unwilling to forgo an offered cuppa. Greedy so-and-so's, actually. But they are all different in what they do to ensure that the time in the field is not spoilt by rumbling stomach noises and possible nutrition depravation...

I used to be a sandwich and thermos flask birder. Maybe an apple or banana as back up (never an orange, what with sticky juice and zest to gum up optics and making your fingers tacky to the point of being a hazard). One chap that I spent a lot of time with in the early 1980s (the late Mike McDonnell) used to go to town with his lunchtime snack - he owned a giant thermos flask that he used to fill with sausages, pork chops, chicken thighs and other tasty off-cuts of meat. These were joined by quiches and bread rolls. Give him his due, he used to let us 'peanut butter sandwich' boys have some of his superior eats.

There were others who never brought pre-prepared food on a big day out, but relied on a shop (or a pub) to be (a) open and (b) in the area that we were birding in. This could be tricky when in the middle of nowhere or slogging our way along an exposed headland. Many the time has a birding chum abandoned the hunt for the rarity to walk the mile back to the car to then go in search of food.

Coffee was my hot drink of choice, ready made in the thermos (no need to fanny about with adding milk as it was already there!) but I have witnessed others having only hot water in the flask, with a small jar of coffee, a plastic container of milk and a teaspoon being produced from a rucksack. Too much hard work! And I never made tea - it never kept well, always morphed into a tannin-loaded beverage just fit to be lobbed into the nearest bushes.

On a twitch we largely dispensed with the packed lunch (that was more of an 'out for the day casual birding' arrangement). Instead, it was food (can I call it that?) culled from stops at petrol stations and motorway services. The default setting for such times was a Mars Bar, can of Coke and a packet of crisps. If the twitch turned into a cross-country week-ender then not only were our diets morbidly inadequate it would turn the inside of the cramped car into a seething pit of belches and farts. Air fresheners, although sorely needed, were nowhere to be found.

During 1981-82 I went birding a lot with Bob Hibbert. Bob was another in the Mike McDonnell mould, whose packed lunch resembled a cross between a barbecue and a Fortnum and Mason's hamper. He always augmented my feeble sandwich with his copious left-overs and then insisted that, at the end of the day, I have a meal at his home (cooked in readiness by his wife) before he dropped me home. And believe me, the helping were enormous. I would finally get home, full to bursting, hardly able to waddle up the driveway, to be greeted as I opened the front door with the words, "Steve, your dinners in the oven..."

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Championship Red Kite

Yesterday afternoon saw me (as a neutral spectator) at the Reading v Fulham game at the Madejski Stadium - a fine, modern ground where watching the game is a real pleasure, with comfortable seating, clean facilities, clear views of all the pitch and Red Kites! Yes, even though I was wrapped up in the Royals demolition of the 10-man Cottagers, there was still time for birding. Half way through the first 45 minutes a Red Kite appeared above the 18,000 spectators, wheeled around a bit, then carried on (possibly to Swindon Town). This is by far the best species that I have seen during a professional football match.

White Hart Lane still holds the record for number of species of butterfly (2) observed during a match...

Friday, 12 September 2014

The best months to go birding

I was chatting to The Bard of Littlestone recently and he professed a fondness for the month of September to go birding in. In fact, he went as far as to suggest it might indeed be his favourite month for birding. That got me thinking...

Here is my order of birding preference - but if I were to factor in other forms of natural history, then it would read very differently indeed.

Sibe or Yank? Big fall or heavy viz-mig? The choice can be all four if you are very lucky. Embrace the unexpected. Expect to be enthralled. Don't go home early or leave the house late. Now is the time to strike it lucky! Whether you are on Scilly, Fair Isle, Dungeness or Canons Farm, there WILL be action...

Like October but with fewer birders chancing their arm and (at times) with even rarer birds! Murky, still mornings in this month smell of rarity. Think like a lurking Oriental Turtle Dove, imagine that you are a Dusky Warbler and try and predict where the Pallid Swift will be flying. If all else fails count the waves of thrushes, finches and crests as they make landfall.

Most of the migrants are in, and with them will be a rash of rarity. If the weather is fine you're just as well to head inland to see what has arrived. But if you are on the coast don't worry if there appears to only be a Spotted Flycatcher and a Reed Warbler in - the chances are that there will be a Bee-eater on the next bush.

The common fodder of August is now joined by proper birder's birds - Wrynecks, Barred Warblers, decent pipits and tricky buntings. Not for the feint-hearted and more than just a warm-up for October.

A procession of warblers, wagtails and chats head south. Quantity rules quality but diligence is rewarded. The first smell of autumn is in the air, from hirundine flocks to 'hoo-eeting' Willow Warblers, from the flash of a Redstart's tail to the flick of a flycatcher.

More migrants than March but not as much rarity as May. Sea passage will be good enough to waste several days staring out over the waves. As the month wears on the migrants build. When you start seeing Swifts then thoughts can turn to summer.

Spring may be over, but those Mediterranean overshoots are still at it! A month that can provide massive rarity. Plus most of the breeders are in full song, in display and are more observable than the rest of the year. Stand by a reed bed and see what I mean.

The first day of the year is one of the busiest days for birding, with feverish year listing taking place, even if the bird we are all getting excited about is the very same one that we were yawning at yesterday. After a week of year listing we soon get bored with the whole sorry process and start dreaming of summer migrants.

The first flush of hirundines and Wheatears are one of the great ornithological moments of the year - but this soon dies down and is replaced by - February again!

Apart from a few returning waders (failed breeders, the plain ugly), most birds are feeding young, are moulting or have turned mute. Leaves are everywhere, hiding the most colourful of birds from the view of the keenest binocular-toting birder. Hard work, especially in the heat and haze of mid-summer.

The hype and excitement of the new year has buggered off; the spring migrants are still a while away; the darkness and cold are just not funny any more.

The year is coming to an end. We're all fed up with the short days. The New Year (with all of its alluring promise) is just around the corner. The birds seem to pick up on this apathy and don't do much. What was there in November is still hanging about so not much moves around - subsequently 'same old same old'. Conserve your energy and interest for next year...