Saturday, 20 December 2014

December 21st

The Winter Solstice is upon us. In my simple mind, from now on in, it is but a short, downhill ride to Swifts, Wheatears, chalk downlands full of butterflies and Australians beating us at cricket. I've only just become aware of the fact that the additional daylight that we can now expect does not come to us by courtesy of the mornings lightening a little bit earlier and the evenings darkening a little bit later in equal measure. Confusingly, the mornings will still get darker until early January. And just to mess with our heads further, the earliest sunset has been and gone two weeks ago! But the net result is the same - longer daylight, and this will be triggering all sorts of responses in our wildlife. The pagan in me stirs... I feel as if we all ought to be marking this event as our ancestors clearly did. It was a marker for them, a reminder to plan ahead for crop sowing, to monitor winter food stores and to give thanks for surviving the cold so far and to hope that they would continue to do so. Our modern day version is to check the bank account, look in the fridge and turn up the thermostat. It might be a whole lot easier, but it lacks a bit of spirituality, doesn't it.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Book token to spend? Look no further...

I've 'bigged up' quite a few of these books before, but they are all worthy of your consideration, especially if you are going to have a book token or two to spend after Christmas...

The Old Boys
Regular visitors to this blog will know that HG Alexander's Seventy Years of Birdwatching has the accolade of being the most influential book in my life. I read it in 1974 and I have most probably read it 20 - no, 30 times since. He helped me form my birding template, simple as that. When I take the book off of the shelf I handle it as if it were a precious relic. I did not read F Fraser Darling's Island Years until very recently. I was given a copy by a grand lady who was in her 90s and thought that it would speak to me. It did. They are the memoirs of a man, his wife and young son as they try and forge a life on an uninhabited Scottish west coast island in the pursuit of seals and birds.

To See Every Bird on Earth by Dan Koeppel is written by a son in search of his Father, who was a very high world lister. The birding journey is just one part of this bitter-sweet read. The Big Year by Mark Obmascik was a revelation to me. I purchased it without any expectation when it was first published and it is a book that I always pick up for a comforting read. A cleverly woven true story of three men's attempts to get the biggest US year list, not only fighting each other along the way but illness, finances and plain luck. The Running Sky by Tim Dee is a beautifully written collection of 12 essays, one for each month from the authors birding experiences. If you have lost your birding mojo, get hold of a copy and be healed.  Horatio Clare's A Single Swallow is many things - part travelogue, part species study, part confessional. You get so much more than the back cover prĂ©cis suggests. I have given Chris Gooddie's book on seeing all of the world's pittas - The Jewel Hunter - the title of not just one of my favourite natural history books, but one of my favourite books on any subject, ever. It really is that good. It brings back many happy memories of my own pitta hunts in Malaysia. Crow Country by Mark Cocker takes you on a corvid odyssey where observations have rarely been so sensitively written.

Other wildlife
Dave Goulson's A Sting in the Tale manages to entertain and inform in equal measure. If you know little about bees you owe it to yourself to get a copy and be amazed as the life of these disappearing insects is expained with obvious passion. The Butterfly Years by Patrick Barkham follows the authors quest to see as many species in the UK in a calendar year. His efforts cost him his girlfriend... Richard Mabey's first appearance is for Weeds, a bigging up of plants which have decided to grow where they're not supposed to. I have a great liking for them myself.

The human condition
Nature Cure (Richard Mabey), Blood Knots (Luke Jennings), Fire Season (Philip Connors) and Waterlog (Roger Deakin) are all superbly written accounts of the authors immersion into the natural world and the mental balm that comes from cosying up with nature. They deal with depression, fishing, fire wardening and swimming in surprising and rewarding ways. Read any one of them and you will change the way you think about our natural world.

In my book (no pun intended), the King of the travelling author-naturalist is Redmond O'Hanlon. His three books, Into the Heart of Borneo, In Trouble Again and Congo Journey, take the reader with him all the way - you will feel the discomfort, fear, sweat and joy of each and every journey. The latter book is a masterpiece.

Odds 'n' sods
The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is simply one of the best books that I have had the pleasure of reading. He travels (mostly by foot) along ancient byways, seeing and experiencing far more than a view and the weather. Spiritual. George Monbiot's Feral will make you think and then think a bit more. Is he right to suggest rewilding our barren uplands? Can we have wolves, bears and lynx wandering the Brecon Beacons? His arguments are persuasive. On the surface, a book about the early palaeontologists might seem a bit dry - but not when it is Deborah Cadbury's excellent The Dinosaur Hunters. Political shenanigans, religious turmoil and obsession like you've never seen before!

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

A note to Father Christmas

Hopefully I've been a good boy over these last 12 months. Could I please ask for the following books to be placed under the tree in the early hours of Christmas Morning...

The Fly Trap by Frederik Sjoberg
Swedish biologist regales us with his memoirs of catching hoverflies on a small island. Finally an English version has been published, this book was recommended to me by Pete Burness.

A Buzz in the Meadow by Dave Goulson
I thoroughly enjoyed his bee book 'A sting in the tale' and this follow-up is an account of his attempts to entice invertebrates into a French garden through selective planting and management. Just up my street.

Claxton by Mark Cocker
A collection of essays written by the birder-author based on his observations in the Suffolk countryside. This man is up there with Roger Deakin and Richard Mabey as far as I'm concerned.

That should see my reading material sorted up until the new year...

Monday, 15 December 2014

Meet the 2015 patch

The 2015 Surrey v Northumberland local patch dust-up took an unexpected twist over the weekend when our projected baseline figures were revised. Mine has been downgraded to 90 and Stewart's to 140. This is very generous of him! My own 'targets' remain the same - Birds 120, Plants 600, Moths 450 and Butterflies 36.

The map to the left shows my study area for the year. It can be broken down into the following 'regions':

EWELL A very modest river (you could just about jump across it) with a collection of small ponds and streams. Two SWT reserves, Howell Hill (excellent for orchids and Small Blue) and Priest Hill (good for fences and lack of access)

BANSTEAD DOWNS Chalk downland with an odd flora - very few orchids but some screaming rarities such as Early Gentian and Broad-leaved Cudweed. Chalkhill and Small Blue colonies. Firecrests winter.

CANONS FARM/BANSTEAD WOODS Fairly self explanatory, impoverished flora but here there is the chance of surprise passage migrant birds. Little Owl, Hobby, Buzzard and Yellowhammer all breed. Purple Emperor, Silver-washed and Dark Green Fritillary all present and correct.

PARK DOWN/CHIPSTEAD BOTTOM Chalk downland with rare flora (Greater Yellow-rattle, Ground Pine and Cut-leaved Germander the stand-outs) plus Chalkhill Blue, Silver-spotted Skipper and Brown Hairstreak.

EPSOM/WALTON DOWNS  A mix of interesting flora (Round-headed Rampion, Bastard Toadflax) and passage migrant birds.

BANSTEAD/WALTON HEATH Areas that I don't know that well to be honest, even though they are close. Some small bits of remnant heathland apparently harbour a few species of interest. Time to find out more...

REIGATE/COLLEY HILL Great views, hundreds of dog walkers but the chance of a bit of viz-mig, plus Man Orchid, Meadow Clary and Silver-spotted Skipper.

NORK, BANSTEAD Where I live, run a moth trap and hope to jam into the odd fly-by surprise.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The wonder in the detail

More natural artwork, this time courtesy of a cheeky moss and lichen combo. If each day were 1,000 hours long and we lived for several hundred years, I might have the time to get into these living wonders. I do not know how some people find the time (and have the brain capacity) to multi-task in their natural history studies. I start to get a headache if I try and go beyond birds, moths and plants...

The above image, on first glance, is pleasing enough - a cushion or two of Grimmia on a lichen encrusted wall. But the harder you look, the more you see - further species are present, and the colour range wide. If we were to zoom in more is revealed...

Admittedly it's not sharp, but there must be a further dozen species here. One wall would most probably keep a lichenologist busy for several days. And to think that we all walk past such organisms each and  every day and we are supposed to be observant advocators of our wildlife!

Saturday, 13 December 2014


These are my favourite Twitter conversations that I (possibly) read during 2014...

BillyBigTicks 13 grey geese over Walland Marsh, possibly White-fronts
PipitShagger1974 10 White-fronts and 3 Bean Geese on Walland Marsh, showing well by Stringer's Corner
BillyBigTicks I thought three of them looked bigger, lol
PipitShagger1974 2 Taiga and 1 Tundra Bean, 6 adult and 4 first-winter White-fronts. My weekends in Norfolk are paying off Who's the daddy?
BillyBigTicks Top birding mate!
Birdguides The 13 Walland Marsh grey geese have been confirmed as Greylags

SidNoMates Robin at Spurn
DesperateBirder82 Where?
SidNoMates By post 45, seaward side of road
DesperateBirder82 Did you get a good view?
SidNoMates Red breast and shit
DesperateBirder82 Are you still there?
SidNoMates No, in Crown and Anchor
DesperateBirder82 On site now but no sign of Robin
KingWankLister I'm on my way from Teeside, please keep looking - need it for my Spurn list
DesperateBirder82 What! Not seen Robin at Spurn, you low lister????
KingWankLister Haven't actually been to Spurn before, so mega keen to nail this one
SidNoMates On second thought, it might have been a Chaffinch...
DesperateBirder82 Chaffinch reported at Spurn by SidNoMates
KingWankLister I'm on my way from Teeside, please keep looking - need it for my Spurn list

KentTopBirder Just been to the RSPB reserve at Dungeness. Car park a bit of a crush.
LimpingLister KentTopBirder reports a car park thrush at Dungeness
Birdguides MEGA! Catharus thrush reported at Dungeness.

TossEr BOOM! This is my 1,000th tweet this month!!
GullIble Well done mate, top tweeting!

To all of those birders who do use Twitter - please keep tweeting! I enjoy the rush of information each day, I can vicariously live your experiences and (secretly) enjoy every BOOM! and rare. Even the inane banter has its charm... It has been rumoured that a band of experienced birders from one of the UK's birding hotspots have mischievously invented a Twitter game called 'Fame', in which they challenge each other to post a series of increasingly brief and banal tweets. I've got news for them - there seem to be thousands of birders already playing it!

Friday, 12 December 2014

Is it as dull where you are?

Very few Bramblings. Hardly any Redpolls or Siskins. No Waxwings and certainly no white-winged gulls. And there are no flocks of Hawfinches in that special valley. To be honest, on a local level  it is all a bit dreary. The thrush flocks are of a medium size, the Chaffinch and Linnet flocks are very ordinary and nothing to get the pulse racing is flying over. I always hope for a garden Goosander (overhead, not on the pond, that is just about the same size as the sawbill) or a trickle of Golden Plover, but even such modest winter expectations are not being met. It could all be a different tale within a few weeks, but at the moment the birding is utterly predictable.