Monday, 31 January 2011

Two more

Pan-listing fever found me looking at a photograph of a moss (above) that I took on Sunday (at Stourhead in Wiltshire) and deciding, rightly or wrongly, that it must be Brachythecium rutabulana, a type of feather-moss. As with all such groups, whose species number hundreds and can be bewilderingly similar, my declaration of identification is somewhat a leap of faith. I can also reveal that I also had an armchair tick this evening - I was reading about rotifers (go and look it up) and was pleased to find out that there is a common species, Philodina roseola, that lives in water butts and bird baths that has a habit of turning the water in the latter red. This often happens in our bird bath and I have wondered what it is that magically makes the water a living rusty soup. Now I know. Pan-list: 2626 (until someone cleverer than me tells me what the moss really is).

Pan-species listing

Please read Mark Telfer's account of his setting up of the pan-species listing league table, together with a rough set of rules. I am currently languishing towards the bottom of the top ten and unless I get myself sorted out I will find it difficult to progress, as most of those above me are professional biologists! However, the chances of adding to my list are great, as I still have plenty of avenues to mine. If you tot your list up and it is over 2,000, why not drop Mark an email. I have, in the past, refered to this listing as 'all-taxa', but pan-listing is now the prefered name. Go and start counting yours...

Friday, 28 January 2011

My dark crystal ball

I have an increasing worry that very soon, the only places where we can hope to see wildlife (beyond the stinging nettle - blue tit - large white suite of common species) are going to be nature reserves. These will be behind fences, the other side of ditches or out-of-bounds to us all together. As unprotected land is either built upon, ploughed up, left to scrub over or not managed for its special inhabitants, so the area that is left in the UK that is able to support a varied wildlife will contract. This will mean that natural corridors for wildlife to move along to re-colonise abandoned areas or re-invigorate a shrinking gene pool will be closed for good. What 'good' land is left will struggle to maintain healthy populations. It all seems so likely and so depressing.

Most recent atlas's published for our wildlife seems to tell the same story - of contracting range and of threatened populations. Some of this however may be skewed by my living in the south. No doubt if you study moths, butterflies and dragonflies north of the Humber these are exciting times, as our warming land is helping to unleash range expansions into our northern counties like never before. But this brings its own set of problems, with other species having to flee northwards away from temperature change, and probably out of the UK altogether.

Worst case scenario for me is of a land in which you have to queue at a gate to gain access to Britain's last remaining fragment of chalk downland and take your place in a line to watch the last butterflies flitting behind a protective clear plastic biosphere, inside will be white-coated wardens collecting the butterflies eggs as they are laid, to rush them back to an on site laboratory. On the way out you will be able to visit the 'Virtual Birding experience' where helmets are handed out for you to relive the sites and sounds of such extinct UK breeding species such as Turtle Dove and Corn Bunting.

More happiness from me soon...

Monday, 24 January 2011

Moth maps mania

The latest in an increasingly frequent line of 'natural history books that I have obtained' is the snappily titled 'Provisional Atlas of the UK's Larger Moths' brought to you by those really useful people at Butterfly Conservation. It costs £20 (plus postage and packing) and the only bad news is that the special offer that was on last week has now ended. If you have sent in any moth records to your county recorder since 2000 then you can play the 'spot my dot' game, where you work out if one of the dots on any given map of any given species is totally down to you. I reckon that I have two - for Striped Hawk-moth and Blair's Mocha from my back garden. In reality there may be more - after all, even common species might have been missing purely because nobody else thought that they were worth mentioning. The maps are fascinating, revealing the winners and unfortunately losers in moth populations. The maps only reveal distribution and not numbers, but every open circle (for records before 2000 but not recorded since) is a sad sight indeed. I needed only to glance at the distribution map for the V-Moth to understand why I have never seen one...

Thursday, 20 January 2011

When butterflies swarm!

I'm still reading Patrick Barkham's excellent 'The Butterfly Isles' and mention has just been made of butterfly swarming. Apart from his own incredible experience with Heath Fritillary (1300+ at Blean Woods!), he mentions examples from the golden age of the Victorian gentleman lepidopterist, when clouds of butterflies blotted out the sun - really.

I too have been lucky enough to witness such spectacles:

9 August 1978, Beddington SF, Surrey
Thousands of Small and Essex Skippers emerged en masse across the heavily vegetated sludge lagoon banks, creating a golden orange haze at waist height.

24 July 1992, Middleton, West Sussex
As I drove alongside a large field (crop unknown) I was staggered to realise that the white mist hanging over it was in fact tens of thousands of 'white' butterflies. I reckoned that they were all Large and Small Whites and it was simply staggering.

28 July 1997, Bude, Cornwall
A walk along the cliff top heading north revealed thousands of Gatekeepers and Meadow Browns. I have made this same walk many years since but have yet to see such numbers here again.

28 August 1997, Cavenham Heath, Suffolk
1500 Small Tortoiseshell were shoe-horned into an area of gorse and heather no larger than a football pitch.

6 August 2006, Braunton Burrowes, Devon
A simply stunning day. There were butterflies everywhere, great clouds of mixed species being flushed as I wandered the southern section of this area of vegetated sand dunes. The standout count was of a minimum of 4,500 Common Blues, but four figure counts of several other species made the experience unforgettable.

Monday, 17 January 2011

It's almost time...

The Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham is my current read. It is a book that informs, entertains and makes you think about why we take such an interest in the natural world around us. I’m a sucker for any well-written natural history literature and this is definitely one that comes into that category.

It's got me all wistful for butterflies again. I can normally expect to see one by the end of February, usually an individual flushed out of hibernation by a spot of shed tidying or a shaft of warming sunlight. In most years the honour will go to a Red Admiral, a Small Tortoiseshell, a Peacock or a Brimstone. On one mild mid-February day several years ago, I recorded both Small Tortoiseshell and a Brimstone – a double flutterby start to the year!

The book has also made me realise that there are species, within easy travelling distance, that I should go and see before its too late. I haven’t seen Duke of Burgundy, nor Glanville Fritillary, Lulworth Skipper or Heath Fritillary. I really ought to get myself into gear and put that right this coming summer.

Get the book and you wont be disappointed. A word of warning though – you may find yourself adding a few trips to your list this summer.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Like buses

Walking into work this morning (I normally drive) I found not one, but two Waxwing flocks. Both were in Cheam and both were enormous - well, three and two respectively. That'll do for me. My next trick will be an Arctic Redpoll mobbing a Snowy Owl that is distracted by a Gyr Falcon passing overhead. Three good North Downs ticks there!

Monday, 10 January 2011

When birders get injured

Twice this winter I've fallen flat on my backside whilst walking the streets looking for Waxwings. Both times ice was the culprit. No doubt the combination of looking up and not down resulted in my not noticing a virtual ice-rink that was set before me.

My record at falling over when birding stretches back many years, and some of them were spectacular. In Malaysia I completed a full somersault on a treacherous jungle trail at Taman Negara. I lay on the muddy floor winded, optics yards away, convinced I had broken an arm. Fortunately I hadn't (which is just as well, as shortly afterwards a Hooded Pitta appeared). At Dungeness, I fell in a six-foot deep ditch while night-time wader ringing; ran into a metal post at thigh height ripping my jeans (but luckily not my scrotum); got tangled up with a wire hawser that spun me over to land on my neck. My falls at Pagham Harbour generally involved thick, gloopy mud that sucked my boots in and unbalanced me.

Water almost undid me when I swam after a flock of moulting Canada Geese, to try and coral them into being caught for ringing. I almost drowned.

Car travel has its obvious perils, as I found out when birding in Kent, our driver taking a corner too quickly that resulted in a collision outside a pub. Shaken, we waited in the hostelry for the emergency services to arrive, our penance being to have to listen to a ropey folk club singer. On another occasion a Pheasant flew through the windscreen of a car in which I was the front seat passenger, the game bird colliding with my head. The Pheasant died, by the way. And no, we didn't eat it.

When I used to ring I've been mauled by a Sparrowhawk, savaged by gulls and had Swifts scratch me raw with their surprisingly sharp claws. A Grey Heron lunged at my face. A Blackbird crapped directly into my open mouth.

You see, us birders need to be hard. We run the gauntlet with this hobby of ours. Next time somebody suggests that it is a past time for the sensitive, tell them to think again!

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Come in Bombycilla garrulus, your time is up...

I've whined on about how, since my initial November burst of Waxwings, the little sods have eluded me. It got to the stage where my wife and daughters asked me, every time I came into the house, whether or not I'd seen a Waxwing. And each time they looked upon my crestfallen face, with my head shaking in shame and defeat, they felt a little of the hurt themselves.

This morning a family outing beckoned - walking boots, anoraks, dog and lead, etc - and as we got in the car my wife asked me if there were any Waxwings nearby. With my bottom lip trembling, I told her that the Frenches Road flock (in Redhill) were still on offer. I had dipped on them in December. "Right!" she declared, "Let's go before our walk!" Result!!

This time, on arrival, 35 of the little gems were trilling away without the need for any searching. They trilled, they preened, they flew back and forth between the tall trees on one side of the road and a fully laden apple tree in a back garden on the other. Then a further flock of 10 flew through the gardens. The owner of a nearby house invited us in to take a closer look. Apart from the fact that I didn't have my DSLR with me, and could only use a digital compact camera (against the sun) it was perfect. Even the non-birders of the family were suitably impressed.

Please forgive the standard of photography. You will see better on practically every blog post on the web. But tough - these are my reminders of a wonderful fifteen minutes.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Politically incorrect

This is Auricularia auricula-jadae. Its English name was once Jew's Ear, but the 'PC Police' paid it a visit and declared that in these more enlightened times it ought to be refered to as Jelly Ear. I can vouch from checking a number of peoples ears (from differing religions) that this fungus does not resemble the average Jewish persons ear. In fact, the closest that I can find to a match is that of a rugby-playing catholic. I took this picture this morning at Beddington Sewage Farm whilst on a grand sweep of the area with Tank/Smiler/Steve (everyone at Beddington now has at least three names). We also recorded a minimum of 14 Green Sandpipers (which included a flock of 7) and 5 Water Pipits. Even after the coldest December since the Earth's crust cooled, there is so much fresh Hemlock growth emerging that it beggars belief.

Friday, 7 January 2011

When the text alarm goes off...

Picture it. Your sitting at home, or in an office, or your walking around the shops, it doesn't matter which one, but the one thing that you are not doing is bird watching. Your mobile phone is close by, within earshot and arms reach. It then signals the arrival of a text message. How do you react?

Increasingly I'm caught between excitement and dread when it happens. A quick look at the phone's screen tells me who has sent it. If it is a birding contact (which it often is) then panic sets in. I start to ask the dreaded question "What have I missed?" I fumble to access the text message. Those short seconds can be filled with a swirling mixture of emotions. I open it. I might breathe a sigh of relief at it only being a report of a flock of Waxwings outside a residential house in Sutton. I might curse at an alert of a Snow Bunting on the mound at Beddington SF. A good patch tick! I will then panic and work out how feasible it will be to leave wherever I am and get on site. Is there enough daylight left? Can I get away with it? Oh, to have such dilemmas! Perversely, if it doesn't involve news of a good bird I might feel disappointed. We all like news and being kept in the loop after all, don't we? And we all like to think that something is going on out there even if we can't be involved. Vicarious birding indeed.

I could, of course, just switch the phone off...

Thursday, 6 January 2011

All-taxa list update

2624

Flora: 1360
Moths: 675
Butterflies: 50
Birds: 370
Dragonflies: 33
Fungi: 23
Mammals: 32
Marine: 5
Other insects: 39
Amphibians: 5
Reptiles: 4
Fish: 17
Snails: 4
Mosses, lichens, liverworts: 6
Grasshoppers and Crickets: 1

Plenty of room for additions. Just a question of putting in the time to get up to 3000...

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Failing

It all started so well. The Waxwing invasion into the south-east began in late November, and I thought I was a top dog when I had one of the earliest in Surrey, a single flying over Sutton. A few days later I strolled up to Epsom Downs to watch a flock that were being faithful to a rowan tree. So far, so good.

Then the flood gates opened. There were local Waxwings everywhere - Sutton, Cheam, Belmont, Banstead, Ewell, Wallington, Burgh Heath, Redhill - these places all held flocks. So, never one to pass over a good local bird (or, in these cases, birds) I went off in search of the trilling jewels. My success rate then plumetted...

Belmont: dipped four times on a flock of 40

Cheam: dipped once on a flock of 60

Beddington SF: missed two flyovers by ten minutes having stood in the very same spot for the previous two hours.

Banstead: missed fair sized flocks in two locations

Redhill: spent two hours waiting for a mobile flock, leaving at 14.20 hrs. They turned up at 14.21

Together with these misses I must mention that I have walked the local streets for hours on end searching for a flock of my own. This has resulted in zilch, nothing, naff all. Other birders seem to find them when they are taking the rubbish out, taking their dog for a walk or just going shopping, let alone whilst out birding. I think I'm trying too hard. When I stop looking they'll come and find me.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Committing patch adultery

I can't help it. I take on a patch, get keen, visit on a regular basis, get to know it well and then, after a certain amount of time, find another area that tickles my fancy. I don't totally give up on a patch, I just adopt another and add it to my suite of places to visit. But, I find myself feeling guilty about doing so, as if I'm being unfaithful to my other sites.

I've posted about my return to Beddington SF before. It was my original patch. I have campaign medals for for active service at this sewage farm between 1974 - 1986; 1993-1994 and am currently on a mission there right now. Today I went to Canons Farm and felt ashamed. I really felt as if I ought to apologise to the farm for having neglected it and admit to two-timing with that great bully of a patch up the road. I feel the same when I go back to Holmethorpe. I feel that I ought to beg forgiveness from Gordon and Graham and beat myself with birch twigs for being so unoriginal as taking my binoculars and telescope back to Surrey's premier site.

Enough of this angst. Canons Farm accepted my apology and gave me a lifer, a fungus called Exidia plana (pictured above). It looks like a flattened black brain and similar to another species called Witches Butter. Fungi have the coolest names - if they let kids at school know that they could go out into the woods and see Dead-man's Fingers, Stinkhorns and Witches Butter then we might have a few more naturalists coming through the ranks.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Keep calm and carry on

The first day of the year also saw my first day of undertaking the Beddington Sewage Farm botanical survey. It sounds rather grander than it really is - it's just me wandering all over the farm for the next twelve months making a list of the species present and commenting on their status and where they can be found. There is going to be one drawback however, and that is that when I am looking down at plants I cannot also be looking up at birds. Because of this, as I was photographing the Annual Mercury (pictured above) a skein of 25 White-fronted Geese flew over my head. A text alert had me frantically scanning the skies, but to no avail. It is just as well that with my new-found zen-like state of being I was able to accept this with calm and grace ...bollocks!!

My birding highlights included a Little Egret, 2 Egyptian Geese, a Redshank, 3 Green Sandpiper, a Water Rail and 3 Water Pipits. But no geese, no Goosander (a drake flew over) and no Firecrest (not seen today after two being present yesterday).