Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Top 5 intros

Yes, another one of those North Downs and beyond posts that goes off-piste. This time I give you my favourite song intros, apropos of nothing other than celebrating the great music that is out there. At the moment, these are my top five:

5) Powderfinger - Neil Young
One lazy chord strum and then, unaccompanied, the great man himself - "LOOK OUT, MAMA, THERE'S A WHITE BOAT COMIN' UP THE RIVER!" - cue Crazy Horse. Enough said.

4) Heroes - David Bowie
A beautiful swagger of synth and guitar, forged by the hands of Carlos Alomor and Robert Fripp, promising the grandeur about to be let go by the Thin White Duke himself - "I, I will be King" Goosebumps kick in.

3) Pyjamarama - Roxy Music
A stuttering chord forged from guitar and Eno synth, repeated four times with dramatic pauses, a simple drum roll, repeat said chords and then enter a dreamy Bryan Ferry who "Couldn't sleep a wink last night", See, some good did come out of the early 1970s!

2) Public Image Ltd - Public Image
A grumbling Jah Wobble bass line, urgent drum tattoo, Mr Lydon's sardonic ''Allo, 'allo" followed by a demonic chortle and then over to Keith Levene's violent jangling guitar. Should be number one, but...

1) I Feel Fine - The Beatles
Way ahead of its time. It's 1964 and tracks just don't start with a feedback guitar that meanders its way to a jaunty 10 note guitar riff before John Lennon leaps in with "Baby's good to me you know..." I associate this with my Father, who played the single incessantly - I would have been five at the time, but even then was bewitched by the musical trickery used to produce it. Timeless and personal.

(Another Girl, Another Planet by The Only Ones missed the Top 5 by a whisker. On another day it might have made it...)

Monday, 28 April 2014

The art of taking notes

I've been keeping notes since 1974. A field notebook as a starting point, then the days counts, highlights and descriptions being transferred into a 'posh' hard-backed volume. Or computerised. I've switched between using the computer (soulless) to paper (organic) a few times, but ease and laziness has dictated that, for the moment, the keyboard and screen wins.

My enthusiasm of youth spawned rambling narrative over several pages. My impatient middle-age can turn a day into a list of names and numbers. Most unsatisfactory. I've even considered giving up taking notes - but this knee-jerk reaction has been kept at bay so far. After all, I don't want to lose my 40 years of consecutive record, even if, when I die, it is all consigned to a skip.

But I am still questioning what I write (or type) and why I do it. The internet has made the sending in of information much easier. I no longer refer to my notes at the end of a given year to collate the records to send to a recorder. That is done via the immediacy of various websites and forums. So, what do I want to get out of note taking - of writing? Increasingly I am finding the need to be creative with the accumulated experience.

Nature writing at its best is inspiring. At its worst it is cringeworthy. Can I assemble experience, thought and imagination to turn a day in the field into something far more rewarding than a list? And who would that be written for?

I have always produced written accounts of holidays and longer field trips that are as much narrative as they are an account of what has been seen. I have enjoyed doing so. Now I would like to bring this approach to my 'bread and butter' time in the field. It's not just about what I see, but about my state of mind. It's about sharing thoughts, even if those thoughts will only be shared by a future family member who might stumble across such writing in years to come (if it isn't all lost in the skip), or a handful of people looking at a blog. That doesn't really matter, as the act of creating something from such material is as much of a pleasure as being out in the field itself. It's also an act of thanks, a way of celebrating what's been put before me.

I cannot fail but to be inspired by the writings of Roger Deakin, Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane; the landscape art of Eric Ravelious, Paul Nash and David Hockney. To try and emulate these people would be pointless, but that isn't why you would set out to create something from a dry set of numbers gleaned from a landscape that you have scanned with binoculars.

This is still work in progress. I have a few ideas and, for the time being, the notebook and pen still comes out with me. But for how long?

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Birds seen in the hand

I was clearing out a drawer at home this afternoon and came across another one of my lists - that of species of bird seen in the hand. Most of these came about through my time as a bird ringer (1976 - 1983) but also as a hanger-on at bird observatories where injured or sick birds are regularly deposited, sometimes some rather surprising ones. My total currently stands at 125 - not too shabby, but a season on Fair Isle would most probably take it close to 200!

Looking through the list can conjure up some vivid memories: Little Grebe (rescued from a sludge lagoon at Beddington); a waterlogged Grey Heron in a dyke; both Gannet and Shag at Dungeness Bird Observatory that had become caught in fishing line; a female Common Scoter that had become caught in weed along a coastal dyke; a Hobby that had been picked up by a roadside but flew away high on release; a surprise mist-netted Grey Partridge; waders from various sites (Dungeness and The Wash) including Grey Plover, Sanderling, Curlew Sandpiper, Woodcock and Bar-tailed Godwit; a nestling Mediterranean Gull, ringed at the same time as Sandwich and Common Tern chicks; a Little Auk at Spurn that flew in with a flock of Starlings and crash landed in a field; Long-eared and Short-eared Owls; Bearded Tits from a reed bed and an immaculate Hawfinch one early April morning at Portland Bill.

There were of course scarce birds - Wrynecks, Tawny Pipit (all three of a flock at Dungeness in 1981), Bluethroat (at Beddington in October 1976), several Icterine and Melodious Warblers, Dartford Warbler, Barred Warbler, Pallas's Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Hume's Warbler (Spurn 1985), Short-toed Treecreeper (Dungeness 1984), Ortolan Bunting and Rustic Bunting.

I always felt it a privilege to be able to handle birds and be able to observe them at such close quarters. They are smaller than you think and lighter. And they surprise you - the first Sparrowhawk I handled was a handful of feathers and not as muscled as I had expected. Swifts had razor-sharp claws and were far worse to handle than you would ever think. If a large gull got hold of you it could make you cry in pain. I watched a ringer turn white and almost faint because of a Lesser Black-backed Gulls attentions.

What haven't I seen that I might have expected to? I've not been to a seabird colony, and apart from Guillemot and Razorbill all others would be new. Canada Goose. Most ducks. Stock Dove. Turtle Dove. Cetti's Warbler. Jackdaw. Rook. Still plenty of scope then, although my 'A' permit days are over...

Saturday, 26 April 2014

It's never been less about the list

"It's all about the list"

I have heard this little gem from many birders over the years. At times I've even agreed with it.

But age has mellowed me. A list is just a number and that number is meaningless. It really is.

What is your British bird list? How many species of butterfly have you seen in your home county? And what of orchids? If you know the exact numbers (which I'm sure many of you do), does that make you a better person than somebody with fewer? A higher number doesn't even suggest somebody with more experience or more knowledge. It is, after all, just a number. A bit of fun.

My time spent in the field is increasingly one of enjoyment in marvelling at what I come across. I get more pleasure in seeing something on my doorstep than I do a proper rarity miles away. It's a good place to be. Pan-listing, rather than being at odds with this, actually helps my state of mind. It's enough to come across a beetle, realise it's a click beetle, and leave it alone unidentified. If the mood takes me I might try and specifically identify it. If it doesn't then so be it. I'm happy with that.

Maybe I've finally found my place in all of this natural history stuff.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Tart's tick on gorse

I have to admit to 'ticking' a terribly common micro-moth today, one that swarms on gorse and of which I most probably saw three figures worth this morning - Cydia ulicetana. I can almost feel the mocking looks coming my way from fellow lepidopterists and pan-listers who find it hard to believe that someone - such as me - who pretends to have at least half a finger on the pulse of our wildlife can have got so far in this game without knowingly having clapped eyes on something so hideously common. I saw it on Banstead Downs by the way...

Later in the afternoon I joined David Campbell for a most agreeable wander over Canons Farm, Banstead Woods and Fames Rough. The birding was hard work, but we did see Dingy Skipper and Green Hairstreak at Fames Rough.

Green Hairstreak, on Wild Strawberry at Fames Rough
Cydia ulicetana - shame on you Gale...
Gorse Shieldbug - dig the red antennae!

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A sodden moth trap


Last night seemed mild enough to expect a bit of moth action in the garden, so out went the MV and down came the rain. It was still bucketing down when I stirred in the early hours and was still raining when I switched the MV off at about 07.00hrs. The total catch was poor and lacking in variety, not unusual for the garden when it doesn't stop raining. Best of a poor bunch was this Mullein, always good to see. So far, whereas other Surrey gardens have been pulling in Blossom Underwings and Dotted Chestnuts, I have been under-achieving here in Banstead. But it only takes one moth to turn that scenario around...

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The pipes of pan and listing

It's all out there - you've just got to open your eyes and LOOK

Lists. I've never hidden my fascination with them, my upkeep of them, but have always pointed out that I'm not a chaser of them. Maybe this is unusual, in as much as if you are nerdish enough to list all that you see, then it is highly likely that you will also go out of your way to keep on adding to them with a manic need. Maybe my need is purely passive - having a list to record my efforts is enough in itself.

My biggest list - both in scope and number - is my pan-species list; that is ALL of the living things that I have seen in the UK. As a listing project this is about as wide-ranging and challenging as you can get. It has become my one and only list in a way as it comprises all of my other lists combined. So I have to service all of the 37 sublists that feeds it.... confused? Don't be... go online and visit the new pan-listers website and take a look. You can find it at http://www.brc.ac.uk/psl/

It is still in its infancy, so there are going to be some teething problems. You can look at the recorder rankings, see who has been spending far too much time looking at smuts and rusts and who really needs to get out into the field a bit more. And you never know, you may be tempted to dip a toe into the water - it is very warm and welcoming!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Koch's Gentian and being hypocritical

I've got a bloody cheek really. I drone on about the abuse of Wheatear imagery on blogs but then do the same with pictures of Koch's Gentian. Yes, for every year that I've been bogging, sometime during the month of April, I will go and visit the Buckland Hills, seek out Koch's Gentians, take some photographs and post them here. I'm a hypocrite...

These were planted c1960 by a homesick Swiss employee of the chemical firm Beechams. They have happily taken to this section of the Surrey North Downs, and have even spread a little. For some time they were identified as Trumpet Gentian (Gentiana clusii) but have since been re-identified as Koch's Gentian (Gentiana acaulis). And if you do keep lists, be they pan-species driven or not, these plants are countable...




Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Birding Quiz. Who are YOU?

What kind of birder are you? Answer these simple questions to find out... you must choose the answer closest to your honest response.

You find a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. Do you
(a) tweet, Facebook and text everybody that you can think of
(b) thank the birding Gods for being so generous
(c) look the other way and continue to count Dunnocks
(d) wonder what that strange, colourful bird is before you

A friend offers you a lift to go and twitch a Houbara Bustard in East Yorkshire. Do you
(a) tell your friend that you are already on your way
(b) politely refuse because you saw the Westleton bird in '62
(c) ask them if there might be some Dunnocks in the area as well
(d) say no thanks and then try to find it in the Observer's Book of Birds

The Hythe Chinese Pond Heron. Was it
(a) without doubt, a proper lifer
(b) who knows, but then again who cares
(c) bigger than a Dunnock
(d) a made up bird name, a bit similar to 'our' heron but probably with yellow bits in the plumage

What is your UK life list?
(a) Between 450-550
(b) Not sure, gave up counting several years ago
(c) One. Prunella modularis.
(d) At least 50, possibly as high as 60.

What do you associate with the word BOOM!
(a) the appearance of a rarity
(b) annoying f*ckwits
(c) a population explosion among Dunnocks
(d) a First World War howitzer

Which birder would you most like to be compared to
(a) Lee Evans
(b) Peter Grant
(c) The bloke who wrote the Dunnock account in BWP
(d) Tony Soper

Seawatching. Is it
(a) something you sometimes need to do to string a rare pelagic
(b) something to be savoured
(c) something that you don't stand a chance of seeing a Dunnock on
(d) a chance to watch a few ships passing

What do you wear in the field
(a) combat gear, army surplus, green stuff, kill....
(b) whatever old stuff is out at the moment and fits your expanding frame
(c) tweeds - like muted Dunnock greys and browns
(d) safari jacket, cravat, monocular in top pocket

If you answered mostly A
You need to get a life - or a girlfriend. Ditch the camo gear and do something for yourself for a change, rather than driving all over Britain because everybody else that answered 'A' is also doing so. Or it might just be that you are Lee Evans.

If you answered mostly B
You are a well-adjusted birder, most probably good looking, have many friends and are shit hot in the field.

If you answered mostly C
You are a Dunnock. Or a member of the BTO. Or both.

If you answered mostly D
You are Tony Soper. Have you thought about taking up rambling as a side-line? Or even brass rubbing?

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Somewhere in the Surrey Hills...

Sometimes you need to engineer a change to get your enthusiasm back, to recharge your batteries or to keep your mind sharp. So far this year my local birding has been, well, predictable. Last week saw me take part in - and enjoy -  an organised visible migration watch from Leith Hill Tower (see here).  This made me try something different this morning, so rather than head for the 'same old, same old',  I took an OS Map, my binoculars and headed for the outer Surrey Hills, to explore places that I only vaguely knew, or hadn't visited at all. It was just what the doctor ordered...


It was a glorious morning. The woodland ground flora is well advanced, with lots of Bluebells already in flower, with plenty of Wood Anemone, Greater Stitchwort, Cuckooflower and even a patch of Yellow Archangel colouring the scene. Around me were calling Cuckoos, singing Willow Warblers and Firecrests. Venturing out onto more open ground, a few hirundines were heading north, with Swallows and House Martins arrowing northwards while above them up to 20 Common Buzzards were wheeling, displaying and soaring. They were not the only raptors. 4 Sparrowhawks, a Red Kite and best of all both male and female Goshawks were recorded, the latter species showing particularly well, the female an enormous beast. An area of heathland held displaying Tree Pipits, singing Siskins and loafing Common Crossbills. Most agreeable.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Back to work

After three months of bone-idleness I find myself back at work for the next fortnight - employed as a graphic designer in a small studio. My freelance career is thus launched. With a mixture of nervousness and excitement I entered the fray yesterday morning, but soon got into the swing of things. It helps that the other designers are very friendly and are kindly spoon-feeding me projects to work on.

I have hardly checked my phone for the past two days and 'summer migrants' are but a figment of other birders imagination, as I have seen precisely Chiffchaff, Blackcap and Sand Martin so far this spring - utter pants for April 8th! However, think of the adrenalin rush that I will get when I do wander out again in several days time, to be surrounded by singing Reed and Sedge Warblers, calling Cuckoos, displaying Bee-eaters, flocks of scything Alpine Swifts, lurking Bluethroats...

I'd better stop now.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Vis-migging for the hard of seeing


There are birding places that are famed for the sheer spectacle of the avian migration that appears above them - The Bosphorus. Eilat. Falsterbo. The Straits of Gibraltar. Leith Hill. Hold on, what was that last place mentioned? Leith Hill? That pimple of a hill to be found in deepest, darkest, southern Surrey?

National Trust ranger and Indiana Jones look-a-like Sam Bayley has set up a migration watchpoint from Leith Hill Tower (the top of which measures in at a dizzying 1026 feet above sea-level). Big for us southerners, laughably small to you northerners. This morning was the first organised watch and eight motley Surrey birders (including myself) gathered out of a mixture of enthusiasm, nosiness and a belief that our much-maligned county has a migration hot-spot waiting to be discovered.

We gathered at 05.45hrs in the dark. And in the fog. The picture above was taken at 07.00hrs, in the fog. You can just see the sun fighting a losing battle with the stuff. We were still fog-bound at 09.30hrs. Then it cleared. Not the most auspicious start to this brave new enterprise. But, when all was wrapped up at 13.00hrs we had recorded Peregrine, Common Buzzard, Raven, Firecrest, Crossbill and  Brambling among others. None of these were actually moving through though - to be honest little was moving, although a Swallow did nip through northwards and three Lapwings coasted west.

However, it was an enjoyable morning, the fog-shrouded (and mostly bird-less) hours filled with much banter and preposterous predictions as to what might be seen from here in future watches. Black Kite seems to be the most realistic of the suggestions. Watch this space...

Friday, 4 April 2014

Bohemian 'Chinese Pond Heron' Rhapsody


RIP Chinese Pond Heron - found dead last week in Hythe (with apologies to all fans of Bohemian Rhapsody and Queen)

Is this a real tick?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in confusion,
No escape from reality.

I open my eyes,
Look up to Hythe and see,
I'm just a twitcher, I need your sympathy,
Because I'm not easy come, easy go,
I tick a few, but some say no,
Anyway the splits go, it really does all matter to me, to me.

Someone, just killed Pond Heron,
But took away its head,
Left some feathers, now he's dead.
Pond Heron, life-list had just begun,
But now you've gone and died and flown away.

Pond Heron, ooh,
Didn't want to see you die,
If your not back on my list this time tomorrow,
I'll carry on, carry on, although it really, really matters.

Too late, your time had come,
Sent shivers down Birdline,
The Grim Reaper calling time.
Goodbye, Pond Heron, you had to go,
Gotta leave us all behind to find the truth.

Pond Heron, ooh (anyway the wind blows),
Didn't want to see you die,
I sometimes wish you'd never turned up at all.

I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Lee Evans, Martin Garner, will you do the identification?
Remiges and retrices,
Very, very frightening me.
(Can I tick it?) please tell me.
(Can I tick it?) please tell me.
Can I put it on my list?
Magnifico!

I'm just a poor birder nobody understands me.
He's just a poor birder divorced from his family,
Spare him his life-list from this monstrosity.

Easy come, easy go, but will you let me tick?
It's a Squacco! No, we will not let you tick. (Let me tick!)
It's a Squacco! No, we will not let you tick. (Let me tick!)
It's a Squacco! No, we will not let you tick. (Let me tick!)
Will not let you tick. (Let me tick!)
Never, never let you tick
Never let me tick, oh.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
Oh, Mr Evans, Mr Garner (Evans, Garner, let me tick.)
Chinese Pond Heron has a tick put aside for me, for me, for me.

So you think you can fool me and blind my birding eye?
So you think you can deny me and leave me to cry?
Oh, Pond Heron, can't do this to me, Pond Heron,
Just gotta tick, just gotta get a tick outta this.

(Oh, yeah, oh yeah)

Nothing really matters,
Anyone can see,
It's a Chinese Pond Heron,
That's all that matters to me.

Anyway the wind blows.

(Dedicated to those of you who spent far too much time sitting in a car on top of that Hythe hill waiting for the pond heron to 'fly in')

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

In a world of wounds

In George Monbiot's latest post (click here), he writes:

To understand what is happening to the living planet, the great conservationist Aldo Leopold remarked, is to live “in a world of wounds … An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”


In my ignorance, I have only vaguely heard of Aldo Leopold. I was intrigued to see from where this quote was taken. It comes from his book 'A Sand County Almanac' and was published in 1949. 


I had to read that date of publication again. 1949. The quote seems so fresh, so now. It only goes to prove that the realisation that our planet is not well because of the hand of man is not a modern phenomena. It's just that, in the intervening years since Mr. Leopold's observation, very few of those in a position to do so have done much to alleviate the planet's ailing health.