Friday, 27 February 2015

Pan-fighting

The 'pan-species-listing family' has had a big argument, a trial separation and gone through a messy divorce all in the space of 48 hours - and I thought that it was only birders that squabbled and fell out! Without naming names and reasons, a public spat on the Facebook Group page has led to the FB group being disbanded, then started up again by the two warring factions - so we now have two different places on which to post, natter and share. One is called 'pan-species recording' and the other 'pan-species listing'. Confused? Well, just to confuse us even more, as I type this post there has been a name change. The 'recording' group is now called the 'Biological recording in the British Isles' group.

I am a member of both, not wanting to take sides or get involved with the internal politics. My  willingness to get involved in such shenanigans has been whittled away down the years and I know to my own cost that these situations are rarely fully resolved and can leave a bad taste in the mouth for months, if not years. I haven't posted on either group yet and most probably won't for a while. I read the feeds on both of them and can only be reminded of a recently separated parent trying desperately hard to convince the kids that everything is normal and will be alright. It's sad all round...

This does go to prove just how savvy long-term club chairmen/women, secretaries, recorders and the like are. Almost 100% are voluntary, and all will come across dissatisfaction and unreasonable behaviour from a number of their members because that's just what human beings are like. To keep one's calm, to stay level-headed and to bring into play diplomatic skills are not, as far as I am concerned, appreciated enough. It's easy to shout, to whine, to take umbrage, to point fingers, to sulk - it's not so easy to reign in the desire to do these things and then act rationally.

That's why I am not a server of committees or clubs. I've tried, but I do not have the character needed to be successful at it. If I wore a cap I would doff it towards those that can, and do.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Moths!


At last the garden MV came up with the goods, albeit a modest haul - but there will be no complaints from me. Single Hebrew Character, Dotted Border (above), Spring Usher, Epiphyas postvittana and two Agnopterix heracliana have kick-started my 2015 mothing year. But, if nothing else, I'm a pragmatist - we will see plenty of cold nights when moths will be off the menu before the season truly comes to life.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Empty?

Birding in the Surrey hinterland, particularly during the winter months, can be hard work. Frustrating. Soul sapping. Even depressing. Today was one such day, when a combination of drizzle and a lack of birds turned me from an enthusiastic birder to a crumpled heap within an hour.

I was walking across Walton Heath when it occurred to me that not only could I not see a single bird, I also couldn't hear one. I stood still and looked harder. I made my ears work overtime. Nothing. For maybe 20-30 seconds (it seemed like an hour) there was not a single avian tickle to be felt. And then four Wood Pigeons flew into view. Followed a further thirty seconds later by a Carrion Crow. And then a Herring Gull. I could have predicted those three species, the 21st century birders staple diet of pigeon, crow and gull. 95% of the Surrey bird biomass is made of that triumvirate I can confidently claim. It wasn't it always like this - or was it?

When I returned home I picked up my notebook from February 1977, when I knew that I had visited Walton Heath (dipping on a Great Grey Shrike). Did I see more back then - well, sort of... I recorded 2 Stonechats (missing today), 2 Willow Tits (extinct in the county now) and a flock of 50+ Redpolls (none today). My species list was still poor on that day 38 years ago but undoubtably I had seen more. Was that the proof that I needed to laud the past as better for birding? Not quite. My notebook reveals that a return visit a fortnight later was pants - no Stonechat, no Willow Tits (but a single Marsh) and only one Redpoll. Maybe my past is being viewed through rose-tinted glasses.

PS: I hope that the title of this post is not a true prediction of my garden MV haul tonight. The trap is on, the night is cloudy and mild and my expectations are for a handful of moths. Any species will do...

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

British Moths (second edition)

I don't automatically buy new editions of books that I already own. Quite often they can be almost straight reprints that offers the purchaser nothing more than having the same book but in better condition - and then there are those new editions that offer you an almost completely different book. British Moths, by Chris Manley, is one of the latter.

Although boasting the same number of pages as the first edition, he has managed to include 800 additional species, most of these being micro moths. To accommodate this the butterflies have been dropped, but this is no loss considering the wealth of books available that cover them. So now we have 2,147 species to peruse, of which 871 are macros and 1,276 micros. If for no other reason, this boost in microlepidoptera makes buying this addition a must. But that is not all...

Plenty of species that appeared in the first book have had their images updated, and all the photographs have had the subject rotated so that they all face the same way, making comparison easier. Also new are the distribution maps for all resident species (including micros) and a comparative size bar underneath each image. The systematic list and numbering adopts the 2013 Agassiz, Beavan and Heckford order, but the 'old' Bradley numbers appear at the end of the species accounts for older referencing.

Within 10 seconds of picking up this book to browse through, I knew that I was going to buy it. As someone who has largely dabbled in micros for a while now, but not fully embraced them, this book cannot do anything other than help me become more competent with them. It has certainly lit a fire under my enthusiasm and I'm raring to go!

Monday, 23 February 2015

Fuel for birding

It is said that an army marches on its stomach and the same can be said of the humble birder. I can trace certain foods to certain periods of my birding time, so much so that the smell or taste of them can send me careering back there...

The Early Years
My schoolboy birding expeditions were always accompanied by a packed lunch. If I went to Beddington SF then it would be a Breakfast Sausage sandwich (a circular processed meat that I haven't seen around for years) with Branston Pickle (other pickles are available). This would be followed by a Tunnock's Caramel Wafer. On a cold winters day these would be hard and brittle to bite into, but come the summer they would melt to the point of becoming a liquid. And talking of liquid, my flask would always be filled with coffee - unless I went to Epsom Common, when, for whatever reason, I would take soup.

Dungeness
When I first stayed at the observatory any food preparation had to be quick and simple - I wanted to be out birding, plus I didn't want to be bothered with washing up. So anything tinned that could be heated up was embraced, and rather shamefully I became a user of Smash, that instant mashed potato mix advertised by robots. As I grew older (and more discerning) any visit to the shingle would mean a shopping trip to Lydd, which then boasted an excellent butchers (pork chops and hand made sausages) plus the legendary bakery, where the baked-on-the -premises bread, Cornish pasties and the mouthwatering selection of cakes turned my lithe 11-and-a-half stone frame into one that saw the north end of 13 stones. I have seen men demolish a warm loaf of bread, eat two pasties and then devour a fabled Rocky Road cake in one sitting. The Bard of Littlestone may well remember such days...

Days out
Dave Eland used to ferry me around the south-east hot spots and he was a great believer in the patronage of public houses (dry roasted peanuts) and any Happy Eater or Little Chef that we might come across (he seemed to know exactly where they were). On one occasion I watched him shake a bottle of tomato sauce in such an establishment that had a lose top and spray himself from head to waist in red gloop. Bob Hibbert was a believer in the packed lunch, but these were of a superior quality. I seem to remember rustic bread rolls, pate, grapes and chicken, game pies, although my memory may be playing tricks on me. At the end of a very full day with Bob, he would often insist that I go back to his home where his wife had cooked a gargantuan meal. He would then drop me off at my parents house, where I would waddle up the driveway, fit to burst, to be told that my "dinner was in the oven".  Another birder who wasn't happy with 'just a cheese sarnie' was Michael McDonnell. Every time I went out with him he brought along a giant thermos flask that was filled with pork chops, chicken wings and sausages. My humble sandwich was a poor competitor and, feeling sorry for me, would let me dip into his meat feast.

And now...
I generally don't bother with a packed lunch. I'll go through a day without so much as a Mars Bar. If I stay at Dungeness then I'll start with a relatively healthy mix of pasta, couscous, tomatoes, mackerel and fruit, but then get lazy and start on the microwave Chicken Korma and Chocolate Digestive diet. The habitual haunting of pubs has also died away - any stay at Dungeness meant an evening in the Britannia, that was a given. Although food was never on the agenda, during the summer of 1979 I went through a ridiculous phase of drinking Southern Comfort accompanied by a KitKat. I have no idea why.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

My recent visit to Dungeness got me thinking about the avian changes that have taken place over the (almost) forty years that I have been going down to the shingle. I have already touched upon the egret explosion two posts ago - it is not everywhere that a fly over Great White Egret barely warrants lifting one's binoculars, but that is the situation at Dungeness!

Gulls have seen an enormous surge of interest, largely down to one or two pioneering birders, including Peter Grant, one of DBO's very own. Back in 1976 large immature gulls were virtually unidentifiable, so sifting through any such flock was largely an exercise in trying to find a Glaucous or Iceland (the term 'white-winger' was not then common currency). PJG's obsession has been passed onto current warden Dave Walker, who studies the gulls avidly. He is responsible for finding all three Audouin's Gulls, plus a Ross's, fair reward for the many hours that he spends staring down his telescope. A 'new' species on the radar is Caspian Gull, unknown back in '76 but now perfectly findable on the shingle, if you put in the effort.

The Greenfinch was a staple of a winter trip as a large flock used to assemble on the beach close to the old lighthouse, as many as a thousand birds providing a diverting spectacle. Last week I saw just two. In fact, away from the RSPB reserve, passerines have drastically reduced in number. Migrant falls are all but a thing of the past. In 2013, the observatory ringing total of Willow Warblers was 162. I have trapped over 250 in a day there on several occasions (in the 1970s). Regular falls of 400-500 used to occur during August - such figures are but the stuff of dreams in the 21st century. I could regale a similar tale for most warblers, Redstarts, Whinchats, Tree Pipits, flycatchers and don't even get me started on Turtle Doves - oh alright then, I've started so I'll finish - we used to sit on the banks of the moat during spring and watch small flocks flying low over the shingle heading northwards. Now gone, possibly never to be repeated.

The autumn was a time of overhead, visible migration, and if the wind was NW then there would be a guarantee of thousands of birds, mostly finches. In the skies of 2015 this event will be missing, although the odd day might see several hundred birds go overhead. I have seen 2,000+ Tree Sparrows stream through in the first two hours of daylight (early 1980s). To record 20 nowadays would be notable.

There are plus points. Bittern, Marsh Harrier and Bearded Tit were all notable species back then. All are now resident and breed on the reserve. Cetti's Warbler was still a screaming Dungeness rarity, whereas now it breeds freely. Ravens and Peregrines have returned. But we are still seeing the fall of species that we once took for granted. With Spring upon us, we wait for that siren of the warmth, the Wheatear, to return. The Dungeness breeding total seems to be suffering a slow fall into, what? Extinction? Will it go the way of the Stone Curlew? I certainly hope not.

There are plenty of other examples of change in the Dungeness avifauna over the past forty years. This can be traced at every other site in the UK. Change happens and always has, but not at this speed.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

The birding Oscars

Tomorrow in LA, the film industry meets to decide which movie deserves to be awarded an Oscar. In honour of this, that motley crew of birders at Dungeness have come up with a selection of film titles that have been inspired by bird names. Read them and weep...

Chariots of Firecrests
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Roadrunner
Look Back in Anhinga
The Dam Bustards
101 Dalmatian Pelicans
Raiders of the Lost Auk
Sex, lies and Vireotape
A Taste of Honey Buzzard
2001 a Space Osprey
From Wheatear to Eternity
Catbird on a Hot Tin Roof
Mrs Minivet
Greenshank Redemption
Black Lark Down!
The Rocky-hopper Picture Show
Nightjar on Elm Street
Texas Cranesaw Massacre
Fall of the House of Upcher
Day of the Tripits
Butch Cassowary and the Sunbittern Kid
Easy Eider
You only live Twites

So I had to join in...

Acrocephalus Now!
The Eider Sanction
For whom the red polls
On the waterthrush
Taxi Diver
Wuthering Kites
Day of the Grackle
Close encounters of a turdus kind

You can tell it's been a slow winter down there.

Egrets, I've had a few...


I first visited Dungeness in 1976. Back then there had been but two records of Little Egret, whilst Great White Heron (as it was then referred to) and Cattle Egret (above) were not even on the Dungeness list. Fast forward 39 years and I find myself on the hallowed shingle, overlooking a line of bushes at dusk and counting incoming roosting egrets - not just one or two of them but LOADS of the snowy white beauties. The best totals were on February 17th, when 20 Little, 11 (eleven) Great White and 2 Cattle flew in - simply unfathomable just a few years ago.

My five day stay produced a fine cross-section of species, including Black-necked Grebe, Bittern, Bewick's Swan, Whooper Swan, White-fronted Goose, Tundra Bean Goose, Scaup, Smew, Marsh Harrier, Merlin, Peregrine, Avocet, Black Redstart, Cetti's Warbler, Firecrest, Raven, Tree Sparrow and Corn Bunting. Most memorable were the wheeling flocks of Lapwings and Golden Plovers on the RSPB reserve and Walland Marsh, totalling 8,000 and 2,300 respectively.

My thanks to Mark, Dave, Martin, Chris, Steve, Tony, Pete and Pam for their companionship and local knowledge that made my stay all the more enjoyable.

This Kingfisher was to be seen outside of the Hanson hide on ARC most mornings, allowing even the most modest of cameras a chance to obtain half-decent images.

The 2015 patch challenge was not ignored, as a quick scope of Buckland Sandpits from Colley Hill yielded a Great Crested Grebe (species 72).

Friday, 13 February 2015

Moth frustration

There is something about my back garden that means that there will be a lack of moths until March. I have, in the past, used the MV successfully during the months of January and February, trapped the usual suspects (Small Brindled Beauty, Brindled Beauty, Chestnut, Early Moth, Dotted Border, etc), but... it is by no means a done deal that anything will come to the light at Gale Towers.

So far this year I have trapped on three nights, admittedly with poor maximum temperatures (3-4 degrees) and have amassed the grand total of ZERO moths - not even a Light Brown Apple Moth. Meanwhile there are other local lepidopterists happily trapping away and getting results. It's got to the point where I'm switching my bulbs over just in case something is wrong with them!

I have noticed that during the winter it is easier to trap larger numbers of moths, and of a wider range of species, out in the countryside, preferably in woodland. The suburbs just doesn't cut it. My fellow Surrey mothers in Wimbledon are doing well, but they are situated on the edge of the common - I'm sure that if I bordered Banstead Woods I wouldn't be writing this sorry post. But, at this time of year just a small success is exciting, so I will keep switching the MV on and inspecting an empty trap - because, very soon, there will be something in it.

Pale Brindled Beauty - just not from this year...

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

'New' site, new target


Gordon Hay alerted me to it. Or rather, Gordon reminded me of it.

"Can you see the far bank of Buckland Sand Pit from Colley Hill?" he asked me on the phone last night.

"Yes." I replied, "I was looking over that way from the hill on Sunday but didn't have a scope with me. If I did I'm sure larger stuff like wildfowl would be identifiable."

"Is it in your 2015 patch?"

"Geographically yes, although, as you know, you cannot gain access to them, so they didn't come into my thoughts."

"Well in that case go back and take your scope and look - there were at least 60 Wigeon feeding on the grassy bank today"

Wigeon! A bonus species if ever there was one. I needed no more excuse to head back to Colley Hill with scope and tripod. Accompanying me was brother-in-law Bill, who, although not a birder, is used to my ways and enjoys being out in the countryside whatever the reason.

Now, I must admit to feeling a bit sheepish about this 'additional' site. It is, without doubt, in my 2015 patch boundary, although due to the private nature of the site did not consider it as being a part of it. How I had 'forgotten' that you can look down on the water from the elevation of the downs I cannot say. But, here we were, scoping the water of the nearest pit and immediately coming up 'patch trumps' with four Little Grebes. In the image above you can see the trails in the water that the grebes have made. The grassy bank where Gordon had his Wigeon is further away, and scoping revealed that they were not present - at least in the section of grass that I could see. Truth is, 90% of the water and banks are hidden from view, so my ability to work this site, forgetting about the distance involved, is compromised. Even so, birds like Gadwall, Teal and Shelduck are now more than a pipe dream even if I have to rely on my 20-50W Swarovski telescope lens to gain identification...

Because of this I think it only fair to raise my 2015 target level from 90 to 100. Stewart was kind enough to give me a low target figure in the first place, and this 'new' opportunity opens me up to a good additional five species (at least) without too much effort.

Little Grebe becomes species 70, and is 70% of my new target of 100 (even a maths fule no that).

UPDATE: Just before midnight a calling Tawny Owl (heard as I was lying in bed) became species number 71.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Golden slumber

What a difference a day makes. After yesterday's gloomy, chilly weather I wasn't expecting an almost balmy spring day. It might only be the second week of February, and the weather is more than capable of rising up and biting us on the bum, but it felt as if we might have turned a corner in the progression of this particularly ordinary winter.

I took myself off to the southward slope of Colley Hill, mainly because this site was my best bet for a local Red-legged Partridge. Settling down at the base of the hill, overlooking the favoured fields, I had a good view for miles towards the south and west. Sheltered from what little breeze there was, I was sitting in a perfect sun trap and a number of small insects were constantly on the wing, always a welcome sign in the winter months. Off came the hat, gloves and coat. Eyes shut, head back and feel those golden rays...

My slumber was broken by the rhythmical calling of a Red-legged Partridge that was present on the weedy edge of the closest field. A number of the half-dozen Common Buzzards present were also calling, some half-hearted display also being observed. The best however were the Peregrines - after a male had paraded in front of me I picked up a big female that seemed to be heading east, then started to purposefully gain height where it then joined a further two birds (most probably a male and female). A spot of chasing was then indulged in before they all left westwards. I stayed rooted to the spot, loathe to leave the warmth and raptor show. But before I finally did, a Cormorant joined the 2015 patch list, which now has reached 69 species.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Crystal Pallas?

Millions are spent on bird food each year. The membership of the RSPB is between 1-2 million. Plenty of birders head into the field with thousands of pounds worth of optical and camera equipment around their neck. How long will it be before the chairmen of English football clubs decide that a bit of rebranding might entice a little bit of the 'ornithological pound' into the game?

Premiership
Aston Pitta
Crystal Pallas
Gull City
Queens Park Stringers
Tottenham Longspurs

Championship
Blackburnian Rovers
Blackpoll
Millwallcreepers

Ipswich Sparrows
Wigannet Athletic

League 1
MK Poms
Crow Alexandra
Chesterfield Fares
Fleetwood Sandpipers

League 2
LRP Wimbledon
Dagenham & Redshank

Any more out there?


(With thanks to the Bard of Littlestone and his merry men)


In other news: Groundhog Day locally with the same birds being seen in the same places (including the Ewell Little Egret, below),  apart from the Priest Hill Stonechats, that may well have moved on.


Thursday, 5 February 2015

A photogenic Kestrel


After a morning of wintery showers I ventured over to Canons Farm which was, quite frankly, bloody hard work. In previous winters the fields have at least had flocks of assorted finches, corvids and pigeons to sift through. not forgetting the hundreds of thrushes that commuted between favoured feeding areas. This winter has seen almost empty pastures - the Fieldfare flock is hovering around the 100 mark and apart from 20-40 Skylarks and 30-40 Yellowhammers (that isn't, admittedly, too shabby) there is very little to entertain the birder.

I spent a bit of time mucking about with the Nikon Coolpix P600 bridge camera that I bought last November. My main reason for getting it was down to its 60x optical zoom, this enabling me to obtain half decent 'record shots' of birds with minimal effort. A particularly social Kestrel (above) allowed me to snap away. Let's just hope that any Red-foot in the spring will be just as co-operative...

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Stonechat invasion (sort of)

The north of Surrey enjoyed what us southerners think of as 'proper winter' today - a one inch fall of snow that sent the road network into a mild panic and birders to fetch their optics just in case all sorts of hard weather movement was about to appear overhead - but the snow was just localised, it melted by lunchtime and the birds didn't seem to move at all... or did they?

My visit to Priest Hill questioned whether or not stuff was stirred up a little bit, as a minimum of six Stonechats were in the Belted Galloway meadow this afternoon. I saw one female last week and three (one male) on Saturday. I have been giving the meadows a good grilling so I think it unlikely that the birds have been present all of this time, and it seems a bit early for the spring passage that this species does exhibit. Whether or not they have been widely dispersed across the site and have just come together I'll never know. Two males and four females kept me thoroughly entertained for an hour or so.

Earlier in the day I visited the River Hogsmill between Bourne Hall and Ewell Court. I was lucky enough to bump into local birder Colin Manville, who happily let me team up with him and showed me some of the local birding hotspots (if such things do exist within Surrey!). It was a morning of interest, with a Chiffchaff at Bourne Hall lake, two Grey Wagtails between the mills, a Kingfisher at Upper Mill, a Little Egret along the river (Hogsmill Open Space) where a furtive Water Rail also finally gave itself up.

The 2015 Patch Challenge increases to 67 species, which is, by my calculations 74.4% of my target. Today's additions were Chiffchaff and Mute Swan, neither of which were anything but expected.

Monday, 2 February 2015

I'm ridiculously proud of my pittas

Even though I've got a pile of books waiting to be read, I couldn't resist re-reading Chris Gooddie's excellent 'The Jewel Hunter', his account of seeing all of the worlds pitta species in a single calendar year - I bet he wept when Red-bellied Pitta was subsequently split into 16 species! Anyhow, a world birder I may not be, but I have seen a few of these marvellous birds and reading about Chris's exploits once more has taken me back to Malaysia in 1994...

Hooded Pitta
Our first full day in Taman Negara. Janice Hollingworth and I were walking back down from the lower slopes of Bukit Teresek (her husband Mark had gone back to our chalet), when she alerted me to a bird that was standing, motionless, on a fallen tree trunk that was lying in a dip beneath us. Even though it was in the gloom the bird shone out - a splendid Hooded Pitta. It stayed in place for just five seconds before it disappeared before our very eyes. It was if it had just vanished into thin air, but not before the bright green body, blue wing coverts and a black head topped off with a chocolate brown cap had all been taken in. It was the only one we saw.

Banded Pitta
This bird led me a merry dance around the trails of Taman Negara over several days. We were hearing them on a daily basis, and Mark had seen one quite early on (Janice and I were standing next to him at the time but couldn't get onto it). It became personal. Then, on one hot, unforgettable afternoon I was working the Jenut Muda trail..."along a very dark section, where the vegetation surrounded me like a blanket, a Banded Pitta stuck up calling "Powwww!" Very close. I didn't grab for the tape recorder but stood perfectly still and waited. Peering into the forest I was aware of a small patch of dappled sunlight on the leaf litter. When it then moved to the left I realised that I had been looking at the intense orange and yellow supercillium and throat of a Banded Pitta! Like an apparition the whole bird materialised before me. It was simply stunning. Chestnuts bled into inky blues that ran into black bars which enveloped apricots. The bird was in subdued light yet shone out like a beacon". I subsequently saw another bird, and we kept on hearing them throughout our nine day stay in the national park.

Blue-winged Pitta
Another Janice and Steve 'Taman Negara double-act' as we walked along the River Trail towards Lubok Simpon. This pitta was hopping along the trail in the open but on seeing us flew smartly into the surrounding forest, called once and was not seen or heard again.

Mangrove Pitta
We spent a few days at Kuala Selangor, a wetland/mangrove swamp reserve on the west coast of Malaysia. On our first morning a Mangrove Pitta was calling, for a few minutes only, from a dense area of mangrove swamp. Between us, and it, was a wide flooded channel. Not fancying a swim and a crawl through mud, the pitta remained unobserved and we didn't hear another.

I'm ridiculously proud of my pittas. As you can no doubt tell.