Monday, 29 February 2016

It's all about timing

The past few days has seen some unusual behaviour from the ragged collection of birders who sometimes call Canons Farm 'home'. And that is the twitching of uncommon gulls - uncommon in the fact that the species that were involved were uncommon on site, but also uncommon in actually being grounded, and not just flying through, high above the fields as they normally do.

A first-winter Mediterranean Gull kicked the whole thing off by appearing (for at least two hours) in the preposterously named Infront George Field - and Skylark Field, on Saturday afternoon.

Then yesterday an immaculate first-winter Iceland Gull joined in the fun by spending an hour of two in the same fields, then moving onto, and settling down in, Tart's Field (all our fields have names!). A good excuse for another dodgy record shot? I reckon so:


And this morning a couple of superb adult Mediterranean Gulls decided to crash the party, choosing Skylark Field and Broad Field to hang out, long enough for another gathering of local laridae lovers to convene. One of the gulls started to display to a nearby Black-headed and the other was sporting a green plastic ring, possibly originating from Germany.

This is the second record of Iceland and the third/fourth record of Mediterranean on the farm. So why the rush all of a sudden? Well, a double-whammy of circumstances actually. Firstly the fields have just been ploughed, churning up the soil to reveal all sorts of tasty tit-bits for the gathering gulls and corvids. And secondly, the refuse tip at Beddington, where most of our 'local' gulls get their meals, operates on a half-day Saturday and is closed on a Sunday. Rumour has it that it is also closed today. So their usual source of food is not available, but the freshly ploughed fields not a twenty minute flap away are open for business! Had the fields been ploughed mid-week there is a fair chance that these delightful gulls may not have appeared on the farm at all!

PS: maybe we ought to rename Skylark Field as Uncommon Gull Field...

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Return to Holmethorpe and a gull twitch


It's been two years since I've lifted my bins at Holmethorpe Sand Pits. That's far too long - this is a very good place for a north Surrey birder to spend some time, and nobody has spent more time treading the sand than Gordon Hay, who has been finding stuff there for thirty years now. It was good to walk around the patch with him this morning.

I have 'previous' at Holmethorpe. I have adopted it as my main local patch several times, particularly during the early to late 1990s and for a few years in the early 2000s. During these spells it delighted and infuriated me in equal measure, but after spending too much time plodding around the dry farms and heaths of Banstead, going back there is like returning to Minsmere! There is water!! There are wildfowl!!!

Time has never stood still at Holmethorpe, and in the 25+ years that I have been visiting much has changed. Whole copses have been felled, abandoned farm buildings gentrified, fields mined for sand, large holes in the ground appeared and disappeared, miles of fencing erected, fields flooded. And now the charming, open farmland of Mercer's Farm is about to be quarried. An access road has been laid (right through a delightful bit of hillside scrub) and the signs of impending industry are clearly there to be seen. Not all the changes have been negative, neither have they all been positive. A change in farming practice lead the wintering Lapwing flock to largely abandon - I have stood mesmerised by 3,500 of them take to the air above Mercer's Farm, picking out the odd Golden Plover amongst them, but alas such gatherings are history. We thought such things were forever. Tree Sparrows and Grey Partridges were still to be expected, but we would never have expected Common Buzzards or Little Egrets. Some you win, some you lose...

Back to today. A fairly comprehensive route was taken, from Water Colours, through The Moors, Chilmead Farm, Mercer's Lake, Mercer's West, Spynes Mere and lastly Mercer's Farm. It was lovely to be back and a delight to be out in the field again with Gordon (we seem to meet over plates of food and glasses of beer latterly). Our highlights were: Little Grebe (10), Great Crested Grebe (2), Little Egret (1), Egyptian Goose (2), Teal (30), Wigeon (1), Gadwall (18),  Shoveler (15), Tufted Duck (80), Scaup (1 female on Mercer's Lake), Pochard (2), Water Rail (1, Spynes Mere), Lapwing (60), Jack Snipe (7), Common Snipe (15), Common Buzzard (4), Sparrowhawk (2), Skylark (30), Meadow Pipit (7),  Fieldfare (25), Redwing (15), Starling (1500), Linnet (160), Bullfinch (3), Reed Bunting (2,  one of which, a singing male, appears above).

Back home, just as I was about to contemplate lunch, a first-winter Iceland Gull was found by Ian Magness at Canons Farm, just a five minute drive from my home. It would have been rude not to...


Friday, 26 February 2016

Away with Watford

Back in the late 1970s I sometimes teamed up with Ian Brown, a birder from the Woking area, who had a passion for Watford Football Club. Back then they were a Fourth Division team (that's League Two in today's money), but they were on an upwards curve, being managed by a bright young man called Graham Taylor (who was to become England boss - "Do I not like that!")

We went on many birding trips together (sometimes in the company of Charlie Daly and Ian McVeigh) which normally involved a weekend away, dossing in the car or staying in a Youth Hostel, to places as diverse as The New Forest, mid-Wales, the Suffolk Coast and Breckland. But, during the winter of 1978, Ian somehow managed to persuade us to add on the attendance of a Watford match to our birding itinerary...

7 January 1978
West Ham 1 Watford 0 (FA Cup third round)
36, 475
On arrival in the east end of London, we ensured that Ian's Watford car sticker was removed from the car windscreen and walked to the ground hoping that the infamous ICF were not going to identify us as away supporters (these were still violent times at football grounds). I knew that, under interrogation, I would be found out to be a Spurs supporter and thus receive a bigger kicking. As it happened nothing untoward occurred, and we watched a highly forgettable game. Afterwards we headed up the A12 and arrived in Lowestoft mid-evening. Why Lowestoft? Well, this was where a Franklin's Gull had taken up residence, at the time a very rare bird indeed. I was all laid-back about it however, as I had already seen it only the previous week! After an uncomfortable and cold night spent cramped in the car, we awoke to a very foggy scene. Foggy enough to compromise our ability to find the gull. My companions were all anxious, where as I, having already bagged the bird, wandered around without a care. Although it lifted a little, conditions were far from ideal, but soon enough the gull flew in, and landed on some dockside factory roofs. Purple Sandpiper (2), Sanderling (3) and Eider (12) were nearby.

Then my ornithological interest was awoken, as our next place of call was going to be a small village called Henny, where, on adjacent farmland a Sociable Plover was wintering - a tick in waiting! All in the car, seat-belts on, Ian turned the car key in the ignition. Nothing. Not even a murmur from the engine. None of us were mechanically minded and after a bit of clueless looking under the bonnet the AA were called. In times like these minutes morph into hours. A foggy Lowestoft took on the guise of a prison, as we watched a procession of birders look at the gull and then head off for the plover - my plover... When the big yellow breakdown van finally arrived, and the mechanic sadly surveyed the scene before him, the news was not good for Ian  - "You're big ends gone" - or me, because the car was going to be towed back to Surrey. There would be no Sociable Plover.

3 March 1978
Swansea City 3 Watford 3
15,000
This turned into an epic birding weekend, all based around a thrilling Friday night fixture at the old Vetch Field ground. On our way to Swansea we picked up Steve Howell from Cardiff, a lad that Ian had met on a field trip (who is the very same Steve Howell who has written countless books, identification papers and migration studies in the USA and Mexico). I should have asked him for his autograph if only I'd known what lay ahead for him! Our first stop was Kenfig Pool, where an adult Whooper Swan was floating about majestically amongst 12 Goldeneye. 2 Ravens 'kronked' above us, yet to make the eastwards expansion that we are all enjoying today. At the impossible to pronounce Eglwys Nunydd Reservoir we were treated to both Black-throated and Great Northern Divers. Our twitching element of the day was reserved until the afternoon, with an attempt on a Killdeer at Pwll. I think that we knew that the bird hadn't been seen for a few days, but we had to have a go. It was not present in its (former) favourite flooded fields.

The match itself was a real belter, highly competitive and a six-goal thriller. We stood at the top of an ancient terrace, trying very hard not to sound like the Londoners that we clearly were. Again we avoided beatings. Night back in Cardiff, on a hard lounge floor.

Saturday saw us head into mid-Wales and the mythical Tregaron Bog. Back then Red Kites were in very low number - this was all pre-reintroduction and population recovery. My first two ever were seen just before we reached the village, plus two more on the bog itself, where three Hen Harriers (including a male) plus a Peregrine made for an unforgettable raptor experience. On the way back to Cardiff, Steve's local knowledge meant that we added Dipper (Bettws Bledrus) and Red Grouse (Mynydd Llangynidr) to our growing list. The hard lounge floor in Cardiff beckoned once more.

Sunday morning saw us bid Steve farewell, but the birding was far from over. We had a red-hot bird to visit on the drive home - a Wallcreeper! I had seen the Hasting's bird the previous year but who wouldn't want seconds of such a stunning creature? This particular individual was wintering in a quarry in the Cheddar area. Health and safety didn't exist in 1978, as 50+ birders were all hanging off of the industrial gantries and walkways that were on site - not a hard hat, clipboard or security guard in sight. The winter-plumaged bird was haunting a sheer stone face only 100 feet in front of us, the cold colour tones of the rocks suddenly spattered by the iridescent red of the Wallcreeper's wings as it flitted around in full view, quite fidgety. Our subsequent visit to Chew Valley Lake was not as intense by comparison, although we did log 14 Goosander and 50 Ruddy Duck (DEFRA had yet to come hunting...)


17 March 1978
Newport County 2 Watford 2
8,409
Another Friday night match and one in which us Londoners were rumbled by the Newport boys, but they decided not to beat us up, rather take the mickey out of our accents and ask us how our 'boat races' and 'apple and pears' were. One of them had obviously got a book of cockney rhyming slang for Christmas. Four goals shared, Watford rather threw this one away if memory serves me right. Another night spent on a hard Cardiff lounge floor.

With Steve once again in tow, we went on a tour of his South Wales coastal hotspots, which included Rhymney Wharf (40 Snipe, 4 Jack Snipe, Water Pipit, 2 Little Owl), Eglwys Nunydd reservoir (the divers had gone), Pwll (the Killdeer was still gone) and Blackpill Sands (where any Ring-billed Gulls were frankly beyond us. It is a big place and we had no idea about where to look or what to look for).

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Alexanders


Katrina and I have just returned from a short break down in Cornwall. No binoculars, no social media (just as well as there was little wi-fi), although I did smuggle the compact camera with me, 'just in case'. Our trip was largely one of visiting relations, although we did manage one bracing walk across the sand dunes and cliff tops at Perranporth. There was one plant in particular that caught the eye across this most south-western county, and that was Alexanders (above).

This umbellifer does not naturally occur in the UK, but was brought over as a pot herb and vegetable by the Romans, then cultivated in monastery gardens. I remember reading once that where the Romans went, this Mediterranean plant was left in their wake. Today it is largely coastal, but can be found well inland, commonly in the south-west. I have rarely seen it in Surrey, and when I have it has always been in small numbers.

Because it is an early flowerer, the modest yellow-green flower heads shine out from the dark hedgerows amongst the sober winter colour palette. Along a stretch of bridleway that swept down to Perranporth beach it was by far the commonest species in flower.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Greater Snowdrop



There are quite a few species of snowdrop out in flower at the moment. None are truly wild, even the 'normal' one that can carpet our woodland floor (Galanthus nivalis). They are all very similar, but with a bit of practice the other interlopers can be picked out. But beware! They can hybridise.

This morning I came upon a clump in Banstead (above), between the churchyard and car park in the High Street. The flowers were large, the leaves broad, and the inner tepals exhibited an extended area of green marking, particularly towards the base. I feel that I am on safe ground to suggest that this is Greater Snowdrop (Galanthus elwesii). I also came across naturalised crocuses (Early, Spring and Golden), Three-cornered Leek and Sweet Violet. They made a colourful procession to make the season seem even more advanced than it truly is.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Goldfinches and Lavender


We have three medium-sized Lavender bushes in our back garden. Throughout the summer the flowers (which last for several months) are a magnet for insects and give off a most restful aroma. As tempting as it is to cut the dead stems in the autumn, we always leave them, as we know that during the late winter we will get visitors to feed on the seed heads...



This video was taken from the kitchen window this morning. We will normally see one or two birds over a few days, but have had up to 14 at once. We never tire of watching them. Lavender is a wonderful plant to have in the garden, with year round natural history benefits. So what are you waiting for? They are readily available at a garden centre close to you right now!

There is an historic association with Lavender in this part of northern Surrey and south London. Lavender fields have been harvested for many years, with one particular field close to Woodmansterne being very popular with day trippers. A significant proportion of them are Korean (many have settled in SW London). I once asked a couple, who were wandering through the crop, why they were enticed to the site. They told me that it was because lavender has a strong association with love in their culture. Even to us westerners, this species has many links to folklore, it is said to act as a protector, to lessen pain and to aid sleep. A recent boom in the manufacture of lavender products is testament to its reawakening in the early 21st century. And our wildlife loves it.

STOP PRESS: A Wheatear was reported on Monday from Tarrant Rushton Airfield in Dorset. Fresh migrant or wintering malingerer? Whatever its provenance, let the white arse season commence!!

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The photographic record

I've never been one for 'having my picture taken'. It's not out of shyness, just an assumption that nobody would really want me in the way and spoiling their photograph. So, there are very few pictures of me in the field. I do know some people who do nothing but pose for the camera, and then post the images all over the place - each to their own, but not for me. I do, however, like taking photographs of wildlife. My family complain that I will happily snap away at a plant or a moth, but steadfastly ignore them. Guilty as charged...

A rarity - a picture of me in the field! High Pines, Fraser's Hill, Malaysia, April 1994

It's not that I don't like people, it's just that somebody else always seems to be taking care of the photographic 'people' element in my life. My wife and daughter's have tens of thousands of images stored on the computer and backed-up elsewhere. We have a pile of photographic albums, full of old-fashioned prints. These are full of the girls when they were babies and toddlers. I used to take pictures of them back then. Come to think of it, when we had our Cocker Spaniel I did take pictures of her, but rarely people. Maybe she counted as being honorary wildlife?

And another! Negev Desert, Israel, March 1986

There are times when I would dearly love to see pictures of gatherings from way back when, but I don't have them. You cannot have it both ways, and unless I break the habit of a lifetime and start clicking away it won't happen any time soon. Oh to have taken pictures of the observatory at Dungeness when it still resembled a junk shop. To have images of the trapping area when the vegetation was only waist and shoulder high. Pictures of Beddington when it was full of elms, had two houses on site (both lived in!) and a network of concrete culverts and outbuildings that we haunted. All long gone. But they live on in the mind. I'm a great advocate of living in the moment rather than trying desperately hard to catalogue it with cameras and phones. You cannot truly experience what's happening through a lens.

Older and heavier, Sandwich Bay, Kent, June 2011

Friday, 12 February 2016

The New Wild

The New Wild by Fred Pearce (Icon Books)

We are surrounded by species that, by rights, shouldn't be there - Japanese Knotweed, Pheasants, Little Owls, Horse Chestnuts, Rhododendron, Mink, Grey Squirrels... I could carry on. The knee-jerk reaction is to dig them all up, shoot them, remove them. We also spend a lot of time and money trying to keep certain habitats intact, be they reed beds, heathlands or salt marshes. It is as if we are trying to freeze time so as to preserve the fauna and flora present. Old, established ecosystems are the only way forward, and control of species that turn-up uninvited (or outstay their welcome) is obviously to be desired. Right? Well, according to Fred Pearce, wrong - very wrong!

This book will have you questioning the way that you look at the world and examining a number of pre-conceptions that will have been with you for many years. The idea of a settled way of the world - an idealistic view of ecosystems and habitat - is shown up to be a folly. That there are places in the world that do not show the scars of man's hand is debunked. Even the (apparently) ancient Amazon rain forest is not what it seems.

The deliberate, or accidental release of a number of species are looked at in some depth - among them being the Chinese Mitten Crab, Water Hyacinth and Mnemiopsis leidyi (a jellyfish) - and all have similar tales to tell. They arrived as unwanted aliens, took over, became public enemy number one, then retreated unexpectedly. In some cases millions of dollars/pounds had been spent trying to eradicate them before the species regulated themselves. In the case of Water Hyacinth, it was released into polluted lakes that had already lost a great deal of its suitability for many species. However, the Hyacinth was tolerant of such conditions and thrived. This was seen at the time as outcompeting what was already disappearing there. The plant was quietly cleaning the water, taking in the bad waters and purifying them. As the waters got cleaner, other species returned. The Hyacinth wasn't as keen on the cleaner water, and now had competition, so it greatly reduced in number.

Pearce suggests that it is often the case that when an invasive species takes over, it is allowed to do so because the habitat in which it is doing so is damaged. Quite often the new species acts as a cleanser and brings in other colonisers that feed on, nest in or co-depend on it. The new hotbeds of bio-diversity, evolution and species density are found in such places, even if they be brownfield sites that receive not a minutes worth of human input to manage them for nature.

It is worth quoting this paragraph for you to get a flavour for the thrust of the book: "The more damage that humans do to nature - through climate change, pollution, grabbing land for intensive agriculture and plantation forestry - the more important alien species and novel ecosystems will be to ensuring nature's survival. Aliens are rapidly changing from being part of the problem to part of the solution. And in a world where supposedly pristine habitats require constant micro-management to keep them going, where they are increasingly like theme parks for conservation scientists, the truly wild lies elsewhere. It is in the unmanaged badlands and novel ecosystems. The bits of nature we don't cosset and pamper. The new wild."

I would urge you to read it. I didn't agree with everything written, but my head was turned on more than a few occasions, and I do find myself looking around me with a fresh pair of eyes and an open mind. Is it really time to ditch the idea that everything has its rightful place and welcome in a nature that isn't fragile, but is robust and doesn't need our help?

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The boys and summer of 76

It's another 'first time' post, this one concerning the RSPB's flagship reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk. It was August 1976 and a disparate gang of 16 and 17-year old birders gathered for a fortnights birding extravaganza...

Theberton is a small village a few miles inland and due west of Minsmere RSPB reserve. On the afternoon of August 10 1976, at a tiny campsite situated behind a small petrol station, seven keen home-counties birders were erecting their tents, eager to get the birding started, pumped up by the thought of a full fortnight with nothing else to do. From Surrey there was Mark and Neil Greenway, Paul Butler and myself. From Hertfordshire was Barry and Ian Reed and Tim Andrews. Some of us had met up in Scotland the year before and had forged a birding friendship. Minsmere seemed an obvious place for us to reconvene.

This reserve was by far and wide the most famous in the country. I had not visited Suffolk before and there were a number of iconic species present that I had yet to see. The build up to departure had been a thing of tension and excitement. My waking hours were full of anticipation at finally seeing Marsh Harrier and Bearded Tit. My sleep was haunted by booming Bitterns and as yet to be revealed rarities. I was not to be disappointed.

That first afternoon saw us walk the public footpath from Theberton, across the marshes and onto the beach by the sluice at Minsmere. This was a walk that we repeated many times over the next 14 days. Our walk was enlivened by reed-fringed ditches, small pools, damp fields and a distant horizon that promised birds, birds and more birds. The nearer we got to the reserve the noisier the unseen avian circus became. Our anticipation levels were on red alert. My first ever Marsh Harriers (a male and female) were soon seen, high above the extensive reed beds - this being a time when they were still very rare birds indeed. The public hides allowed us our first view across the famous 'scrape' and on this particular afternoon we logged Little Gull, Spotted Redshank, Avocet, Ruff and Greenshank. As we retraced our steps back to the camp site two more of Minsmere's icons flew onto the list - a Bittern and a small flock of Bearded Tits. All this, and we hadn't actually set foot on the reserve itself!

The next day saw us up early and down by the sluice way before the reserve opened up to the public. But that was not a problem as we had the bushes at the sluice to investigate, the sand dunes (with their old concrete tank traps) to comb through and the public hides, which were a window out onto the never ending bird show beyond. Knot and Little Tern were tidy returns, but were overshadowed by the five Spoonbills that were to be seen in the distance. Once we presented ourselves to the reserve visitor centre, and obtained our day permits, we paid our respects to the breeding Red-backed Shrikes - their presence goes a long way in making us realise that 1976 is forty years ago, after all! A whistle stop tour was made of the hides, all named and all destined to become familiar places over the next few days - Tree Hide, West Hide, Isle of Mere Hide... the last named had a real character inside. A voluntary warden, quite elderly, sat in the corner with the air of a military man about him. Mr Denny was his name, I believe. His passion (and his job) was to alert anybody sitting in the hide to the presence of any Marsh Harrier. He would bark out directions in his clipped English - "Marsh Harrier flying right over the ruined building!" - until everyone was on it. He would ignore other birds. They didn't exist.

Minsmere was not the only site on our itinerary. Being fit young things we often walked north along the beach, past Dunwich and up to Walberswick, even beyond to the Blyth Estuary. Round trips of 20+ miles on foot were made most days. It was the summer of 76. It was hot and sunny every day. We were young and carefree. It was an idyllic period.

The birds kept coming: Aug 12th - Garganey and Nightingale (100 species recorded); August 13 - Aquatic Warbler (found by us and accepted by the BBRC); Aug 14 - White-winged Black Tern (that stayed for several days), Wood Sandpiper, another Red-backed Shrike and Pied Flycatcher; Aug 16 - Black Redstart; August 17 - Grasshopper Warbler, Temminck's Stint and male Montagu's Harrier; Aug 18 - Barred Warbler; August 20 - Wryneck (my dream bird, by the sluice), Wood Warbler, a flock of 150 Turtle Doves and Barn Owl; Aug 22 - 2 Icterine Warblers at the sluice, with one remaining until the following day. But as much as these highlights would live long in the memory, just being out in the stunning Suffolk countryside, tramping across heathland and along hedgerows, threading through woodland and over beaches, scanning the wetlands and the reedbeds, all under a glorious, burnished sun. Each night we stared up into a star spattered sky and watched shooting stars while chattering away below, reliving the day and planning the next. There would be waders on the scrape. Plenty of birds in the reedbed. More surprises hidden and waiting to be found. The summer was winding down into autumn. The grass was browning, the harvest was being gathered in the surrounding fields. Life was good.

Postscript: of those young lads mentioned above, two others carried on birding. Barry Reed became a well-known birder who made a name for himself through twitching and world birding, then settled down to be an elder statesmen in the Hertfordshire birding scene. Tim Andrews also took up the twin batons of twitching and world birding. Tragically, while on a trip to Peru in 1990, he was shot by guerrillas who mistook him for an American spy. His body was never recovered.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Too many books?


For the first time in my life I'm starting to question whether or not I need to buy any more natural history books. Or at least, if I do buy them, where are they going to go? We have two large alcoves fitted with bookshelves in our sitting room. There is floor to ceiling shelving along our upstairs landing. We have a book case in one of the bedrooms. Most of these are stuffed with natural history books. My books. There is no more room. Everybody else's books have to fight for space under beds, in boxes or stacked along window sills. I don't know how the natural history books took over, but they have. I'm a little ashamed...


Any regular visitor to this blog will know that I keep lists. Needless to say, I have a list of my natural history books. It is even broken down into subjects. No, really. Would you like to see? Birds (151), Lepidoptera (51), Natural History Literature (26), Fungi (5), Botany (60), Insects (28), Mosses (6), Orthoptera (4), Dragonflies (7) and Miscellaneous (26). That's 364 in total. This is not taking into account the hundreds of pamphlets, leaflets, booklets and reports that I also have. And, here's the irony - I reckon that over 300 of them hardly get looked at at all. Some of them never. So why did I buy them? Well, they all seemed like a wise purchase at the time. Some of them (like the Helm/Poysers, Surrey Wildlife Trust or BWPs) became collectable because they were from a certain publisher or part of a set. If the house burned down, how many of them would I definitely replace? Possibly 20.


The majority of my natural history purchases are now what could be termed as 'literature or writing', publications that are not so much field guides or species/family monographs, more works of art that explore the relationship that we as humans have with the wildlife around us. But they still take up space. And I'm still drawn like a moth to a flame to a book shop. Every single one that I pass. I still get a thrill from a purchase. To sit down with a new book, open the pages for the first time, smell the ink, be thrilled by the images and inspired by the words - it's almost as good a feeling as I get from being out in the field itself.

More shelving? Bigger house? Or fewer books? If this is my only problem in life then things cannot be going all that badly, can they? A few years ago I had a cull. I wish I hadn't. Maybe 25-30 books got shown the door, mainly from my early days, books that would have quite a bit of nostalgic value now. I will not make that mistake again.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Down the pan?


My pan species listing total has stalled somewhat over recent months. It currently stands on 3393 with the last addition being the migrant micro moth Syncopacma polychromella. And that was back in December. My embracing of the pan species concept hasn't loosened, but I have come to an acceptance that I am not one of those naturalists who has the inclination to name everything that they come across. I thought that I did, but I don't.

In the past couple of years I seem to have wandered back into birding as my first port of call when it comes to spending time out in the field. Lengthy stays at Dungeness Bird Observatory have undoubtably fostered this, along with the sharing of quality time with the great and the good folks who haunt the shingle. This has lead to less time being spent birding locally (which was becoming trying anyway) and a rediscovery of going that bit further afield. My recent visits to Pulborough Brooks have been not only enjoyable, but have made me realise that I cannot get my ornithological kicks closer to home. I've tried it and I (or it) has failed.

But my local area is not all about birds (just as well really). I am fortunate to have an incredible assemblage of plants, butterflies and moths on my doorstep - quite literally, as it happens. These three disciplines have been constant companions over recent years, and there is much to learn still. And this is where my pan species listing effort has fallen away.

When I first 'got into' it, I went out into the field and tried to identify it all - mosses, beetles, lichen, flies, fungi - you name it and I tried to put a name to it. But the harder I looked the harder it became. There is no short cut to correctly identifying a lot of this stuff. To do it right takes an awful lot of effort, not to mention the collecting of an awful lot of reference material (printed, online and specimens). Ironically, even though I now have more time to spend on this, I do not have the inclination to do so.

BUT.... just because I will not, as a course of action, attempt to name everything that I come across (or comes across me), I am still inquisitive enough to be curious as to the name of certain organisms that take my fancy. It might be an ornate fungus. A striking hoverfly. Or even a large and colourful beetle, like that pictured above. It is Carabus problematicus, that I found under fallen timber on Reigate Heath a few summers ago. I didn't mind trying to identify it, as there was only one confusable species, and even I could manage that.

I may well be saying "goodbye" to rising up the pan species league table (and have got used to saying "hello" to sliding down it), but that's all fine by me. Maybe this is the gentleman's way of joining in. I can sit back and applaud the players from the side-lines.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Scilly the first time

Continuing with my reminiscences regarding the first time that I visited iconic birding sites, say hello to... the Isles of Scilly! Dateline Friday 13th - Monday 16th October 1978.

"There's a Semi-palmated Plover on St. Agnes."

"Don't you mean a Semi-palmated Sandpiper?"

"No, plover, first for Europe. It's American."

The species that Tim Boultwood had just mentioned I had never heard of. I didn't even own an American field guide.

"I'm going down this weekend. Leave Friday night and drive back on Monday. Interested?"

As a burgeoning twitcher, the fabled Isles of Scilly had yet to appear on my birding CV. That was something that I was desperate to rectify.

Tim picked me up from outside West Croydon station Friday mid-evening. There were two other passengers - Nick Gardner and Steve Robinson. We settled down for a leisurely drive to Cornwall, taking in service stations, much birding banter, and all mixed with not a small amount  of apprehension - would the bird still be there? I also got my hands on an American field guide and came face to face with an illustration of our quarry. Was that it? Looked just like a Ringed Plover! My disappointment was tempered with the thought of possibly seeing my second 'first' for the UK that year, following on from the Stodmarsh Pallid Swift back in May.

We arrived at the Hayle Estuary for a dawn vigil. We did have a reason for being here and that was the presence of a Sociable Plover. Now, this WAS a stunning wader - at least, the illustration in the book looked stunning, but the bird itself was nowhere to be seen. Never mind, we had a boat to catch, so trundled off to Penzance to board the Scillonian 3, our transportation to the promised lands. We spent all our time on the deck, convinced that rare seabirds would come our way, but had to make do with 200+ Gannet, 20+ Shag, 10+ Great Skua and 25+ Razorbill (my notebook from the time is full of + counts). As for that rare seabird? Just wait for the postscript to this particular tale...

After two and a half hours we docked at Hugh Town, St. Mary's. I was terrible excited. A middle-aged birder was lounging about on the dock, laid back and nonchalant, apparently one of the names. He exuded coolness. As we disembarked he relayed the news that he knew that we'd want to hear, that the plover was still present. In a whirl of activity, we boarded a small motorised ferry to St Agnes, and jogged from the small quay to Periglis beach, where, running along the tideline was our target. A desperately underwhelming Semi-palmated Plover. As birders did in the 1970s, we lay down on the ground, drew out our draw-tubed telescopes, balanced the far end on our crossed over leg, and focused the dim image into something approaching 'OK'.  It looked like a Ringed Plover. We heard it call. It called NOTHING like a Ringed Plover, more like a Spotted Redshank. I could pretend that the fact that it was smaller, exhibited palmations and exhibited white-barring on the coverts all hit home with me (they are all noted down in my notebook), but I would be lying. Apart from its rarity, it did nothing for me. After a short while (none of us wanted to grill it for very long), we wandered off towards the vegetation around the buildings. This was better! A Red-breasted Flycatcher was sharing a weedy strip with a Spotted Flycatcher. Nearby, in the legendary Parsonage, an Icterine Warbler was on display along with two Firecrests. No time to dwell though, as we moved onto the dump, where a promised Red-backed Shrike duly performed. Our time spent watching it was cut short as a birder's shout from a nearby field had us scurrying along to share in his good fortune of a Little Bunting, creeping through the low growth. All this in half-an-hour. Our return to St. Mary's was one buoyed by our successes, where we quickly visited Porth Hellick pool to pay our respects to the 'resident' Long-billed Dowitcher.

Back in 1978, birders still slept rough on the islands (and were tolerated doing so). All four of us found a quay-side toilet/changing room and laid out our sleeping bags on wooden benches or the hard floor. I hardly slept all night, due to a mixture of exhilaration and sheer discomfort.

The following morning, after a quiet wander on Penninis Head, we took a ferry to Tresco, home to another underwhelming American vagrant, this one even more underwhelming (if that was possible) than the plover - a Black Duck. We saw it on the open sea as we approached the island and later on the Abbey Pond. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a Mallard. But, to my greedy tickers blinkers, that didn't really matter, as it was a lifer! Another tick come along shortly afterwards, as an Ortolan Bunting had been found nearby and played ball to the assembled crowd. The rest of the afternoon was spent back on St. Mary's, walking along the clifftops between Hughtown and the golf course. The weather was glorious. The islands were showing off their full beauty. It was a good place to be. Before we retired to our makeshift hotel for another nights broken sleep, news broke of a Red-tailed Shrike at Winspit in Dorset (as we then referred to Isabelline). That night, as we lay in our sleeping bags amid the dripping of taps, the realisation hit us that there wouldn't be enough daylight for us to attempt looking for the shrike on the way back home. -our boat docked at Penzance too late in the day to guarantee any birding time in Dorset. However, if we got on board an early helicopter, we would have time to burn. We decided to get up early and be waiting at the airport gates to ensure we got off the island - we already knew that there would be others attempting to do so as well.

To cut a long story short, we were first at the airport. We got the last four tickets on the first flight out. We had time to stop at the Hayle Estuary and successfully see the magnificent Sociable Plover. We arrived at Winspit with hours to spare. Hours in which we wandered around a virtually birdless valley. The shrike had gone...

Do you remember my earlier reference to rare seabirds from the Scillonian? As we were walking back along the valley footpath towards the car, we were met by a carload of birders who had driven like the wind from Penzance, on the off-chance that there would be enough daylight left for them to see the shrike. The light was just starting to go, and they could tell form our forlorn faces that the shrike was nowhere to be seen. But they were all positively beaming!

"You boys really thought you were the cat's pyjama's when you got on that chopper" one of them said, "but I tell you what, I'm really glad that you did and we didn't. On the crossing someone picked out a Black-browed Albatross sitting on the sea. Everyone on board got to see it!" And they had. Go  and look in the BB rarities report for 1978. October 16th. Black-browed Albatross between Land's End and the Isles of Scilly. You couldn't make it up.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Murmurating godwits


For the third time in a little over a fortnight I found myself at Pulborough Brooks*, unable to stay away from another helping of Black-tailed Godwits. Numbers today were a little down on last week, but there were still 800+ present, and they put on a spectacular show. There seems to be three default settings for the Pulborough godwits:

1) Roost. Do little, look bland.

2) Feed. All at the same time, eager and animated, much calling.

3) Fly! Turn from grey/buff humdrum into zebra-striped humbugs with a flick of the wing and a turn of the body, in glorious synchronicity.

Today saw quite a lot of aerial activity, as a particularly stubborn Peregrine was hassling birds over the flood throughout the day. I didn't see it, but there is now one less godwit on site tonight, but also one satiated falcon! When spooked, the flock, (which had been feeding or roosting in close proximity), would split into three or four sections, wheel around for several minutes, and then join up again, at other times break up and scatter into the distance, moving as far as the edge of Pulborough village or even leave the north flood altogether. There came a point when the flocks appeared to, just for the sheer joy of it, engage in extravagant manoeuvres - aerial ballet. A comparison with the murmuration of Starlings is not that far-fetched. When they felt safe, or got fed up, they would finally settle.


Also seen were: Canada Goose (350), Shelduck (24), Pintail (250), Wigeon (2,300), Teal (1,100), Shoveler (400), Lapwing (2,350), Ruff (8), Red Kite (3), Common Buzzard (6), Water Rail (2), Marsh Tit (1).

*There is no truth in the rumour that I have forsaken a certain shingle peninsula in Kent for this Sussex floodplain. Normal service will be resumed in the not too distant future...

Monday, 1 February 2016

The 2016 ND&B collection


I've been fiddling around with the blog header recently, and have settled on replacing them each month. So far has seen Goldfinch (January) and Kingfisher (February), but I thought that you might like to see what is coming up, in monthly order. The subjects are chosen to reflect the time of year.

Can anyone out there identify the species depicted in all twelve headers? First prize is the admiration of all the cyber wildlife community...

Winter bees

Yesterday afternoon saw Katrina and I playing the part of a stereotypical middle-aged couple, National Trust membership cards in hand and ambling around the walled gardens of Polesden Lacey. The construction of the grounds date from the beginning of the 20th century, and are a mixture of formal garden, wild planting and vegetable plots. Whatever time of year that we visit there is always colour, even on this particular grey January afternoon. Admittedly there are sleeping earth beds and bare trees that are the expected fare, but there is also a 'winter' garden, constructed in the mid 1960s which was an oasis of flower. Hellebores, snowdrops, winter aconites, crocuses, viburnum, Christmas box (sarcococca) - they really cheered the soul. But what really stirred my blood were the bees. At least 15 of them were busily visiting the hellebores (plus the odd snowdrop) in defiance of the January gloom. It was mild, but even so they were like a message from the coming seasons - "We'll soon be here!" They were all Western Honey Bees (Apis mellifera). I did see one bumblebee in the distance and a single hoverfly, both of which escaped specific identification. That didn't matter. It was their presence that was reward enough.