Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Twilight

I'm fast turning into a twilight junky - not the teen literary phenomenon, but the hour of daylight before the night closes in. It's packed with bird action! Each autumn I spend a bit of time checking up on known thrush and corvid roosts (and trying to locate others). You really need to stay scanning in such situations until you can see no more - some birds will not enter a roost until it is pitch black. It is at this time that you get to know a patch really well. The fading light throws familiar ground into strange perspectives. Sound travels further. Your senses are heightened.

This evening was a case in point. I stood on the Epsom Downs gallops looking across and down onto Walton Downs. The most obvious sound was that of Jackdaws, with at least 775 gathering and going to roost, along with 300 Carrion Crows that somehow slunk off earlier and without fanfare. As the light bled from the day a few Redwing started to circle, then a tight flock of 40 fell out of the sky and swooped in front of me - hang on, these weren't thrushes, they were Skylarks - they stayed low to the ground, hugging the grass before disappearing into the gloaming. Another couple of passerines dropped in front of me, this time Meadow Pipits, and settled straight away in the long grass. These were followed by several more, birds that I watched coming in from a long distance, all of them going straight to the same spot. How did they know? Did they roost here every night? A few more thrushes circled overhead in the dying light. Why did they waste so much valuable energy? And just as I was about to leave, 38 Lapwing, butter-knifed winged silhouettes, circled the fields, not quite committing to land but not confident enough to fly off into the darkness for another berth.

And all this happened when most sensible birders would have called it a day. But it's never too late...

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Swarm!

My most enjoyable natural history events of the past five years continue:

7. Hirundines at Canons Farm
The evening of September 20th 2017 saw me standing in the back garden when a group of Swallows powered through at head height, followed by another group a few minutes later. Over the next hour several hundred had done likewise, and as the daylight faded I resolved to be out in the field the following morning to see if this was the start of a meaningful hirundine push.

Arriving at Canons Farm at 07.15hrs I was pleased to see that there were already a few hirundines on the move. I settled down at my favourite observation point and waited. My wait was not a long one, as within half-an-hour 1200 Swallow and 70 House Martin had moved through, at a modest elevation and seemingly taking two well defined routes. House Martins then came to the fore, as in the next 30 minutes they numbered a further 730 birds, with Swallows mustering 600. The passage then abruptly stopped.

I was more than happy with what I had seen and took myself off for a wander round the farm, but with one eye to the skies in case the hirundines started up again. At 11.00hrs, they did. The next couple of hours proved to be memorable. House Martins started to barrel in, in wide open flocks, up to 700 in 15 minutes and then a great pulse of 1800 in just 10 minutes that included a group of 400 birds. Geoff Barter then joined me. He had timed it well.

Then an enormous swarm arrived from the north. We stood transfixed. We were surrounded by a minimum of 2,000 birds, in all directions, like gnats on a summers day. As far as we could tell they all seemed to be House Martins. Those that had been at height suddenly dropped down and the majority of the flock started to feed in a frenzy over the adjacent fields. It was manic. At this point you stop being a mere observer and become a participant - a grounded participant maybe, but one immersed in, and a part of, the action.

As soon as great knots of hirundines moved off south they were quickly replaced by fresh arrivals. A few more Swallows started to appear as the House Martin stream finally started to slow. By 12.45hrs it had quietened down and the spectacle had virtually stopped by 13.15hrs. The final totals were 6710 House Martin (a county record) and 4000 Swallow. And strangely enough, this passage was not replicated elsewhere locally.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Big Blue


My most enjoyable natural history events of the past five years continue:

8. Back garden Clifden
My mothing baptism of fire came courtesy of a week spent in the company of Sean Clancy’s actinic moth trap. It was June 1981 and we were both staying at Dungeness Bird Observatory. I was mesmerised by the variety of shapes, colours and sizes of the moths that were being attracted to the blue light and, on my return home, promptly ordered the two volumes of South’s Moths (this was the first place of reference back then). To our eyes today, spoilt by fantastic photography and illustration, the colour plates in South leave much to be desired. But there was one species that was still able to fly off the page and into my imagination regardless. It was big. It had a ludicrously blue underwing. And it had an exotic name.

Clifden Nonpareil.

But there was a catch in trying to find one of these desirable moths. They were rare. Very rare. Had it been thirty years earlier we might have had a chance as they had colonised woods on the Kent - Sussex border, but had since then slipped back to the mythical status bestowed upon it by those hardy Victorian collectors. To see one was akin to winning a lepidopteran lottery. But then, one September morning in 1990, Sean (by then a resident of Dungeness) did just that. I happened to be staying at the observatory at the time, and my visit to his house to view such a fine beast is one fondly remembered.

And that, until 2017, was that.

On the morning of August 24th I wandered out into the back garden to check the MV moth trap that I frequently run. There had been some interesting species trapped over the previous few nights, including a migrant Scarce Bordered Straw, so my hopes were up. In fact, one of the first moths checked was another Scarce Bordered Straw - good stuff. I worked my way through the trap, moving egg boxes as I went. I got to the bottom of the trap and was confronted by a large, pale Catocala. It stopped me in my tracks - I may even have held my breath. Even though I knew what it was, I needed to see the underwing, to convince myself that it was blue and not red. With a little nervous tremor in my hands I placed the moth into a plastic container and, ever so carefully, peered beneath the fore wings.

BLUE!!

The rest of the day was one of reliving that reveal. When I released the moth that evening it had attracted a crowd, as Peter Alfrey, Nick and Russell Gardener had made the short trip to pay their respects. 2017 was a good year for Clifdens. They were widely recorded in the southern third of England and seemed to be colonising again. My garden visit was one that was repeated elsewhere, each and every one giving observers a shot of adrenalin and a memory to look back on that would, no doubt, still pack some power in the years to come.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Why tell?

A fellow birder recently asked me the following question:

" Why do we want to let others know what we see?"

That really got me thinking. Don't we just chuck our observations out into the public domain without given it a moments thought? Or maybe we do have our reasons, our ulterior motives, for doing so. I had a bit of paper nearby and jotted a few thoughts down as they entered my head. After five minutes the following had been written...

To contribute to and create an accessible database

To inspire others

Self aggrandisement

Sharing data and success

To inform others of what's about and where to go

For entertainment value

To educate (or at least to arm others with information)

Because data is important

To act as an alert to those who may be interested

To justify what we do and to give our observations meaning

As you can see, plenty of overlap but also many diverse reasons as to why we pass on our observations. All of the above are why I do so, or at least these are what entered my thoughts unbidden - you may have many other reasons for doing so.

The way we pass on this data has changed in recent years. When I started birding, I would send my observations (by post) to the county recorder, with phone calls being made to close birding friends if I found something of interest. Part of it was to advertise my presence in the birding world (through initials in bird reports and acknowledgement from recorders) but it was also a public celebration of what I was getting from my bird watching. Now we have many ways of alerting others to what we find - Twitter, Facebook, What'sApp, blogs, phone - but the premise is the same, that of letting others know of your success/luck. So is it really down to showing off? Some of the time almost certainly. Why not bask in the glory of finding a rarity, as it doesn't happen all of that often. But we will also announce a good sky or sea watch, one full of common birds, and such an event is surely not a case of blowing our own trumpet. Maybe we are just advertising the fact that we are out in the field and paying our dues - but it isn't as straight forward as that - we are also wanting to let other observers know that something is happening which they to can also enjoy if they just get outside right away and join in. And what about a simple tweet that tells your followers about a Firecrest in a hedgerow or some Brambling feeding in a field? Neither are rare, neither suggest that you are manfully facing the elements in a time consuming search of the skies or sea - maybe these are true examples of altruism, just wanting to give others the opportunity to watch desirable species. All of the above most probably apply some of the time, it's not a black and white decision as to why we do release our sightings out into the public domain. Shades of grey rule!

And then, just when I was about to send this off to post, I thought of another reason, possibly THE reason.

We want to belong

We want to belong, or at least feel as if we belong, to a network of like-minded souls who get their kicks from this passive art of birding. There, that's the whole thing sussed then - it's all because of our human need to connect with like-minded souls....

...maybe.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Tree of Klimt


I'm obviously speeding up as this is the second painting to be completed this year! I started with the idea for a 'Tree of Life' composition, and then changed it to a 'Tree of Klimt' after being heavily influenced by the great man. As I'm sure you can make out for yourselves, one half is winter, the other summer. If you don't already dabble, go on and pick up a brush then paint away - let it all out! We can all do it, there's no right or wrong and it is so relaxing.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Charmed

My most enjoyable natural history events of the past five years continues:

9. A swarm of Goldfinches 
It dawned overcast, dry and mild at Dungeness on 19th October 2017. The wind was a gentle south-easterly and, on stepping out from the observatory back door and into the half-light, there were already birds calling high overhead. It seemed to me a morning to be watching the skies for visible migration! I took myself off towards the point, away from the background noise of the power station. Watching diurnal passerine movement at Dungeness is an imprecise art, although most birds during the autumn appear to hug the beach (either heading east or west) or straight down (or up) the peninsula. Any vantage point between the observatory and the fishing boats will normally do.

I initially stood close to the old lighthouse to get a feel for where the birds were moving - it was soon obvious that Goldfinches were on the move, and coming down the west side of the promontory. After ten minutes I then took up position by the Britannia Public House, to shield myself from the strengthening wind and to be able to hear any calls all the better. The Goldfinches still were coming through, in little spurts, but as time wore on their numbers slowly increased.

A phone call from Mark Hollingworth lead to us joining forces on the 'concrete road', very close to the actual point itself, where we were soon joined by Martin Casemore. Our position here was even better, as there were flocks of birds moving just offshore and parallel to the beach, birds that I was missing from my earlier watchpoint close to the Britannia. Although the wind had freshened to a southerly force 3-4 we were all good. The finches continued to pass through - the vast majority of them being Goldfinches. My notebook was being scrawled into with some frequency, and after 90 minutes we had recorded at least a couple of thousand. And then somebody turned the Goldfinch tap up to 'fully open'.

For the next couple of hours we were hit by waves of them. Great tight flocks, clots of jangling buffs, creams, apricots, golds and red. They kept close to each other, with frantic calling, all seemingly in a terrible hurry. We had to keep our wits about us as flocks were passing (largely east to south-eastwards) in front, behind and above us. Most of these flocks were pure Goldfinch, although some did carry imposters, with Siskins trying to sneak past hidden amongst their congeners. There was one unforgettable moment when a veritable ball of c400 birds headed straight at us, just above ground level. On reaching us the ball shattered, immersing us in a cacophony of shrillness, torn ribbons of golden yellow fleeing past, shards of noise almost physical in form. For a short while the passage was relentless, a veritable layered conveyer belt of migration in action. Birding does not come in many purer and wilder forms. To watch birds moving out of instinct and sheer need is exhilarating.

By the time the movement had finished we had logged 6,175 of the little beauties. There was not a lot else moving - just 94 Meadow Pipit, 8 alba Wagtail, 2 Skylark, 11 Swallow, a Brambling, 34 Chaffinch, 6 Greenfinch, 2 Redpoll, 50 Siskin and 200 Linnet. Oh, and one other species - a single Hawfinch - one of the early irrupters that were going to delight and astound me over the coming winter. But that's another story...

Taking time out from a frenzied flight

Thursday, 14 November 2019

In Clover

At the back end of 2014 I posted my 'Top Ten Natural History Moments', the result of a trawl through my notebooks that I had kept since 1974. It was an enjoyable exercise. Five years have elapsed since then - but in that timeframe have I got another ten moments of natural history joy to share with you? You bet. So here they are, in descending order...

10. Clover-fest at Dungeness
In May 2018 I was staying at Dungeness Bird Observatory, spending a great deal of time in the company of Jacques Turner-Moss, the assistant warden at DBO. He was a delight to be with, a down-to-earth, unassuming and most talented naturalist. He had taken a keen interest in the plants that grew on the shingle, and when he became aware of my wish to track down Clustered Clover - a species of plant that had always evaded me - he was up for joining me in my quest.

First of all we travelled to the northern end of the Littlestone sand dunes, an area known to hold this species. A good couple of hours was spent searching a relatively small area of ground, most of the time on our hands and knees, forensically searching through the low vegetation. Even though were armed with grid-references for our target, it was just not showing. That is not to say that we were not finding plenty of clovers - Burrowing, Knotted, Birdsfoot, Rough and Haresfoot should have been more than compensation - but they weren't what we really yearned after. There were other specialist plants nearby, with Bird's-foot (not to be confused with the clover), Annual Knawel and Smooth Cat's-ear. It was a splendid afternoon.

The following day, and on the suggestion of DBO supremo David Walker, Jacques wandered off and found the prize - a host of flowering Clustered Clover at the entrance of West Beach Cottage. The combination of his youthful enthusiasm, good eyesight and the bit between the teeth had proved a winner. I spent a good while lying across the road photographing this most subtle of species. What was not lost on me was that I had walked past this species so many times. If it could hide in plain sight, could we carry on and find another (lost) clover species? Dave had shown me Suffocated Clover 20 years before, outside the observatory front door, but it hadn't been recorded for several years. Enter 'eagle-eyed' Turner-Moss, clearly on a clover roll. He went and found a mass of the stuff flowering on the track between the bird observatory and the railway sleeper path that crosses the moat. When you add White and Red to the tally, we had recorded nine species of clover in 24 hours.

Clustered Clover
Suffocated Clover
Burrowing Clover
Knotted Clover
Birdsfoot Clover
Rough Clover
Haresfoot Clover