Showing posts from September, 2010


I have all day Saturday too go birding. A 24 hour pass from domestic chores, not that I do that many domestic chores to be honest. There is a bit of painting and decorating that could be done, there's a back door that has started to stiffen up and a bit of insulating that could be laid in the loft. But no, they can wait (my wife may suggest that they permanently wait). So, Saturday. Where to go? What to do? The options are: Dungeness. There are two Buff-breasted Sandpipers in the area and I've no doubt that migrants have been stirred up a bit this week so there could be plenty on offer. Another south-east site: Oare Marshes (White-rumped Sandpiper), Bockhill (lovely place but I never score there), Pagham (an old favourite). Birdguides: weigh up the options on Friday evening and follow the sheep to the nearest goody. Stay local: hmmm, a few Yellow-broweds dotted about the country, Ring Ouzels leaping about urban wastelands throughout London, both of these would be more than

Serious, for a change

As one who normally posts with, shall we say, a 'glass half-empty' philosophy, it is high time that I became a touch more positive. What has turned me from Victor Meldrew into Archbishop Desmond Tutu? Believe it or not, I'm increasingly seeing good in my fellow birder. Yes, that right, good. Let me give you a couple of local examples. There is a group of birders who stake out Beddington Farmlands (aka Beddington Sewage Farm). They are a mixture of rabid twitchers, dedicated patch workers and frontier birdsmen. The group was formed some twenty years ago, with modest but worthy aims to record the birdlife of the farm and publish the findings. A healthy Tree Sparrow population was studied through the ringing of nestlings. As time went by, various schemes to extract aggregate from the farm and then infill with refuse were hatched by big business. Some of these have come to fruition, but the group were there throughout consultations and public enquiries. Through such actions, pa

Wanstead comes to the North Downs

Another addition to my Blog List, this time from Wanstead Birder . Anyone who can see 200 species of bird in London within a calendar year (and it isn't even October yet) is certainly worthy of a read. His latest post, which tells the tale of a route march to Blakeney Point to see a certain flycatcher, is well worth reading. The only time that I've trudged that same shingly ground didn't seem too bad to me, but then again it was during August and I was still in my fit twenties. That particular day was not a success - I had gone to see a Royal Tern, that didn't show, and was later identified as a Lesser Crested any way. Mistakes like that don't happen any longer, do they....

Crane fly on migrane inducing peeling paint

This is Tipula maxima , or a daddy-long-legs with heavily patterned wings to you and I. Please excuse the headache inducing peeling paint that it decided to land upon. Another tick (a very common tick) in my pointless rush towards 3,000 in my all-taxa UK list! A boy's got to have something to do, give me a break... Also, please spend a bit of time to visit the latest addition to my blog list, 'The Lyon's Den'. This chap knows how to mix and match his natural history and the lucky so-and-so does it for a living. Most envious.

A picnic with hirundines

There are still some days when the 'hard-core' birder within me tries to break out. Today was such a day. I was sitting on the beach at Ferring, in West Sussex with my family enjoying a rather fine picnic lunch. The sun was shining and the only ornithological interference came from a couple of Sandwich Terns that were patrolling the beach. Then the cloud arrived, and with it the first House Martins, which flew low and purposefully westwards, some of them passing inbetween our sitting group. After five minutes it was obvious that these hirundines were not an isolated flock but the vanguard of something altogether grander. I spent more time paying attention to the visible migrants (apart from when it was time for coffee and cake!) and it was then that I ached for that Empidonax flycatcher on Blakeney Point or one of the inland Gannets that have delighted a number of patchworkers. Calming my birding hyperventalation down, I kept calm, and for the next two hours reckoned on 12,00

Stumped by a caddis fly

In my attempt to identify everything that is living in the UK, I thought that I would start off with this humble caddis fly. My Collins Insect guide kindly illustrates 29 species but also mentions that there are just under 200 species to be found in Britain. As my specimen (photograph above) matches none of them I had to admit that here was a family that needed deeper research. I went onto bioimages brilliant photographic website (thousands of obscure species at your fingertip) but still could not match up my insect. That leaves me with three options: investing in the Field Studies Council 'Guide to adult caddisflies' (only £3.50 folks!); appealing to someone out there knowing what this is; or more likely me never knowing its true identity.


This is Henbane. It is a member of the nightshade family and is very poisonous. It contains hyoscyamine and hyoscine, poisons that Doctor Crippin used to good effect when bumping off his wife back in the early 20th century. Unfortunately for him, a noose ended his own life shortly afterwards. I had not seen this species until last June, when I stumbled upon 20 healthy plants that were growing in a chalky field that had had large quantities of manure dumped upon it. They were of a good size and pleased me greatly. (It really doesn't take much to please me greatly nowadays). The field was along the banks of the River Mole between Mickleham and Leatherhead. Some authors consider this an evil looking plant, but I cannot see the darkness in it. In fact I reckon that Deadley Nightshade has more 'something of the night' about it. Please accept this post in lieu of not having anything else to bore you with.

The whole shooting match

So, you fancy broadening your natural history horizons. You've spent many happy days in the company of birds and as a by product of this have taken notice of the butterflies and dragonflies that you see buzzing around. Moths are a natural progression and of course you start to take an interest in their food plants, so you add botany to your wildlife arsenal. And now it all gets a bit tricky. I have started (and stopped) and started again to look at other things. Hoverflies. Fungi. Mosses and liverworts. Spiders. The truth is, they just aren't like the other families that I have studied. For a start, there are not fully comprehensive field guides to guide you through the species that you will find. You will be given a firm push towards which family or genus that the organism before you belongs to, but to be confident of identifying it to species level - well, that will now involve complicated keys (which are either obscure or a devil to use), microscopes and a dictionary (to fin

What makes a wanderer?

Alan Tilmouth's latest post introduced me to one Jos Stratford , a Welsh birder who now lives in Lithuania. Please take a moment and visit his web site and look at the section entitled 'About Me'. This makes the life of the average MI5 double-agent seem positively sedate and uninteresting. His birding wanderings started when he was barely a teenager. He was scampering over Europe at the tender age of 15. I was, at that age, still having my nose wiped for me and asking for my pocket money so that I could go on daring expeditions as far as, oh let me see, the local chip shop. I've long been fascinated by my fellow birders who have the character, confidence and burning need to go off on long, distant trips. I'm all the more impressed if the trip has no defined length. A three week trip to Vietnam is commendable, but a birding odyssey that takes 'just as long as it takes' speaks to me of a devil-may-care attitude that I just do not possess. I've always play

Fooled again

I wandered out of the back door yesterday evening, looked up into a dusking sky that had a fair amount of cloud cover, took note of a relatively mild temperature and hot-footed it to the garage to take out and switch on the moth trap. This morning saw me eagely hovering over the trap, examining each egg box. The species composition was as to be expected, the moth numbers not too bad. The last egg box was flipped over to reveal a distinctive looking micro, one of those that mimics bird droppings as a way of avoiding predation. It was, I admitted to myself, a fine looking specimen, distintive in its narrow wings and raised thorax. I couldn't immediately put a name to it (not surprising for me with a micro), but I was confident that I could do so as it looked so striking. I tapped the egg box to dislodge the moth into a pot but it wouldn't budge. I then inserted a small leaf stalk beneath it to move it (this always works) but on this occasion failed to do so. There was nothing le


This morning I went to Holmethorpe Sand Pits, confident that I would add my name to the ever growing list of observers who have found a Wryneck, Lapland Bunting or Glossy Ibis in the UK over the past few days. After being on site for ten minutes I felt as if I had been put into a trance and then awoken in the middle of the wildfowl collection at Arundel. The first pit I looked at contained a Ruddy Duck, 5 Red-crested Pochards and 6 Egyptian Geese. I even digiscoped one (see above). Those of you that were regular visitors to the original North Downs and beyond blog may remember that I got on with digiscoping about as well as a vampire gets on with cloves of garlic. My morning was not without incident, but not incident enough to regale you with. It was all rather average. This afternoon I went off along the North Downs proper, camera in hand ready to capture marvellous images of the fungi I expected to find. In truth, what I did find were specimens in poor shape that did not want or nee

Anatomy of a patch watcher

To be a successful patch worker you need... Optimism - "That flock of Linnets could attract a Common Rosefinch" Blind faith - "That flock of Linnets will, one day, attract a Common Rosefinch" Determination - "If I check that flock of Linnets three times a day I will find a Common Rosefinch" Imagination - "That sparrow-like bird with the Linnet flock could have been a Common Rosefinch" Appreciation - "My goodness, doesn't that flock of Linnets (without a Common Rosefinch with them) look grand" But it can all go wrong... Envy - "That bastard down the road has had a Common Rosefinch in his Linnet flock and he only checks them twice a day" Anger - "Why the bloody hell as every other Linnet flock within twenty miles got something in with them apart from my flock?" Despair - "My life will never be complete until I find a Common Rosefinch in my Linnet flock. I'm a feeble, sad, lonely man and a crap bird

Choose a patch

Do I detect a subtle shift in the UK birding psyche? Whisper it, but I really do believe that there are birders out there that have rediscovered the joys of working a patch. These are not all wide-eyed beginners or just washed-up faded has-beens (yes, yes, I know, the latter could be me). I seem to be bumping into plenty of people who have done their time - local park, local sewage farm, coastal hotspot, Scilly, Fair Isle, UK twitching, world birding domination - but are now choosing local patch again. I can see a skinny Ewan MacGregor running down an Edinburgh street to the strains of Iggy Pop whilst incanting "Choose binoculars, choose a scope, choose a warbler, CHOOSE A PATCH" If you don't know what the hell I'm on about watch the opening credits to the film 'Trainspotting', which by the way, should be shown to all school children as the best anti-drug message that is available. Blimey, where did that come from.... Back to the patch. Is there really this sh

A dip into the bag of summer

This is a Deptford Pink flower, very much a decreasing species in the UK. If you look at the current distribution maps it has but a few, and widely scattered, populations. Kent is a county where it can still be reliably found. This picture was taken in July, at a place where it is not really wild, but has been grown from seed that was taken from a native site in the same county. I don't know the correct stance to take on the deliberate planting or propogation of species, but I suppose that if one site loses the species then the seed bank continues to survive elsewhere - after all, most local extinctions are down to man's interference in the first place. Also, is this spreading of the seed any different from a plant spreading by the agency of birds? I can just look on and enjoy, regardless of the plants provenance.

The commonest species not on your list, list

When something 'big' turns up, if you want to see it, 90% of the time you can. Eastern Crowned Warbler, Citril Finch, Purple Martin, if you had the time, money and inclination, and didn't sit on your hands for 48 hours weighing up whether to go for it or not, then it would be on your list. Most serious listers have all three (and then a few more). Most of the 'part-time' listers of the UK mainland might not island-hop, but will still take a long drive to Flamborough or Nanquidno to knock-off that missing warbler, pipit or yankee warbler. This means that we have a large pool of birders with almost identical lists (most will be missing at least one mega that arrived when they were on holiday abroad - and 550 ticks in Uganda still don't make up for that Long-tailed Shrike). We do now have a number of extreme seabird records that have meant major gaps appearing in the listers list (Tufted Puffin anyone?) As for me, I have plenty missing from my UK list. A veritable

A bramble that you can actually identify

These images are of Rubus laciniatus, a species of bramble that even boasts an 'English' name - that of Cut-leaved Bramble. There are currently 334 microspecies of rubus recognised in the UK and I can only recognise one of them, the one pictured here. I might be able to identify more, but, to be honest, I haven't really tried. I imagine that to do so might involve keys, microscopes and a dictionary to decipher such words as 'acicles' and 'tomentose'. This plant was found on Headley Heath in Surrey. It is, in fact, an alien species to the UK and well-known for its good fruit.

Peregrine's breakfast, lunch and tea

The building that I work in, based in Sutton, Surrey, is also the nest site of a pair of Peregrines. This year they raised four young, of which three definitely made it. A team of London Peregrine champions visited the site, including Tony Duckett from Regents Park, who back in August collected the remains of prey items and posted the photographic evidence. For an inland site the menu is rather surprising. You can see the species that were eaten here:

Getting one's arse spanked

No, the title of this post is not a desperate attempt to lure more traffic into visiting this blog, as I no longer have a statcounter or a flagged-up map of the world to look at. It is reference to my recent lack of finding any half-decent birds locally, even though I am trying, and mainly refers to a whole stream of local birders filling their boots (including a frighteningly focused 16 year old). Even those local species deemed 'good' birds (such as Common Redstart) have firmly kept out of my notebook. But they have entered everyone elses. One reason for my failure is good old honest toil. It's no use me turning up at the local farm and keeping ornithologically focused for only half-an-hour before losing my concentration to an unhealthy train of thought involving Sarah Beeny and Nigella Lawson. The other failing is stopping to look at plants. The Wryneck may have hopped out onto the path in front of me while I'm trying to decide if the plant before me is Fragrant Agri

Moth round-up

This summer has seen a bit of a dip in my efforts towards recording moths. The garden MV trap has not been out all that often, so the addition of Orange Footman to the garden list was down to luck rather than hard slog. I did record two adult Toadflax Brocades (pictured above), hot on the heels of last years larvae found on Purple Toadflax (just by the garage door). My week at Dungeness back in July supplied me with three new species - Cypress Carpet, Orache Moth and Rosy Wave. The first mentioned is something that has been colonising Surrey and I would hope to trap it soon in the garden. Another coloniser of London, Jersey Tiger, has continued to show in good numbers this year, but hasn't come far south enough to be a genuine garden target. One day.... My promise to get 'in amongst the micros' was spectacularly broken. It just hasn't happened. I don't know why I cannot readily embrace the little sods. It's not as though they are all brown and need a microscope


Inspired by the writings of other blogs that I have had the pleasure to read, I decided to work out what my own 'Total UK list' is - that is, how many living species have I recorded within these isles? My total - 2599 - elicited neither disappointment not pleasure in me, as I had no idea what the total may be. My breakdown, for those of you that have read this far, or have the slightest interest is: Flora: 1359 Moths: 675 Birds: 370 Butterflies: 50 Dragonflies: 33 'Other' insects: 35 Mammals: 31 Fish: 17 Fungi: 15 Amphibians: 5 Reptiles: 4 Marine life: 5 I have not claimed any mosses, liverworts or lichens. My general insect score is low, but has plenty of scope to increase. Some of you may wonder at the depresed bird total for someone who often waffles on about great twitches from the 1970s. My listing has slowed dramatically (300 up in 1981, 350 up in 1990, but only 20 ticks in the past twenty years), which shows how little chasing I now get involved with. My only new

The most diffcult patch in England?

I recently spent some time on the Dorset coast at Charmouth. As is my want, I wandered the coastal paths close by to try and winkle out those natural history gems. This whole area is part of the 'Jurassic Coast' and the cliffs here are very unstable. The picture above was taken east of Charmouth looking down from the clifftop into an area of slippage that has since stabilised and allowed woodland to establish. Beyond the woods is another cliff that drops straight into the sea. The picture below illustrates the site perfectly (thankyou Google Earth). Whilst I stared into this green abyss, I wondered how on earth you could successfully bird it. There must be plenty of migrants that have come over from France and dropped in. Some of them must be rare! How many Golden Os, Melodious Warblers and Bee-eaters enliven a late spring day? And what about those rare autumn phylloscs? But, you cannot approach the wood from the top (crumbling descent, wickedly steep incline, deeply rutted) or

Yes, a tick does still matter

Back in July I rolled back the years and stayed at Dungeness Bird Observatory for a whole week. It was like being a teenager again. But, unlike my previous July visits to DBO (back in the 1970s and 1980s), there were birds to watch - some of them very good birds. Firstly, the breeding Purple Herons at the RSPB reserve were on show, together with a Great White Egret and a Bittern. I spent hours scanning through the gulls and on one particular evening up to 70 Mediterranean Gulls had gathered by the patch, most of them juveniles. But one bird in particular stood out from the rest - a White-tailed Plover. I don't refer to it as a White-tailed Lapwing, just in case you're wondering, any more than a Nuthatch is a Wood Nuthatch or a Dunnock a Hedge Accentor. Anyway, back to that Sunday afternoon when the plover turned up: I was looking forward to the World Cup final later that evening, so really didn't need any excitement late in the afternoon. However, a vague message reached t

Stinking Hawk's-beard is NOT extinct

Please excuse me as I post a few items from the archives - those archives that exist between when I packed-up blogging and decided to start up again. Cheap and mindless fodder to fill-in until I get inspiration, annoyed or see something worthwhile... First up is a botanical rarity of the highest order. Stinking Hawk's-beard was declared extinct in the UK back in the 1980's. Dungeness was its last station. Seed from the hallowed shingle had been collected and a programme of reintroduction was started at both Dungeness and Rye Harbour (see British Wildlife magazine for a full account). But in July 2010 an undiscovered wild colony was found, numbering several thousand plants. I cannot tell you where for fear of having my nipples surgically removed, but I can give you a clue... it's on shingle . The photo above is of the pappus which is easier to find than its non-descript yellow flower. If you think that you have found this plant then crush its leaves - they smell of TCP. It j