Friday, 29 October 2010

Laid back - a study in russet

It is a rare event when I go out into the field and not treat every living thing that I come across as something to identify (or at least try to), to write it down in a notebook and commit it to the giant database that I maintain at home. Today was different...

I have been aware for some time that my DSLR and various lenses have lay dormant, unused, and unloved. With all of the spectacular autumn colour on offer I was moved (yes, very Byronesque, I know) to get out and take some photographs. I used to dabble with illustration, and have been looking for a subject that will grab me enough to rekindle this lost art. Pattern and form have always been areas that I have gravitated towards, rather than realism. The natural world is full of both. So, this afternoon I wandered into Banstead Woods, sans binoculars set the camera function to manual, and snapped away.

I was quite pleased with the results. Muted colour on an overcast afternoon which has the basis for a number of illustrative projects. I also did not feel the need to worry about what species the trees or leaves were (although I could tell you if pushed). I was not tested as to my forced state of 'non-identification' by any possible Hawfinch, Waxwing or white-rumped Redpoll popping up in front of me or flying overhead calling. It made a refreshing change.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Scilly Stories (2)

October 1979. The Scillonian docked at St. Mary's and my first task find somewhere to stay. At this time the previous day I had no idea that I would be on the fabled isles. I was in a studio at art college, charcoal in hand, nude model across the room (don't get too excited, think Ann Widdicombe), but a birding mate of mine was starting a two-week birding break and I just couldn't resist it. I got a lift down with him overnight from London, but accommodation would be a problem for me. He was staying in a flat that was already oversubscribed with birders to the point that there were people sleeping in the kitchen (I bet that now the flats are empty in late October). The prevoius autumn I had 'dossed' in the waiting room at the quay, but rumour had it the island authorities had cracked down on this type of behaviour, and the waiting room door was locked at night.

I quickly found a B&B, comfortable and not to expensive. The landlady was a pleasant soul, her husband a grumpy old git. You can tell from this laid back approach that there wasn't anything mega to go and see straight away. By early afternoon I was strolling around and had seen a Tawny Pipt and a Short-toed Lark (both on the golf course), when news of a Rustic Bunting broke - a bird that I needed. No sooner had I seen that than a kefuffle started at the end of the viewing line of birders and they start running away, to what we didn't know. I joined them, along with twenty or thirty others, a tangle of tripods, bags and ex-military clothing, a kakhi snake wiggling its way along a St.Mary's lane. After 400m the birders ahead of us had stopped and were looking at something. My mind raced well ahead of itself, all thoughts of American warblers and unheard of asian gems. But it was just a Subalpine Warbler, albeit a smart male. And I 'needed' it.

The two weeks were rather poor if truth be told, the best bird being a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak that was elusive and took me three days to catch up with, but when it did fly over my head, showing off the intense crimson underwing, it was worth the wait. There was also the Blyth's Reed Warbler (horrendously rare at the time) that, after being trapped, turned out to be a Marsh Warbler. I relayed that tale on the original North Downs and Beyond blog.

On my return to art college (after being missing for a fortnight), my tutor asked me where I had been. Thinking on my feet I lied that there had been a family crisis that was rather personal, and that I didn't want to talk about it. He accepted it and no more was said. Phew...

Monday, 25 October 2010

Latin names

I used to know most of the latin names of the birds of the Western Palearctic. I've forgotten a few of them now, but can still surprise myself with plucking them out of the air. A colleague at work would often test me, even though he isn't a birder, because it amused him. Some latin names are so apt, and I don't mean by their literal translation. Scolopax rusticola says Woodcock to me more than the word Woodcock does. Lymnocryptes minimus describes a cryptically-plumaged small skulking thing much better than Jack Snipe does. Pallas's Warbler does create an image by association, but not as much as Phylloscopus proregulus, which sounds far more stately and regal, as befits such a jewel. I had a birding friend who just couldn't get to grips with latin and used to make his own up, but he didn't make them up terribly well. So, in his birding world, Reed Bunting was, in all seriousness, Reedus Buntingus. I still think of that species by that name in honour of his ways. Maybe we should all wander around proclaiming species in latin - it would stop all this Wood Nuthatch and Pied Avocet nonsense.

Saturday, 23 October 2010


I spent a few minutes (oh alright, a bit more than that), looking back at photographs that I had taken earlier in the autumn of lichen. My basic field guides and a knowledge that what I was claiming was dirt common has led me to confidently identify a further four species. Together with an additional moss and another fungi brings my UK all-taxa list up to 2,618. I present to you a photograph of Evernia prunastri, if only to convince unbelievers that lichen can be stunning. It also gives you something to do when the birds are quiet.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Albert Ross? Who's he?

I've just re-read yesterday's post and see that I have spelt Albatross as Albertross. Dude or what? Losing my grip? The evaporation of any birding knowledge that I once held? Yes, yes and yes. So, no mention today of Bramberlings, Palarses Warblers or even Grate Gray Shrikes... as any fule kno.

Note to self: There are Lapland Buntings everywhere - go out and bloody well find one.

Note to any Red-flanked Bluetails reading this: Surrey is quite a nice place to visit.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Scilly stories (1)

It's October, and once-upon-a-time that used to mean that I would be embarking on a trip to the fabled Isles of Scilly. As a callow youth I had heard tales about the birding wonders that they offered. The previous autumn of 1975 had set new ornithological highs with Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Black-and-white Warbler, together with a stunning back-up that even today would get the UK400 club weak at the knees. I didn't go in 76 or 77, but 1978 saw me unexpectedly sitting on the Scillonian one Saturday morning as part of a long-distance twitch. A Semi-palmated Plover had been found on St Agnes, a bird new for Britain and new for me in many ways as I had never heard of one before. The journey across was uneventful. As we docked, I felt as if I were undergoing a rite of passage. I was here...

To cut a long story short, we saw the Plover (oh so boring), waltzed around the island in double quick time (RB Fly, RB Shrike), back onto St Mary's (LB Dowitcher), dossed in the harbour waiting room (I bet that doesn't happen now!), spent Sunday on Tresco (Black Duck) and then... the weekend got more interesting.

An Isabelline Shrike had been trapped at Winspit in Dorset. The team I was with all needed it. Monday saw us first in the queue at the airport to buy the last four seats on the helicopter. Our return journey on the Scillonian would have questioned our ability to get to Winspit before dark. As the helicopter took off we all slapped each other on the back for being so damn smart to get the last four seats. After a quick stop at Hayle (Sociable Plover), we arrived at Winspit with plenty of daylight left. There was one slight problem though - no shrike. After kicking around the area for a few hours that status didn't change. The light was fading. We decided to give up and started to trudge back up the valley to the car, to be met by a group of birders who had left Scilly that morning on the Scillonian, the ship that we should have been on but for our speed at getting to the airport. Even though we told them that the shrike had gone they were all ecstatic. Hadn't we heard? Everyone on that sailing had watched a Black-browed Albertross sitting on the water. Everyone. No string, no three-birder fly past, they all saw it. We felt deflated. Had we not been so quick to the airport we would have seen it as well. I can distinctly remember one of our number saying, "F@*% me, when we got on that helicopter we thought we were the cat's pyjama's". Quite.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Exotic flora

The landfill area at Beddington SF has waxed and waned over the past few years, with deep holes filled with refuse, covered in soil and finally landscaped. One interesting by-product of this process is a flora that has been transported to the site and which has plenty of interest, mainly due to the exotic nature of the species composition. This Sunday one small part of an earth mound was bursting with colour. Close examination revealed a Sunflower (pictured), Nasturtium, Purple Toadlax and Michaelmas Daisy. I could have returned home with a more than passable bouquet of flowers for my youngest daughter Jessica. I am looking forward to combing the farm next year as I'm sure that there will be a host of alien plants to record.

On the bird front a light but steady passage of finches, larks and pipits kept us busy, including a sprinkling of Brambling. The Ruff from last weekend was still about, along with 9 Green Sandpipers.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Oddie versus Packham

Now that BBC's Autumnwatch is into its second series, I reckon the right time has come to ask the question that needs to be addressed - who is the better presenter - the original, Bill Oddie, or his replacement, Chris Packham? Using a series of highly scientific experiments I believe that this can be sorted once and for all.

Birding know how
CP exhibits a good knowledge of ornithological matters. His strengths may lay in those areas away from pure identification. WEO is a hoary old time birder through and through, scarred from various campaigns on many distant northern islands and sojourns on Scilly. His find rate will be higher. But if you ask them to write an essay on 'The Life of a Spotted Flycatcher' then CP may shade it. If you ask them both to sift through a fall of migrants on Blakeney Point then WEO should burn CP up. Hard to call but...
WEO wins

All-round natural history knowledge
WEO is a bit of a one-trick pony here. It's birds, birds, birds all the way. CP can probably outdo WEO on an all-taxa list, and know most of what he was looking at without using 'other experts' for confirmation.
CP wins

CP may have youth on his side, and look fairly athletic, but WEO has extra weight and does come over as someone that can blow a fuse. When driven to anger I reckon WEO would be a flurry of fists and boots that CP could not respond to.
WEO wins

Hard one to call this. It's easy to assume that CP might be a bit lightweight, but I reckon his alcohol tolerance would be better than WEO's. The latter may well fall asleep after a couple of pints. If it was the last man standing who wins, then the point goes to youth.
CP wins

Pulling power
Deciding category. Kate Humble has the casting vote on this one. A source close to the programme has said: "Bill was never interested in Kate. He found her a bit annoying and girlish. There again, Kate wasn't interested in short dumpy men with beards. Chris pays Kate Humble far more attention, which she likes. He's younger and better looking, although Kate thinks that his haircut is a bit wimpish and too young for him. Truth is, Chris is far more interested in the spider crawling through her poodle-like hair than in her. However, she wouldn't climb over him in a bed to get to Bill'.
CP wins

So, there we have it, Chris Packham is the undisputed better presenter. However, if he ever comes up against that muscle-bound Steve who appeared on the Bhutan tiger documentaries, he'd get his arse well and truly spanked.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

A fall, a fall, my rarity for a fall

There may well be plenty of rare birds around at the moment, but in the Birdguides weekly round-up the following caught my eye:

'September is normally the peak month for arrivals of Robin and Song Thrush, but the main arrival seemed to be this week along the east coast. A flavour of the migrants involved comes from Holme Bird Observatory (Norfolk), where standard counts on 10th produced 4,500 Robins, 2,500 Song Thrushes, 6,500 Redwings, 250 Chiffchaffs, 7,000 Goldcrests, an impressive 300 Long-tailed Tits, 11 Jays, 1,500 Chaffinches, 800Bramblings, 600 Greenfinches and 1,100 Siskins.'

I would sooner have experienced the spectacle above rather than have seen any of the rare species on offer this week...

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Sod's law

Poor Gavin Haig. Our man from Devon, that Seaton patch-watcher extraordinaire, having thrashed his local area for the past god-knows how many months, has taken a birding sabbatical. No doubt he was looking forward to going to the Isles of Scilly. It was his chance to trawl through a few rare and scarce birds as an antidote to the (in comparison) modest fayre that his home patch can offer. I can only imagine the cold sweat of horror that must have swept over him when, in the middle of a post-birding beer in a pub on St. Mary's, he found out that those he left behind in Seaton had only gone and found a Solitary Sandpiper. And it's still there. Has he bolted yet to return home and see it? Is he maintaining a cool exterior, chuckling at his mates good fortune, tutting at the unfairness of the birding gods? If I were him I'd be crying into my binoculars and would be considering giving up birding altogether...

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Back to Beddington 2

I spent most of the day at Beddington SF as I now have become a member of the bird group, and have a key to enter the site. The two 'new' lakes are the obvious focus of the site, but I was delighted to see that some of the old-fashioned sludge lagoons (picture above) remain from 'back in the day'. I wandered the banks of these lagoons in the 1970s and 80s, and doing so again today brought back many happy memories. It was all still there - the rank vegetation, the Beddington pong (a mixture of green growth and sewage) and the birds. I flushed Green Sand, Common Sand and Snipe from these beds which will always to me be Beddington birds.

Elsewhere on the farm was a Ruff, Rock Pipit, good counts of Teal and three Beddington ticks - Common Buzzard, Ring-necked Parakeet and Egyptian Goose! A clear illustration that the passing of time does indeed change local bird populations, so that you can bowl up sixteen years later and add birds to the area list with gay abandon.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Yesterday's gulls today

When I began birding, gulls were practically ignored by most birders - unless it was something easily identifiable, such as an Iceland or Glaucous Gull... or a nice adult Mediterranean. Meds were still rare then, and non-adult plumages were a real challenge for most. Any large gull that was not in adult plumage was shunned. It was an unwritten rule that they were, on the whole, unidentifiable. A few birders came along who changed that perception. One of them was Peter Grant. Because we were both Dungeness regulars I got to know him well, and can remember him critically analysing the few gull skins that were housed in a cabinet in the observatory. He made sketches, spent a long time at the power station water outflow where gulls gathered and similarly at the RSPB reserve where a significant roost assembled. We both sat in a hide overlooking this roost and he asked me to go through the motley collection of larids that had gathered, and to make my best attempt at ageing and identifying them. He was interested in finding out what the 'normal' birder knew about gulls and how much of his newly found knowledge was, in field conditions, workable. He did this with many, many people. From this interest, nay passion of his, which stretched back to the early sixties, he wrote the first identification guide to gulls, which was published by Poyser. If you look at it now, it appears somewhat insubstantial for modern needs. There are fewer species covered with a scant regard of racial differences. But, because of this book, it enabled the rest of us to take to gull watching and identify them with some confidence. The only reason that we can now tackle such thorny subjects as Caspian, Heuglin's and Baltic Gulls is because today's gull guru's have all benefitted from PJG's trailblazing.

So, in 2010, where are the main challenges to the UK birder? What do we have comparable to the sub-adult gull of the 1960s and 1970s? Answers on a postcard please...

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Back to Beddington

The first 'proper' birding site that I visited was Beddington Sewage Farm. This was back in 1974 and I was 15 years old. I cannot tell you how excited I was as I walked onto the hallowed ground - I had read about it in John Gooders 'Where to watch birds' and expected to be overcome with species that I had never seen before. In truth it was a bit of a let down, but I had started on a 12 year unbroken association with the place.

In those early years the farm still held onto characteristics of the old-fashioned sewage works, with large open fields that periodically flooded, red brick pump-houses and there were still rows of elms (just about to be decimated by Dutch Elm disease). I saw many species for the first time, including Short-eared Owl, Jack Snipe and Water Pipit - classic Beddington birds. The odd rarer species came along, with Bluethroat, Spotted Crake, Temminck's Stint and Lesser Yellowlegs the pick of the crop.

By 1986 I had wandered away from regular visits, although I did pop in now and again. The farm was fenced by 1990 and only key-holders were admitted, and as a non-regular I was not issued with one. In 1993 I did get my hands on one and spent the next year reliving my youth. The farm was much changed. A lake had been constructed which acted as a magnet to species that had, up until then, been scarce at Beddington, including wildfowl and terns. A birding group has also been formed which was still in its infancy. I must admit to being a bit bemused by it all. This wasn't the same Beddington as I had known and it was full of strangers. I did not really enjoy the experience and I returned my key even though the birding had not been better there since the glory days of the 1940s and 1950s.

Last week I noticed that there was a key up for grabs once again and I applied for it. I'm glad to say that the group has endorsed my application. Once more I will be birding at this historical ornithological site, which has data going back almost 80 years - how many other sites can that be said of? So, why am I returning?

Local patch watching needs to be stimulating. I also reckon that it needs water. My efforts at Holmethorpe have been enjoyable and rewarding, but that site has become very hard to cover effectively. All water bodies are out of bounds and need to be viewed behind fences and high hedgerows. Both Mercer's Lake and Mercer's West are almost impossible to bird. Spyne's Mere can only be viewed from one side. Watercolours will, before long, be shielded by planted trees. Gulls, an interest of mine, are similarly out-of-bounds, spending most of the day within the landfill site. All of this has done much to drive prospective 'patch birders' away. At Beddington, these are not problems. I'm not suggesting that the sewage farm does not have its own local issues, but undisturbed birding, with clear panoramic views, is something that I can expect and will not take for granted ever again. There is a thriving group of birders of which I hope to be an active part of. There will be change from my last stint there in the mid 1990s. The structure of the farm is in flux. Species that did not occur do so now - raptor passage is a newish feature, Caspian Gulls are regular and there is a dynamic flora waiting to be surveyed.

For me, local birding has just looked up.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Say cheese!

At the end of last year, I set myself a target of photographing 500 species of plant by the end of 2010. Some time during July I managed to reach that total and am now well on the way to 550 species that have posed for me. They sit neatly in folders on my computer and are backed-up on a removable hard disk and various DVD's. I'm ridiculously proud of my humble collection. Each image tells a story. Some of the plants gave themselves up without much of a battle to get that defining image. Others still refuse to give themselves up. Every attempt to photograph Hairy Bittercress, (absurdly common), has ended in failure.

Why do I do it? Well, partly because flowers are beautifully complex structures that can be visually breathtaking and therefore are worthy of a second look at leisure, particularly in the middle of winter when there isn't much on offer botanically. Also it's good to have a reference for the future. I don't pick plants and therefore I do not maintain a herbarium. Also it's cheaper than collecting works of art, stamps, military medals or racing cars. Come to think of it, I stand no chance of becoming a middle-aged lothario unless I did take up the latter option. I cannot see myself pulling by taking a woman upstairs on the promise of showing her my series of Downy Willows from Ben Lawers. The picture is of Flowering Rush, one of my favourites species. The picture doesn't do it justice. If you get the chance to seek out this species you will not be disappointed.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Going local

The weather stymied my biding at either end of the day (fog in the morning, then persistant rain from mid-afternoon), but Holmethorpe Sand Pits did produce a Water Rail, 2 Common Sandpipers, a Green Sandpiper and a Brambling, while Canons Farm also yielded a Brambling. I spent a good hour on Nutfield Ridge looking at fungi. They are not easy. I believe the picture above to be a Pestle Puffball, but please tell me if I'm wrong. Meadow Waxcaps were more straightforward and I have pictures of several more species that I need to look at more closely. This all-taxa listing lark is enjoyable but highly challenging.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Conkers, kids and pathogens

A wet and blustery morning saw me sheltering not only from the elements but also from horse chestnut fruits (conkers to me and you) being hurled to the ground, vicious weapons whose hard brown bullets were wrapped in spiky green armour. The thousands of conkers that were strewn across path and pavement are being left alone by the children of 2010. When I was a lad (cue black and white film of happy children frolicking in a world safe from all danger), there would have been gangs roaming the streets to lay claim to Horse Chestnut trees and would have already stripped the trees in question. Too impatient to wait for nature to take its course, we would have hurled stones and sticks up into the branches to dislodge the conkers. Looking down at the unclaimed haul at my feet this morning, I thought that there was as much chance of that having happened back in the 1960s as there having been half-crowns strewn over the pavement. (History lesson: pre-decimalisation in 1971, a half-crown was a coin whose value today would be twelve and a half pence. It was big and silvery).

The horse chestnut trees round here are looking pretty sickly. I don't know whether or not they are still suffering from Bleeding Canker (a fungal pathogen) and from the actions of the leaf miner Cameraria ohridella, but something is getting to them after flowering.