Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Snow joke

Yes folks, the white stuff that our 'northern bloggers' have been telling us about has finally arrived amongst the pearly king and queens, Barbara Windsor and the Krays. Even the posh people sitting in their Barbour jackets had to put down their frappacino's to stare in amazement as flakes of whiteness, known locally as the 'northern ague', started to settle on the gold-paved streets. The 1cm deep drifts stopped traffic in its tracks, reminding us of the terrible winter storm of 2009 when several millimetres of snow ground London's airports to a three-month standstill. I can now reveal that, after several minutes of the worst London winter on record, there are 27 different words in the Cockney language for 'snow'...

Sunday, 28 November 2010

BWP shock in Banstead

Rarer than a Black Lark. More uncommon than a BirdForum thread with a cohesive outcome. Fewer occurances than Jonathan Woodgate in a Spurs shirt...

That is, at approx 21.35hrs yesterday evening, I walked over to the bookshelf, reached up to the top shelf and took down a volume of Birds of the Western Palearctic. I then proceeded to open it and actually read from it. I have not done this for almost twenty years - and that is a genuine claim. The reason for me doing so was to find out the specific species of plant that Tree Sparrows ate seeds from, and, by and large, the great work had the information.

I cannot help but feel that as nice as they look on the bookshelf (top left of picture) they were a waste of my money. Hooked in from the start (1977, £25 for volume one), I carried on until volume five and then decided that I could live without it. It was out of date before it was published and the artwork was a selection of the good, the bad and the ugly (Cusa's ducks anyone?) I did not complete the set until OUP sold off the excess stock after the series had been completed, when I picked the remaining volumes up for a song. All of my volumes, some of them thirty years old, look as new as the day that I bought them.

So, until I want to check on the stomach contents of Cormorants from Finland in 2030 (when I'll be 71) the books can stay on the shelf, looking pretty and studious.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

If you don't like gulls, look away now

The cold weather had frozen both of the lakes at Beddington this morning, but this state of affairs did mean that plenty of the gulls that were scavenging on the landfill came and stood on the ice for us to scan at leisure. Among them was this 4th winter Caspian Gull (not an adult as its bill is still showing some trace of immaturity.) The picture below shows how much darker the mantle colour is from the nearby Herring Gulls (the Caspian is to the right, facing away from us).

The most numerous species was Black-headed, with at least 7,500 present, along with 350 Common and 50 Lesser Black-backed. Neither of the two Med Gulls seen during the week gave themselves up.

Go on, even if you don't like gulls all that much, they do make a spectacle, and on a day like today when nothing much is moving, it is something to look through with the added bonus of a good chance of picking up the uncommon.

I did miss 2 Waxwing that flew through south-eastwards. I was off checking a stream for Little Egret (seen during the week). No, I didn't see it.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Why do we blog?

Is it because we want to share observations and ideas with other like-minded souls? Is it because we want to show off our prowess at what we do? Is it because we have a need to be a part of something greater than an individual? Is it because we need confirmation that what we do and think is normal? Is it because we need confirmation that what we do and think is quirky? Is it all of the above? And does it even matter...

Do you have a stat counter? Do you check it religiously to see how many visitors your blog has received? Do you assess the quality of your posts by how many comments others leave? Do you comment on other bloggers posts and do you do so because you want to, or because it might result in them commenting on yours?

Do you look at other bloggers posts and feel a sense of envy when they post top class material? Does it spur you on to improve or does it make you want to pack it up? Are you aware of who these other bloggers are? Would you recognise them ? Would you like them as people?

How did we communicate before blogs? That is, communicate to people that we didn't know existed? We couldn't. And because we couldn't, we didn't want to - or need to. But we can now. What hasn't been invented or rolled out yet that will create opportunities for our counterparts in ten, twenty, thirty years time? How will that revolutionise what they (we) do.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Confessions of a rough sleeper

One element of twitching that seems to have disappeared is the rough sleeping. Now, it was never comfortable and it often involved more of the 'rough' than the 'sleeping', but never the less, it was taken on as a given part of the twitching ritual, which along with hitching, army surplus coats and Mars Bars made you what you were proud to be - a proper twitcher. During my brief affair with the genre, I slept rough regularly, mainly to save money but also to be 'on site' for a dawn raid on the bird. I therefore proudly announce my memorable rough moments, scored for your delectation and to be used as a guide to any tyros out there that may be contemplating spending time out in the elements.

Walberswick Bus Shelter, Suffolk
When: New Years Eve 1977
Conditions: Damp but mild
Quality of sleep: Fairly good, due to copious amounts of beer downed in nearby pub.
Drawbacks: need to get up for a wee on several occasions due to said beer. Bus shelter smelt of urine. Drunks staggering past first-footing.
Score: 6 out of 10

Lowestoft sea front
When: January 1978
Conditions: clear and cold
Quality of sleep: Awful.
Drawbacks: A chill breeze found its way inside the sleeping bag and clothing. Three days in the field without a wash was taking its toll. Hard concrete floor not great for insulation.
Score: 2 out of 10

A barn in Yorkshire
When: June 1979
Conditions: Warm
Quality of sleep: Good. Very few interuptions.
Drawbacks: Scuttling of rodents, fear of farmer waking us up with a pitchfork at some ungodly hour.
Score: 8 out of 10

Falmouth, Cornish clifftop
When: March 1980
Conditions: Mild for time of year
Quality of sleep: Good, due to sandy soil acting as a natural mattress.
Drawbacks: Waves crashing on beach did not have the soporific effect as hoped.
Score: 8 out of 10

Norfolk church
When: summer 1980
Conditions: dry, then very wet
Quality of sleep: good then dire
Drawbacks: the entrance hall of the church was dry, comfortable and homely. The vicar that came to lock up at 10.30 cast us out into the night that involved walking around, shetering under trees and dodging heavy downpours.
Score: 8, then 0 out of 10.

I'm glad that I had these experiences. To sleep out in the open air, to look at the stars, to listen to the night-time call of birds - mainly owls and common waders, but also Stone Curlews - are experiences that are worth fortunes. The connection to the place and its wildlife is never stronger, your senses never more heightened. Even in a piss-puddled bus shelter...

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

2010 review - yes, really

Dungeness. Shingle. Lighthouses and shacks. The White-tailed Plover is two miles to the north-west eating medicinal leeches.

Dog's Mercury on a Surrey woodland floor wins my 'Best photograph of the year taken by Steve Gale' award, awarded to me by me after me voting for it.

2010 review? In November? Yes, I'm afraid so. Every other blogger will be packaging up a compendium of highlights to grip the rest of us off with, so I thought that I'd get in a bit earlier. And I promise not to grip you off...

This was the year in which I got sick at tired of blogging, and, after two years and 500+ posts, killed my site off. Totally. Wiped everything. By August I found that my fingers were once again twitching at the computer keyboard, so 'yet again' formed 'North Downs and Beyond.' Oh you lucky people...

In my quest to be the UK's top lister at compiling lists, I created yet another - my 'North-east Surrey uber patch'. This is basically all of my local patches strung together, that form a mosaic of habitat from sewage farm, sand pits, heathland, farmland and woodland. It makes sense to me, if nobody else. I could, given strong legs and a long summer day, visit them all on foot in the same day. I have compiled a systematic list of the birds (currently 201 species) and am working on a checklist of the plants and lepidoptera. I tell you this, when I retire I will not ever have nothing to do.

2010 also saw my return to birdwatching as my principle natural history interest. Plants and moths weren't exactly side-lined, but time spent in the field often involved a telescope rather than a net or lens. After an absence of 16-years I returned to Beddington Sewage Farm, the place where I cut my ornithological teeth. As access is strictly by group membership I was delighted to rejoin and be handed a key to the magic kingdom. This is the land of Killdeer and Glaucous-winged Gull after all.
A week at Dungeness in mid-July was never designed with birds in mind, although the medicinal leech eating White-tailed Plover, a Great White Egret and a pair of Purple Herons had other ideas. Back home it was quite lively. Within a twenty minute walk of my house I saw Quail, Hen Harrier and waxwing (thanks largely to David), plus an in-and-out Ferruginous Duck at Holmethorpe.
My quest to photograph 500 species of plant before the years end was realised by July (I don't know why I continue to set myself such arbitary goals). It was a quiet year for botanical forays, although I did see Purple Gromwell in Devon, Narrow-leaved Lungwort in Hampshire and Deptford Pink and Stinking Hawk's-beard in Kent.
As much as I moan and bleat on within the confines of these posts I do actually feel quite upbeat about things. Now, if this were a film, to counter my positive declaration I would now suffer some terrible natural history curse, such as being struck by sudden blindness in the presence of rarity and beauty. However, all I ask of 2011 is that it is half as interesting as 2010.
Now please excuse me - there are still several weeks left in the year.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Local Mealies

Yesterday afternoon I wandered onto Headley Heath in the company of my wife, younger daughter Jessica and Amber the cocker spaniel. And what a scene of cosy domesticity we all made, man and wife wandering along arm in arm, daughter and dog at our side until - a flock of 150 Redpolls flew in, buzzing and trilling above our heads. Of course I had taken my binoculars with me, and of course I scanned through the finches. They landed in a close Silver Birch and almost immediately two of them shone out from the others as being slightly larger and paler birds. They looked very good for Mealy, but before I could get any more on them they all burst into the air and dispersed. Hmmm...

I alerted Johnny Allan who is attempting to break his own Surrey year listing record and still needed Common (Mealy) Redpoll for 2010. Although I couldn't claim 100% Mealy, I had seen enough to suggest that his time could be well spent combing the heath for the Redpoll flock.

And so, together with a gang of Beddington birders, he returned this morning and they duly located up to 400 Lesser Redpolls, of which a minimum of three were nailed down as definite Mealies. It's a good local bird. The race is now on to find an even rarer Arctic...

Sunday, 21 November 2010

My Yellow Brain

Meet Yellow Brain Fungus - one of two additions to my 'UK All Taxa' list today. The other was also a species of fungi, Split Porecrust. I did take the latter's photograph, but the results were not up to much. The Yellow Brain Fungus was found in my back garden on the branch of a Himalayan Nutmeg. This species is meant to be parasitic on other species of fungi, although I couldn't see its host.

Of local note were a flock of Waxwings that took up residency only a mile from where I live. I wandered along yesterday morning to pay my respects. A few of the human residents who live in the houses around where the Waxwings have chosen to raid the rowans were keen to find out what all of the middle-aged men with binoculars were looking at, and seemed pleased to be shown the tufty trillers. Most had heard of this species from Autumnwatch and one even asked me if Lee Evans would be turning up, as he had watched the infamous BBC4 Twitchers programme.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Time to take stock

There's a lot of anger out there! Stewart, Alan and Gavin are not happy boys at all, and they represent but a small sample of the 'middle-aged blogger' out there (sorry boys, anyone over 35 years old counts in my definition of that particular demographic).

It's almost a given, a universal law, that us human beings think that the younger generations get it wrong, that they don't know how well off they are, and do not hold dear such old cherished values as manners, dignity and gratefulness that we elders still clutch tightly to our chests. It's also the way of the older and more experienced practitioner to look down at the newcomers and Johnny-come-lately's as if they are in need of pity, ridicule and - even more damning - to be ignored altogether. Not everyone thinks this way, but enough do to make it far from uncommon.

This is where it has all gone horribly wrong.

Why should a newcomer or youngster want to follow such miserable old gits into this life of natural history appreciation if they get frequent knock backs. Why should they continue if there is no encouragement. In which case, who will be left to carry the torch when we all inevitably die?

There is a counter argument, and that is that the behaviour of some of the new order is based not just in ignorance of etiquete, but in an ignorance of common sense, social manners and a lack of true appreciation of what is around them. This is gross generalisation I know, and also a case of sitting on the fence, but I have always seen things in 'grey' throughout my life and hardly ever in black and white.

Alan's post in particular got me thinking. How am I helping the future of natural history study? Should it matter? So I conducted a simple experiment. If I died tonight, what would my legacy be to the natural history of the UK? What would I leave behind?

Not a lot as it happens...

My possessions: notebooks (in a skip most probably, maybe one or two kept as family mementoes), books (mostly given away to friends), optics (kept by the family but not used in earnest). Net result: no tangible trace.

My data: I have kept records since 1974, they have all been sent off, each year, to the relevant committees and clubs. Net result: a small contribution to the overall picture of UK natural history in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

My 'human' legacy: no member of my family has taken up any natural history study beyond the enjoyment of seeing the odd thing on walks or birds in the garden. No friend or aquaintance, as far as I know, has been 'converted' into an active participant. Net result: a handful of people that will appreciate natural history in the future and might possibly join the RSPB at some point, but not become actively involved in its safeguard.

My efforts: most of them selfish. No fundraising (not beyond membership fees at any rate), no conservation work, a little administrative undertaking. Net result: a pretty empty space.

Being brutally honest, beyond my enjoyment and recording of wildlife, my contribution towards its safeguard and in helping others to become passionate about it is poor. Very poor. Maybe I am getting to a time in my life where I need to start putting back into the hobby some of what I have taken out.

This blogging lark is good for the soul. You can come clean, it's carthartic, but you also run the risk of reading some hard truths in other peoples posts whether they are directed at you personally or not.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6....

I've always counted birds. Give me a flock and I will count it. Put me in a hide with a notebook and pen and I will fill the paper with numbers. I believe that I have a form of Tourette's which inflicts me by my having to put a number to everything that I see. I can't help it. It gives me as much joy to increase my record count of a species as it does to see a scarce bird. Last Sunday I set a new Jackdaw record - 1400! Better than the Short-eared Owl that circled overhead an hour before. Go on, ask me a species and I will tell you my record count. Turtle Dove? 150 (a single flock along a Suffolk hedgerow in 1976 as you ask). Common Crane? 33, on a misty, murky October afternoon in 1982 at Dungeness. You see, it's an illness. There's no cure. If I'm in a meadow surrounded by orchids I count every spike. When I look in my moth trap, I count the buggers. And it's not just birds. How many albums have I got? 520 on vinyl and 325 on CD. They are round numbers you might have noticed - I do like a round number. Maybe it's because a big flock always ends in a 0 or 5. You cannot have a flock of 7,346 Starlings - it's got to be 7,400. My Cranes are allowed to remain at 33 because they are large, flew slowly and allowed me to count them accurately. The 150 Turtle Doves could have actually numbered 147 or 153, because, truthfully, they were estimated.

Seawatching and vizmig are Nirvana for people like me. The birds pass by to be collected, to be counted, to be collated, to be committed to the database. When driving, the Common Buzzard over Clackett's Lane services on the M25 isn't just a Buzzard, it's the third Buzzard of the journey. The flock of Pied Wagtails on a playing field as I pass by aren't a flock of Pied Wagtails, they are 14 Pied Wagtails.

The irony of all this is, I hated maths at school and was crap at it. Instead of asking me such questions as "If John walks 100 yards in two minutes and his school is still 725 yards away after he has been walking for five minutes, then how long has he walked once he gets there?" it might have been better all round if the questions had been dressed up, such as "Steve has seen 55 Waxwings, 25 Bramblings and 150 Goldfinches in 30 seconds. If the visible migration carries on at this rate, what is his total after five minutes?"

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Zen and the art of ornithological maintenance

Contentment is something that I have rarely experienced when it comes to my study of the natural world. When I first picked up a pair of binoculars and started looking at birds I had a burning need to get out there and try and see everything there was to be seen. Nothing was ever enough. There was always more to seek. More to identify. More to write down.

As I gained experience I felt the need to be accepted by the others who persued my interests. I wanted them to look upon me a not just competent, but good at what I did. I wanted a reputation as someone who was reliable. Who found rare things. Who was able to act as an expert. These things I strived for, but of course never satisfied myself that I ever achieved. So I pushed myself harder, went out of my way to infiltrate and ingratiate within the right circles, tried to be seen in the right places at the right time.

But I was never destined for greatness. Was never a real contender. A career, a marriage, having children, they all became the focus of my waking hours and relegated the 'other stuff' to a weekend daliance, to infrequent holidays, to a dream of 'what might have been'.

What might have been.

I think I know what might have been, and that is, if truth be told, not a lot. I didn't have the killer instinct in me, and I never have had. There would have been no crazy flights in chartered light aircraft to remote Scottish islands to get a tick. There never would have been dawn til dusk vigils at headlands for seven days a week either. I wouldn't have dropped everything to go to Essex to see the latest dragonfly addition to the British list. Or hunted all of the Herefordshire beechwoods to track down that Ghost Orchid. I wouldn't have spent the hours and hours of study to become an expert in grasses and sedges and rushes. I would have baulked at sorting out the many, many beetles and flies.

So why am I now content? It's because I now know that I have stopped fooling myself that I am in some way a 'player' in the world of natural history. I've been kidding myself for too long that I was in self-imposed exile, biding my time and waiting to be unleashed once more into the field, to take on all comers and ride triumphantly back into the natural history world. I may be a middle-aged man, but I was still dreaming of scoring that last-minute goal in an FA Cup final, of hitting the winning run in an Ashes series, of playing a killer guitar solo at Glastonbury, of collecting an oscar as leading man in LA - or even finding a first for Britain.

It isn't going to happen and I'm happy and relaxed about that. What I do now and how I do it, I am happy with. If I stumble upon something unusual then great! If I can share it with others, then all the better. If I cock up an identification, so what? I have, for too long, pressurised myself in my interests. To accept that I have never been a contender is liberating. It's a shame that my immaturity has meant that I have come to that conclusion thirty years later than I should have done.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Lush growth

For mid-November, there is still an awful lot of healthy - and new - growth at Beddington Sewage Farm. The banks of the settling beds are still awkward to navigate because of knee-deep nettle, mallow, Fat-hen and Hemlock. The picture above is of Celery-leaved Buttercup, with quite a few plants still in good flower, mainly on the sludge lagoons.

Bird-wise the highlight was a Short-eared Owl that came in from the south-east, circled for 15 minutes, and then attempted to land before a thuggish gang of corvids saw it off the premises. Teal numbers have now risen to over 500 and make for an evocative visit, what with the whistling calls and the compact speeding flocks arrowing across the farm.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Christmas books

Christmas is coming,

The waxwings are getting fat,

Please put a penny in this ex-twitcher’s hat…

May I present the North Downs and Beyond Christmas book round-up. Over the past 12 months these books have caught my eye and are worthy of gracing any naturalists bookshelf. Ask your loved ones or friends to buy them for you as Christmas gifts – it beats a pair of socks and a Jeremy Clarkson paperback any day.

The Running Sky by Tim Dee

This is quite simply the best book that I have come across that explains the wonder, joy and hurt that watching birds can bring to human beings. Part autobiography, the author cherry picks events from his life and couples them with a month of the year, starting in June and ending in May.Birds act as a conduit to exposing his emotions towards the natural world and the people who share his life. The first chapter sets the reader up for the delights to come, with a vivd description of a cliff top vigil at a seabird colony. I almost considered an overnight drive to Bempton cliffs after reading it. Buy it now!

North Downs rating: 10 out of 10

A Single Swallow by Horatio Clare

I liked the premise of this book – to follow the hirundines on their spring migration from South Africa back to the authors home in Wales. He tries to time his own overland passage with theirs. The book delivers much more. Clare’s writing is as much a travelogue as it is a study of the swallow, which reminded me of the work of Redmond O’Hanlon, which is praise indeed. The author’s mental breakdown towards the end of the journey is unexpected when considering his devil-may-care attitude that is brought to the expedition, and draws a neat parallel between the Swallows precarious migration and his own.

NDR: 9 out of 10.

Weeds by Richard Mabey

The author should need no introduction as he is one of the leading figures in the so called ‘New Wave’ of nature writing. This is an intelligent work which introduces us to ‘weeds’ and explains why they deserve our admiration, from the way in which they have evolved to fool us into thinking that their seeds are the same as the very crop that they grow alongside, to the uses that they have to humanity (as food and medicine) and also the folklore that has grown up in their relationship with us that reflects the longevity of our relationship with them. You do not to be botanically minded to enjoy this book and you may after reading it to never weed a garden again.

NDR: 9 out of 10

The Bird Observatories of Britain and Ireland by various authors

A Poyser publication, which I’ll admit to not having read yet. A copy of this book was snatched out of my sweaty palms by my wife to be hidden away until Christmas Day. I cannot wait to read it! As a big fan of bird observatories, I can boast (or sadly admit to) having stayed at Dungeness Bird Obsevatory close to 550 nights, spent several breaks at Portland Bill and enjoyed a fortnights holiday at Spurn. These establishments have been instrumental in our current understanding of bird migration and identification. As to what role, and what future they have to play in the 21st century is a question that I for one am keen to see answered. Expect potted histories, plenty of rarities and enough ringing data to keep you satiated well into the new year.

NDR: to be announced.

STOP PRESS: A single calling Waxwing flew over me this lunchtime in Sutton. (Tilmouth and Sexton! Stop yawning at the back of the class. We haven't had that many down south yet!)

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Uber patch update

Earlier in the year, in a moment of inspiration, I formed my north-east Surrey Uber patch. This came about one evening when, looking at an OS map, I realised that my regular natural history patches could, with a little imagination and create thinking, be linked together to form one area. With my recent return to Beddington SF, I'm delighted to say that this addition forms a natural extention north-eastwards. Result!

In moments of fancy I consider writing up an Uber patch report, collating all of my observations made in this magnificent part of Surrey (Magnificent? Surrey? In the same sentence?) To tell you the truth, I have already done just that for the birds. Each of the 201 species that I have recorded have an account commenting on status, larger counts, early and late dates for migrants and details of all records of the scarcer birds. For a land locked area the list is, I think, impressive. After 35 years of recording maybe that is to be expected. It also tells the tale of local extinctions and colonisations rather clearly.

I have started to collate the plant and lepidoptera records and I hope to have something to show by the end of 2011. Why am I doing it? For the sheer pleasure of doing so, that's why.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The blossoming of Canons Farm

Back in 2002, after a morning botanising in Chipstead Bottom, I looked at my OS map and decided to take a short cut home through farmland. Even though I was no more than two miles from home, I had not visited the area before. I was pleasantly surprised at how picturesque the land was and more than interested in the singing Yellowhammer and displaying Lapwing that I found. I made a mental note to revisit…

I t was another three years before I did so, when a Yellow Wagtail flying through a clear April sky reminded me that I really ought to take a serious look at the place. And so, in the autumn of 2005 I did so. I had trawled through my old London and Surrey Bird Reports but could find no mention of the farm. It appeared to have not been actively birded before and I felt as if I were pioneering a new patch. I met no other birders and gathered ornithological data with keenness. My coverage was not quite weekly and I found species such as Crossbill and an immature female Goshawk that got the pulse racing and also revealed significant wintering flocks of Skylarks and Yellowhammers.

Over the next three years I gave Canons Farm moderate coverage and added Woodlark to the list of unexpected species. The one event that brought the farm to local prominence was ’my’ massive flock of winter finches in early 2008, that peaked at 1200 Brambling and 1650 Chaffinches. At least 50 birders made the trip to watch the spectacle.

At the end of 2009 David Campbell, a local schoolboy, arrived as a regular observer. His enthusiasm and keen eye proved what I had earlier suspected, that Canons Farm was somehow special. Through sheer hard work, during 2010, he has found Raven, Black Redstart, Goshawk, Osprey, Quail and Corn Bunting – and before you jump to conclusions that some of these must be the imaginings of a yound mind, they are all either multi-observer records or have been photographed.

For me, his best find, and the crown jewel of Canons Farm sightings so far, is not the rarest. Yesterday evening, David, typically keen, decided to visit the farm in the last murky hour of daylight on a cold and damp afternnon. He was rewarded with a superb male Hen Harrier. He watched it go to roost and, at 06.58 this morning I was very happy indeed to see this stunning beast take to the air and head purposefully eastwards.

What next for Canons Farm? Well, it is a site that will only reward those who bird it intensely. My occasional forays before this year proved that it can deliver, but not on the scale that David’s efforts have proved. It can be hard work in the spring and summer. Autumn sees it at its best and winter can be interesting as well.

My fear is that if David loses interest or moves away from the area, the current coverage will not be maintained and the records will once again , if not totally dry up, then certainly slow down significantly.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Gull time

It's not everybody's cup of tea to spend a few relaxing hours sifting through gulls. The scene above was taken this morning at the northern lake, Beddington Sewage Farm. If you are really keen and want to play the larid version of 'Where's Wally', then click on the image for a bigger picture. If you find a Med Gull then let me know, because I didn't. I did find an adult Yellow-legged, but could not refind the Caspian Gull that I saw two weeks ago and has been seen on and off since. Today's counts included 2,500 Black-headed and 2,000 Herring. The numbers will only increase...

Friday, 5 November 2010

Taking the waiting out of wanting

Back in 1976 I was a student at Epsom Art College. At that time, one of our tutors showed us an advertisement that was running in newspapers and magazines that really upset him. It was for Barclaycard, with the headline of 'Takes the waiting out of wanting'. He shook his head, nonplussed by the implied invitation for people to take out a card and gain instant credit. "We'll end up with a population in debt!" he wailed. He had predicted the financial breakdown in our society years before it actually came to pass...

I kind of feel the same way about the ways of modern birding. We want, we get. Information is at our fingertips, this information is updated constantly, we can read first-hand accounts of rarities, we know exactly where they are, we know the best time of day to visit- if I want to see Waxwings or an American Bittern tomorrow, then I can. Get in the car and go! No map reading needed (set the sat nav), arrive on site and look for the crowds. Job done. Without coming over all arty, this method rather disconnects us from a relationship with nature. It is more of a relationship with technology.

As an antidote to immediacy I am posting a photograph of bluebells in Banstead Woods. Even if you had millions to spend, unlimited data and all the time in the world, you will not, you cannot see such a sight tomorrow. You WILL have to wait until next April and May to do so. It puts the waiting back into wanting...

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A letter to Lee Evans

On the Surfbirds forum, in response to last nights BBC4 programme about twitching, Lee Evans posted an open letter, asking, among other things, whether or not he ought to pack it all in. He felt that his popularity was waning and the antagonism against him building. I did reply...

Hi Lee,

I am commenting on this situation as a lapsed twitcher and somebody that has only met you a few times, and that was back in the late 70s and early 80s. I am still an active birder and, although I rarely go to a rare bird, I know plenty who still do.

You are correct in stating that you do have your critics, but I am sure that you would expect this when you set yourself up as a ‘policeman’ and ‘judge, jury and executioner’ to the birding world (I think that they were your words, and if I’m incorrect, forgive me). As you have never been elected, or asked to keep a watching brief on all the UK birders lists’ (as to accuracy and honesty), then again, you cannot be surprised when this causes offence or indignation among them.

There are over a million members of the RSPB and viewing figures for BBC’s Autumn watch well in excess of that. I doubt that any more than a few thousand of them have heard of you, the UK400 club or any other twitcher for that matter. Therefore the pool of birders who you have (or have not) annoyed is quite insignificant compared to those who get enjoyment out of ornithology. That is worth keeping in perspective.

People who join the UK400 club are willing members and as such agree to abide by the rules as set out by the club (and by ‘the club’ I assume that means you). If they do not agree with this then they can leave. Those that are left are under no illusion as to what to expect. What anybody else in the birding world thinks is, to be quite honest, not your problem. If some of the aggrieved are within your club membership, then that needs your urgent attention.

You have asked for feedback and for what it’s worth my humble opinion is that you needn’t worry about what others say, you don’t need to close your club and you should carry on doing what you are obviously passionate about. Those that have a problem with you can just ignore you and your club, because whatever you say, whatever your club rules are and what species you accept or dismiss is of no relevance to them. Maybe your need to ‘control’ other birders lists is an area that you should address if you are serious about building bridges. This appears to be a major area of conflict.

I think it’s good to have characters in all walks of life, and you are certainly that. One less would be a great shame.

Kind regards,

Steve Gale

Monday, 1 November 2010

Birding and the culture of blame

Over the past few days there has been a fair amount of internet chatter regarding the conduct of birders when they have been in the presence of rare species. I have deliberately avoided the use of the word 'twitcher' to describe the birders gathered at the alleged crime scenes as I'm sure that there were plenty of those present who do not want to be labelled with that overused word. There is nothing wrong with admitting to, or claiming to be a twitcher, but the word has become a lazy journalistic term for birders per se.

Ever since birders, ornithologists or, whisper it, twitchers have gathered, there have been tales of bird harassment and unruly behaviour. It is not a modern phenomenon. Those who have been lamenting a break down in birding society have not done their research.

Rare birds have always got the attention of the active birdwatcher. Anyone who has spent their time counting swallows migrating along the coast would cheer a red-rump amongst them; every ringer undertaking scientific study will have their pulse quicken when they discover an Aquatic Warbler in the mist net; every patch worker will remember the day when a scarce bird graced their own little corner of Britain. Everyone. Without exception.

So, when the chat-rooms are full of tales of poor fieldcraft dressed up as napalm-welding birding terrorists, are we to believe that the authors have never run to see a bird? Not even broken into a trot? Will they admit to, especially when unobserved, nipping over a fence to check out a funny pipit? Or tap a bush in which a skulking warbler just would not vacate? No, I doubt that there is a birder on the planet that hasn't, in the heat of the moment, done something that they ordinarily wouldn't do.

If you have driven several hundred miles, spent a wallet full of money and have also run the risk of a divorce to get to a bird, it would take the will of a trapist monk not to push the boundaries a little to be able to see the quarry. And quarry is what it is. We are all collectors, with our lists, our data gathering, our books, our knowledge.

As long as a bird is not unduly harassed or habitat destroyed, is there any real harm in a walk across a field or a wander along a hedgerow? There is a culture of blame in our society, and maybe the world of birding is not immune to this.

A lobbed brick into a reed bed - no.

Hourly walks across a field to flush a knackered migrant - no.

They are admittedly, representative of birding shades of black, and as to where acceptable behaviour begins is difficult to say, but where there is a crowd present there is normally order. If one or two hotheads try it on, they are normally pulled back and reprimanded. If someone decides to report on these isolated incidences as representative of the birding type, then this is how the myths of birding behaviour at twitches begin. And everyone loves controversy....