Showing posts from 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'...

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 It was out of date before it was published and the artwork was a selection of the good, the bad and the ugly (Cusa's ducks anyone?)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

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 Lit

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

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. Dru

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 l

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 Bed

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.

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

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

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 bec

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.

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 o

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 loca

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 go

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...

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. With

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 indi

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 unde