Thursday, 29 December 2011

Next year...

...I will not look at mosses

...I will not attempt liverworts

...I will not be snared into lichen temptation

...I will not forget that this natural history lark IS MEANT TO BE ENJOYABLE

...I will not forget to write things down and send in my records

...I will be more friendly to my fellow naturalist

...I will learn how to take proper images with my grown-up DSLR

...I will not suffer blogging envy

...I will visit Ranscombe Farm in Kent

...I will go back to the New Forest and have a pan-species blitz

...I will find a half-decent bird (it's about bloody time I did that again)

...I will, I promise, give micro moths a proper go

...and use my new plume moth guide

...and my big thick hoverfly book

...but not my mosses, liverworts and lichens guides

Whatever you are aiming to do next year, may you be successful. Keep well, be happy and if you do manage to have moments of natural history pleasure, cherish them.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Being Gilbert White

Today I visited Selborne in Hampshire. This is woodland at the top of the hangar, made famous by a naturalist clergyman, who, among other things, was the first person to use field skills to identify our commoner phylloscopus warblers. Here he watched and listened to Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Wood Warblers.

 This is the front of his house in the village. Today it was closed. Therefore I cannot tell you much about it. Try Google...

 The parish church of St. Mary is where he had four spells as curate. He was buried here in 1793. This is a detail from a modern stained glass window in the church that depicts his life through natural history images and as a celebration of his world famous book 'The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne'.

In the churchyard is one of the 50 designated 'Great Trees of Britain' - or, more accurately, what is left of it after the 1990 storm - the famous Selborne Yew.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Taman Negara

If you have had the good fortune to have visited there, those two words - Taman Negara - will have shaken a multitude of thoughts and emotions awake within you. It is, quite simply, one of the best places on earth to experience birding in the rainforest. Slap bang in the middle of peninsular Malaysia, it is a vast reserve. I visited back in 1994. As part of a three-week birding holiday with two friends, we spent 10 days at Kuala Tahan, the reserve HQ, staying in a level of luxury that would be scoffed at by the likes of Rajah Brookes and Sir Rannulph Feinnes.

To reach the HQ required a three-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur to then catch a boat that required a further two hours to speed its way along the river. There were a series of trails that snaked away from the HQ, and the bravest of birders could walk for days to reach the park interior (to see Crested Argus required such a trek with a guide). However, if trekking was not your cup of tea, then the birds came to you. There were many times during our stay that sought after species turned up in the HQ gardens.

Highlights, there were many...

A Masked Finfoot sitting motionless amongst emergent vegetation as we paddled to within twenty feet of it in a canoe... A Hooded Pitta standing on top of a fallen log allowing fantastic views... A male Great Argus strutting across the Jenut Muda trail like a silent carnival float... finally catching up with a Banded Pitta (one of the best looking birds on Earth) after five days of chasing their calls... an Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher that perched two feet from my nose as I silently sat in a ravine... a Bathawk flying skua-like over a clearing as dusk fell... the same clearing echoing to calling Malaysian Eared Nightjars,,,

I could go on. And on. If you get the chance, go. I've never regretted it.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Pitta delight

No, I haven't been spending Christmas in Asia and burning up those gems of the rainforest, the pittas. But a man that spent a year searching for every one of these beauties has enlivened my Christmas with his tales of the quest. 'The Jewel Hunter' by Chris Gooddie is a book that is as much a rare thing as the birds that it is partly about - a well-written account of the modern birder in action. Chris packed in a successful career whilst in his mid-forties to try and see every species of pitta in a calendar year. As someone who dreams of making similar grand plans (but never will) and who loves pittas (I have actually seen three species - Hooded, Banded, Blue-winged) and heard a further one (Mangrove), this book appeals to me on many levels. The writing style is one that accepts that most of the readers will be birders but never the less makes it accessible to those who are not. Part travel book, part social commentary, part natural history documentation, all intelligently written with an infusion of humour, I haven't enjoyed any book this much for a while. So, what are you waiting for? Order it now. You won't be disappointed.

By the way, I don't know the author and am not on commission...

Sunday, 18 December 2011

George Osborne - seemingly not a friend of wildlife

A couple of days ago I posted a link to a comment piece that appeared on Birdguides which refered to the autumn statement that was given by the Chancellor, George Osborne. Now I am making anybody who reads this post aware of an RSPB call to arms to try and stop the harm that could come from the Chancellor's anti-habitat sentiments expressed in that statement. Please read and act by clicking here.

I will try and keep my dignity and humility by not bad-mouthing this politician who obviously values his 'mates' business opportunities above the safeguarding of our natural habitats;  above the welfare of those species that are dependent on them; and above our enjoyment of them and of the future generations to come.

After all, how much money can you milk an Adonis Blue, Turtle Dove or Marsh Helleborine for?

Saturday, 17 December 2011


An alien being? Something from the Jetsons?
I spent a wonderful morning tramping over one of my old patches - Holmethorpe Sand Pits. Apart from a wintery shower it remained clement. The birding wasn't too bad, with a good collection of wildfowl (including a Goldeneye), Water Rail, plus good feeding flocks of Stock Doves and finches on the farmland. But, highlight was without doubt the four Earthstars that local birder Graham James had alerted me to. These strange fungi are a family that I had been wanting to see these past few months and I was not disappointed. A stranger thing you'd be hard pushed to find. Geiger-esque. I reckon that they are Barometer Earthstars (Astraeus hygrometricus) and my photos match those on Roger Phillip's website pretty closely.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Do you like butter?

Cambridge University has revealed how buttercups are able to shine a yellow light under our chins when a flowerhead is placed close to it. It's great that some of these old childhood games involving plants are still being discussed. Do children still make daisy chains? Do boys pelt each other with burdock burrs? Do bindweed flowers still get popped, conkers still get smashed and do girls pick petals off of anything to hand reciting 'he loves me, he loves me not'?

Saturday, 10 December 2011

2011 - the year, not a pan-species total

Colley Hill - part of 'North Downs and beyond'
Birds: Most of my time was spent locally, with Beddington Sewage Farm the normal choice of destination. The year began with my seeing Waxwings in Redhill, Cheam and Canons Farm, the latter site providing a flock of 60+. Common Redpolls were in the company of many flocks of Lessers. An Eider on a sandpit near Buckland was a stunning local record. Spring came early - March, April and May were dry, sunny and warm. Canons Farm produced for me Ring Ouzel, Grasshopper Warbler and a singing Quail that I actually managed to see. Not to be outdone, Beddington came back with two Common Cranes that flew through, calling noisily, in mid-April. The fact that I couldn't see them was down  to the fact that a thousand gulls were circling above me at the time rather than my incompetence. A week at Sandwich Bay in June was like stepping back in time. The farmland there still is home to breeding Corn Buntings, Grey Partridges, Yellow Wagtails, Turtle Doves and Barn Owls. These species were constant companions during my stay. Later in the year Hawfinches at Headley and a Cetti's Warbler at Beddington were welcome. Today I saw my first Canons Farm Barn Owl. I must record my thanks to three local birders who, apart from being avid patch-workers, also selflessly send out bird information to those who are interested - Johnny Allan, David Campbell and Graham James.

Flora: For the first time for quite a while I didn't botanise as much. My Beddington botanical survey did, however, kick-off and together with a few of the birders we identified 250+ species. A lot of work needs to be done on the grasses, sedges and rushes still. Thanks to fellow-blogger Steve Coates I was shown the biggest Oxtongue Broomrape colony in the UK, close to his Kent home. Sandwich Bay provided me with a week of botanising that was wide-ranging and enjoyable. A particularly pleasurable afternoon on Reigate Heath in June was memorable due to the good numbers of Bird's-foot, Annual Knawel and Knotted Clover.

Moths: The garden MV supplied me with two new macro lifers: Rannoch Looper (4 caught between June 3-6) and a Tree-lichen Beauty in August.

Fungi: I really fell for mushrooms and toadstools this autumn, spending time, in particular at Ebernoe Common and Box Hill, both full of fungal delights. It's an area of study that I will return to next year.

Pan-species: My target of reaching 3,000 species before the years end was made with several weeks to spare. It has been an eye-opener chasing this list. My awareness of other forms of nature has been heightened and my appreciation of it enhanced. It's not just about the ticking...

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The faint tang of success

Seeing 'the bird' doesn't always guarantee joy, as I alluded to at the end of my last post. A poor view and nothing more can set all sorts of doubts of in your mind, such as 'was that enough to tick?' through to 'did I actually see the bird?' More than once I've come away from a twitch wrestling the problem of 'to tick or not to tick'. That scenario always ended the same - the knowledge that by asking the question in the first place really meant that the only response could be NO.

Sometimes I've seen the bird really well and felt underwhelmed. Twice this has happened when seeing the rarest of the rare, a first for Britain.The Pallid Swift at Stodmarsh in May 1977 zipped around me within touching distance, but to my untrained eye I really did have to convince myself that the bird really was what the experts said it was. October 1978 saw me on St. Agnes looking at a Ringed Plover that I was being told was a Semipalmated Plover. I'd travelled to Scilly specifically to see it as well. It was a tick, and the mission was accomplished, although if I'd been honest with myself at the time I'd have declared it a massive disappointment.

As much as bowling up on site to immediately see the quarry is the considered ideal, when I did so the overall event became weakened. A little wait, a sniff of disaster made the final ticking (when it came) all the sweeter. A psychologist might be able to explain to me why I should want that - delayed gratification maybe?

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The agony and the ecstasy

I couldn't help but experience a half-forgotten chill run down my spine when I read this post on Devilbirder's blog. It is a tale of dipping, magnified by the rarity of the species that he had hoped to see, plus the distance that he had travelled to see it. Increased distance (with a cost and time factor) does not always make dipping worse - a local failure can be far more personal and painful.

I started to think back to the days when I too picked up the twitching baton and ran with it. Were all my dips as painful? And come to that, were all of my successes pleasurable? 'No' and 'no' were my concluding answers to those questions.

Painful dipping
The bird that hurt me the most was a Great Spotted Cuckoo at Dungeness in the summer of 1989. I was in the grip of 'Dungeness fever' and liked nothing more than a Dungeness tick. At the time, this would have also been a UK lifer. The call came through to me soon after the bird had been found, and at the very same moment some friends had arrived at our house to take my wife and I away for an all-expenses paid weekend at a Brighton hotel (I think it was the DeVere). Timing had never seemed so poor. I did momentarily think about not joining my wife and friends on the 'fluffy-towels and cocktails' hospitality shindig, but I bottled it. Needless to say, I spent the whole of the journey down to Brighton in a cloud of despair, which pervaded all of the fine food and drinks that we were then placed before us for the rest of the day. How many times I phoned the observatory and Birdline I'd hate to think, but at least the cuckoo was still there! I then threw a sickie. My wife was in on it. Our friends (who, remember, had driven), planned to stay and have a slap-up Sunday lunch, which would have meant a departure from Brighton at about 2.30pm. Therefore, the earliest I could get into my car and head for Dungeness would be about 4pm - too much of a wait. So, summoning up the most pathetic face I could (and passing the chance of a full breakfast although I would have loved to have eaten it) I explained that I really needed to get home and into my bed. They kindly drove us back up the A23 within half-an-hour. We were home by noon. The only fly in the ointment was that I had not been able to talk to anybody at the bird observatory to get the low down on the cuckoo that day. Birdline was vague as to whether it was still about. Once home I made contact - the news was one big negative. I spent the rest of the afternoon behaving as if I had just suffered a bereavement. I think it was then that I realised that I needed to sort myself out and re-evaluate my approach to birding.

But, as you may have noticed, I hadn't actually gone for the bird. But it still hurt. One that I did actually go for, a rarer bird which involved a certain amount of faffing about to get to was a Ruppell's Warbler on Lundy in June 1979. A Saturday boatload of birders had seen this spectacular sylvia (a cracking male) and the next opportunity was midweek when the next charter sailed. When we boarded the boat at Ilfracombe that midweek day (I cannot remember which day it was) we had no idea if the bird was still present (as was often the case 'back in the day'). I do remember that the weather was sunny and warm and that I was in a good mood. The trip to Lundy was enjoyable. I stood on the deck and felt the wind in my hair, the sun on my face and felt alive. When we disembarked we were met by a resident birder with the news that the bird had not been seen for at least a couple of days. And do you know what? I wasn't that bothered. Don't ask me why, but I wandered Lundy for the few hours that we were there with a beatific smile on my face. I felt at peace and floated around without a care in the world. I even considered missing the boat so that I could stay on this magical island.

Two dips, two completely differing reactions to dipping. For me, the emotion that I disliked the most when twitching was the uncertainty. Was the bird still there? Was it genuine? More often than not my overiding emotion when I did see the bird was not joy, but relief. That seemed wrong. Maybe that's why I packed it in. If my joy didn't come from seeing 'lifers' or 'rare birds' then I needed to find my joy elsewhere.

Next post: why my successes were not always pleasurable.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Common Redpoll saves the morning

A cool morning was spent at Beddington Sewage Farm, the south-westerly breeze picking up and getting cooler as the hours ticked by. I stayed close to the hide, scanning both the north and south lakes without too much joy, 2 Shelduck, 18 Gadwall, 40 Shoveler, 150 Teal and 47 Lapwings being the pick. The morning was saved by a low-flying flock of redpolls, that alighted in a nearby Silver Birch. Scoping revealed a smart Common Redpoll amongst the Lessers. These birds were very flighty and after 20 minutes seemed to leave the area. Only myself and Steve Thomas saw the bird. This is not a regular species at Beddington. This autumn has seen a remarkable proportion of 'redpolls' being identified as Commons in Kent and Surrey, with ringing at Leith Hill providing record breaking numbers for the latter county. In the north part of Surrey we have struggled to find them even though most 'redpoll' flocks have been grilled (from such diverse sites as Holmethorpe, Canons Farm and Headley Heath). Hopefully they are now moving further north and will give themselves up more easily.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Next year, I will be mainly doing...

I know that it isn't December until this coming Thursday, but my mind is already wandering towards 2012. So much for carpe diem...

What I'm thinking about is this. Where do I concentrate my efforts next year? So far my choices are:

Pan-listing: go for it. Blast the hell out of everything on offer, blitz the list and assault 3500. The downside would be plenty of stringing and a feeling of treating natural history as a product to consume and spit out.

Beddington love-in: embrace the smelly plot and study its undoubted wildlife in a celebration of urban diversity. The downside would be getting very muddy and possibly having to endure plenty of gripping off from the hard-core birders skywatching from the hide as I potter about looking at the ground mostly.

Go birding: Do I remember that? The days when I looked at birds and little else? I could finally get over 400 and look at some of the upstarts in the face again. Downside? I don't like many birders...

Botanical proficiency: my time spent with plants has often been botany-lite - I've largely steered clear of grasses, sedges, rushes, yellow crucifers - I could go on. So why not embrace them and become more of an all-rounder? Downside: I might get fully sucked-in.

North Downs Year: One year I'd like to just wander my beloved section of the downs and just watch without aim. See what comes along. Photograph it and get all Clare or Mabey about it. Write a book about the experience, start a religion, big stuff like that. Downside: confiscation of Beddington key, end up talking to myself as I 'wander lonely as a cloud', etc

So, in truth, I haven't a clue as to what I might do next year. Any suggestions?

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Old tennis shoes

I was flicking through a field guide to trees last night when I came across this description of the smell of the fallen leaves of the Tree-of-heaven:

'old tennis shoes'

This quaint and twee statement had me looking at the front of the book to see when it was written (surely in the 1930s) but was surprised to find out it was in 1982 - more like 1882 I reckon with such a turn of phrase. Why tennis shoes? Does the author distinguish this niff from 'old ballroom pumps' or 'tired businessmen's brogues'? He could have been more elitist and original with the description such as 'wet labrador dog in front of a log fire' or 'matron's apron after a morning washing old bed linen'

If I were to update the guide then I could bring it bang up to date with a more accurate and less polite description. The Tree-of-heaven, at a certain time of year has about it the unmistakable smell of


Saturday, 26 November 2011

Birding, for a change

After all of that pan-species malarky I thought that I'd better get back out birding before my bins and scope were confiscated and I was publicly pronounced 'lapsed'.

Beddingtom Sewage Farm was my venue of choice. The birding reflected the weather, being non-descript and dull with the odd bright spell. A single Water Pipit gave itself up along with 7 Green Sandpipers. A feature of the farm these days is the gathering of feeding and loafing Grey Herons, no fewer than 88 being on show, mostly on the islands of the north lake. As always, Tree Sparrows took advantage of the well-stocked feeders.

I did grill the gulls although nothing got the pulse racing. I read two colour rings - TJ6T black lettering on red, left leg of an adult Lesser BB Gull - plus AV71 black lettering on orange, left leg of a first-winter Herring - but my quick look on the European colour ringing website failed to identify where they might have been ringed.

The first-winter Common Gull (above) is a gift to a certain red booble-hatted Devonian birder who likes his gulls almost as much as he likes his Giant Chocolate Buttons. Which reminds me, he still owes me a bag...

Friday, 25 November 2011

The Dusty Lurker

English bird names just haven’t had the same amount ofimagination or free-form thinking  put into them as some other natural history orders have. Moths  ( The Alchemist, Merveille du Jour , The Suspected) and fungi (Destroying Angel, Slippery Jack, Dead Man’s Fingers) certainly have. They sound like characters from the works of Tolkien and Dickens.

Compare them to Dunnock. What a dull name. It is, it must be said, not a remarkable bird to look at even if it has a very interesting sex life (look it up if you are curious). The derivation of the name ‘Dunnock’ is, according to Wikipedia:
“this usage(Dunnock) has much to be said for it, based as it is on the oldest known name for any of the species (old English dun-, brown, + -ock, small bird: "little brown bird"), and a much more euphonious name than the contrived "Accentor".

So, in some ways Dunnock does exactly what it says on the tin. But we can do better than that. What about Dusty Lurker. Or Drab-coated Dandy. Or even The Unremarkable.

All better than Dunnock any day

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Made it!

It may not be a spectacular looking species, but Bitter Bracket became my 3,000th pan-species yesterday morning whilst on the hunt at Reigate Heath. I would have liked that honour to have gone to Ceratiomyxa fraticulosa, a species of slime mould that I was rather taken with, but that came in at 2,998. That's it to right of Sir Winston (above). Before any of you go thinking that I've suddenly become an expert in slime moulds, I haven't. I know as much about them as I do 19th century Russian ballerinas - it just so happens that this species is illustrated in a mycology book that I own, and my double-checking online suggests that the identification is correct. Reigate Heath also supplied White Brain, Liver Milkcap, Yellow Fieldcap and Turf Mottlegill. Above all of this fungi action, two male Crossbills entertained me feeding in conifers only yards away.

I then went on to Juniper Bottom, taking in Box Hill and Juniper Top. The new fungi species kept on coming, with Cabbage Parachute, Lemon Disco, Green Elfcup (pictured left), Scarlet Bonnet, Sheathed Woodtuft, Matt Bolete and some interesting white furry thing called Coprinopsis stercora growing out of cow dung. The pan-species list is now 3,012.

I had set myself the task of reaching 3,000 by the end of this year back in the spring. There have been times when I've gone for it and others when I've let it slide, but the past month has seen me targeting the 'low hanging fruit' that is fungi. There are lots of them and plenty are easy to identify. I've enjoyed it immensly and can add fungi to my list of groups that I will count as favourites. I am mindful that this pan-species listing can water down my deeper knowledge of other groups - to be perfectly honest since diversifying away from birds my prowess as a birder has fallen. My ability to name moths and plants on sight has also taken a step back (although a year of immersing myself back into them should bring that back).

What of the pan-species future? I will continue to keep the list, but maybe resist the temptation to take on groups that will provide lots of ticks (mosses, lichens, 'other' insects) as the time spent becoming proficient with them is time that I don't have at my disposal. It's going to be time better spent getting back into the birding, mothing and botanising. But mosses do look interesting...

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Scarce Umber

To prove that I haven't given up looking at anything that isn't a fungus, here is a Scarce Umber that I put up whilst at Ebernoe Common last Saturday. I followed its weak flight for maybe thirty seconds until it alighted on the leaf litter.

Trawling of photographs has yielded further new species of fungi, but this has its limitations as I cannot possibly check all the salient details to clinch certain identification on many. 2995 now....

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Back to Ebernoe

The dry spell for much of southern of England has ended, and I have been seeing quite a bit of fungi springing up. Mindful of the possibility of night frosts killing off what fungi are currently on show I thought I would make a return trip to Ebernoe Common in West Sussex.

Any regular visitor to this blog will know that I have adopted fungi as my 'new passion' this autumn and have managed to progress from a complete mushroom novice to a partial mushroom novice. I'm slowly getting to the point where I can find a place in the field guide where the mushroom that I am looking at will be found (at least to a family - but not all the time!). I can appreciate the need to note cap, gill and stipe colour, texture, and form, plus to take in what the fungi is growing on and the habitat that I'm in (that last point is the easiest to answer...)

I was lucky to bump into a knowledgable mycologist in the middle of the afternoon who was helpful in helping me identify some species that I was struggling to put a name to. He also tempered my increasing sense of competence by warning me of 'juvenile' stages to fungi, and pointed out that my hefty guide contained only 'some' of the species that I would find...gulp!! Help may be at hand with the publication of a guide (Buczacki and Shields) early next year that claims to cover every macro species of mushroom in Europe.

How did I fare? Well, I was happy to identify 23 new species, including such obvious ones such as Purple Jellydisc, Wood Blewit, Scarlet Waxcap, Parrot Waxcap (pictured), Snowy Waxcap, Magpie Inkcap, Garlic Parachute, Giant Funnel, Amethyst Deceiver, Glistening Inkcap and Shaggy Parasol.

With a few other additions since my last post, my pan-species list now stands at 2990. My aim to reach 3000 by the years end should be attainable. Even if I do not go out into the field again in 2010, I have a folder of 'mystery' photographs sitting on the computer awaiting my scrutiny, all taken during the summer and autumn. Surely I can turn some of these into firm identifications.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Listing dilemmas and ladybirds

Graham Lyons posed the following question in his latest post - could he tick a potted Red-headed Chestnut on show at a moth group meeting? He suggested not and for what it's worth I agree with him. However, it opens up a dilemma attached to any listing that we might get involved in, and that is one of having clear rules to what we can - and cannot - count on a list.

I have two rules for listing. The first is that I can count whatever I want to on my closed, private list. Rule two is that if I keep a competitive list, where other peoples lists are also taken into consideration, then I need to abide by the rules of that particular group. For example, the Beddington Birders maintain a league table of birds seen on the site. On this list I have not included Common Redpoll, because when I saw my only Beddington sighting in 1980 I did not submit it, so it was never formally accepted. Only formally accepted records count on the league table. My private Beddington list does include it.

More extreme is the fact that my private British bird list includes a species not even on the British list. I was one of a handful of observers of the 1989 Dungeness White-cheeked Tern. It wasn't accepted by the BBRC and I abide by that judgement when it comes to comparable listing even though I'm convinced it was one. It sits quietly on my personal British list but not my pan-species list.

Back to the potted moth conundrum. If you are inspecting a moth trap with a friend, who finds a Crimson Speckled at rest nearby on a bush, you would walk over and tick it. The same situation, where your friend pots up a Crimson Speckled out of your eyesight and then presents it to you would, I suggest, end up with you ticking it. But what if he was a mile away from the trap site and brought it to you? Or phoned you up from his house and invited you over to see it? What if you lived next door to him - would that be different to having a twenty mile drive to see it? What if it had been potted in a fridge for a day? Two days? There are many shades of grey to this situation, which probably exposes the futility of ticking and keeping lists in the first place...

I would like to 'big-up' the latest book to enter the North Downs and Beyond library - The Ladybirds (Coccinellidae) of Britain and Ireland by Helen Roy, Peter Brown, Robert Frost and Remy Poland. You need never sweat over ladybird identification again and gives a bang up to date account of the status and distribution of these popular beetles.Available from all natural history book websites now.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Back garden ticking

This is an earthtongue, that I reckon is Geoglossum cookeanum, based on the fact that it hasn't got a hairy, tapered stem. Just in case a knowledgable mycologist has stumbled across this humble twaddle, and they think that I'm incorrect, please let me know. This is a new species of fungi for me, and was found growing out of the soil in a pot where a Viburnum tinus is planted, only yards from the back door.

This handily demonstrates one of the positives of pan-listing - you can always find something that you haven't identified before even where you live. You needn't go outside!! This week I've found a spider and three species of fungi in the back garden that I've not knowingly seen before, although all are common and no doubt previously ignored/overlooked.

I was too busy (couldn't be bothered) to look critically at a few snails and slugs that came out during the recent wet weather, but I suspect a few of them might be new. With the total creeping up to 2959 I need to tackle them (and some nearby mosses) if I want to get to 3000 by the end of the year.

A wander along the north downs at Gatton handily produced a dozen species of fungi of which several were new - Common Inkcap included. There are still a large number of common fungi that I haven't identified yet, either through my novice status, ignorance or not having been in the right place at the right time. There's still plenty of scope here in the next few weeks.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Beddington Sewage Farm

I've added a page to this blog, called 'Beddington birds'. Not surprisingly this is a list of the bird species recorded at the world famous sewage farm, with my own personal list highlighted in red. There are four birders who have seen over 200 species there, which is no mean feat for a London sewage farm. You will find some top class rarities among them - Glaucous-winged Gull and Killdeer being the stand-outs. However, there is still no record of Slavonian Grebe or Nightjar. One or two others, that were easily seen when I first trod the paths, are now gone - Grey Partridge and Willow Tit - maybe to never return.

Patch watching is, of course, more than a list. Blogger pages become too difficult to manipulate if they have too much data loaded onto them, otherwise I would bombard you with further Beddington info.

Sunday, 30 October 2011


With a self-imposed target of my pan-species list reaching 3000 by the end of the year, and currently falling a little bit short, I decided to target mosses. I've got the book to help me and a fine book it is to (Atherton, Bosanquet and Lawley). The trouble is, there are so many of the pesky things and a lot of them look the same. With a brave face and after giving myself a good speaking to (to inject enthusiasm and conviction into my doubting self) I entered the field yesterday to give them (another) go.

Well. After time spent at Beddington and Walton Heath, I added the grand total of....none. I tried. I really did. But I couldn't in all honesty confidently name anything. My mosses and liverworts list will remain low for some time to come I'm afraid.

I did add a few fungi to the list (which now stands at 2951). It's touch and go if I get to the magic figure before the year's end.

I've also got the Dobson lichen guide. There are thousands of possibilities there, but make mosses seem like a stroll in the park.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The public and 'our' reserves

I recently visited Rye Harbour Nature Reserve on the East Sussex coast, within a couple of gull's wing flaps from the Kent border. There have been great things happening at Rye. What used to be Rye Harbour Farm is slowly being turned into saltmarsh, capable of supporting breeding and roosting birds. This is part of a grand 50-year plan called the 'Romney Marshes Living Landscape Partnership'. What is being constructed is an almost unbroken mosaic of wetland habitat stretching from Hastings in the west through to New Romney in the east, taking in Pett, Icklesham, Rye, Walland and Romney Marshes, Dungeness and Lade. Really exciting times.

When I was staying at Sandwich Bay back in June, I was similarly impressed by local plans for turning a large area of Worth Marshes back into exactly that - marshes. This would created a similar run of habitat all the way back westwards along the Stour Valley to Canterbury.

When I was wandering around the newly created paths at Rye, which criss-cross the new habitat, I was taken by the number of people using this facility. It's a big area, so it wasn't overcrowded. I most probably saw 150 people. Of those only 20 weilded optics. Most of them were out for a walk/cycle/jog in the fresh air or were being pulled along by dogs on leads. A few years ago I would have felt aggrieved that non-birders should gain access to 'our' reserves, no doubt scaring off the wildlife and not realising what wonders were before them. But now, I welcome them with open arms. These are the very people who will help maintain and preserve these habitats. As much as we want to bird and botanise over them so they want to spend their leisure time in the unspoilt outdoors. Airports, windfarms and superstores are us unpalatable to them as to us. So I say encourage them. Let us build cafes on our reserves, create shops that sell tea-towels, bird feeders and cheap optics and invite them in without the need for membership or any expectations of them. It doesn't matter if they don't know a Dunnock from a Dunlin, but if they feel they have a stake in the area they will be just as passionate about its protection. Our inclusion of them will create a small number of naturalists and an even larger number of supporters of the environment.

I'm now off to join David Attenborough in his frozen world - from an armchair of course. (Just got back from the ice caps - what a stunning programme. if you missed it you really should watch it)

Friday, 21 October 2011

Entering the Lyon's Den

I couldn't resist it any longer - after having read so much about the delights of Ebernoe Common on Graeme Lyon's excellent blog I decided to go along and take a look for myself. I persuaded my old mate Gordon Hay to come along for the experience.

Neither of us are fungi experts, but on arrival headed straight for the churchyard where I knew an easy to identify species should be present. It was, but just the one...

Pink Waxcap! I was pleased with that. We wandered around for a couple of hours and saw, amongst others, Dead Moll's Fingers, Brown Birch Bolete, Tawny Funnel, Field Blewit, Chanterelle, Powdery Brittlegill and Poisonpie. The more familiar Fly Agaric, Lilac Bonnet and yellow Stagshorn were also on show. A number of fungi photographers were also combing the area, on of whom reckoned that the numbers present were very poor due to the dry weather. We were not disappointed with what we had seen however.

After this we went onto Pulborough Brooks (2 Ruff) and Amberley Wild Brooks (Short-eared Owl). Trudging our way back to the car, which was parked at Greatham Bridge, I glanced down into a ditch and was delighted to see hundreds and thousands of green 'hundreds and thousands' - Rootless Duckweed! A new species for me.

I will revisit Ebernoe Common. There is much to entice me back...

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Why we list. An expert explains...

I am currently reading a book by Eckhart Tolle. He specialises in writing what are best described as 'self-help' manuals. The following passage is from a chapter dealing with the human ego. Read it, and at the same time think 'listing'...

'The ego identifies with having, but its identification in having is a relatively shallow and short-lived one. Concealed within it remains a deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction, of incompleteness, of  "not enough". "I don't have enough yet", by which the ego really means, "I am not enough yet". As we have seen, having - the concept of ownership - is a fiction created by the ego to give itself solidity and permanency and make itself stand out, make itself special. Since you cannot find yourself through having, however, there is another more powerful drive underneath it that pertains to the structure of the ego: the need for more, which we could also call "wanting". No ego can last for long without the need for more. Therefore, wanting keeps the ego alive much more than having. The ego wants to want more than it wants to have. And so the shallow satisfaction of having is always replaced by more wanting. This is the psychological need for more, that is to say, more things to identify with. It is an addictive need, not and authentic one."

So there you go. We cannot help it, this listing, as it is part of the programmed mindset that most of us humans have exhibited for thousands of years. We can replace our need for birds/plants/moths with others obsessions with cars, sex and money. It is a mind-set that the author explains can be by-passed, but it takes time to master. And effort. I suspect that most of us would rather put the effort into seeing a Rufous-tailed Robin rather than trying to dismantle the mind-set that makes us want to do things that impact on our jobs and relationships.

That's enough soul-searching from me. I'm off to count up my pan-species list again. I want more...

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Seawatching in Surrey

The thin slither of silver that you can see in the centre of the picture above is the sea. No big deal to you, maybe, but to me this was one of those golden moments. I was standing in Surrey and I could see the sea! There was something about that which was rather special. Squint as I might, but I couldn't make out any seabird passage, although it was a bit hazy. Also the 30 mile distance may not have helped. I think the gap in the South Downs that allows us Surreyites to get a salty sea view is where the River Adur empties itself into the Channel at Shoreham. But I maybe wrong.

Where was I? Leith Hill.

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Surrey Alps

This is Colley Hill, on the North Downs. We are facing eastwards and that's Reigate nestling down like the sleepy little leafy town that it is. The scarp and bowl look far more dramatic in real life than it does in a photograph - the perspective and vertiginous slopes have the life squeezed out of them.

The North Downs is a different beast to the South Downs. The latter appear wilder, more remote and grander. Both are of similar height, although because the adjacent land is already pretty high, the North Downs does not give the impression of being as lofty as that southern bit of chalk. Having plenty of cloaking woodland also adds a softness to the north.

Back to Colley Hill. I have spent a lot of time here over the years. It is a place of family walks and picnics and also one that I do venture onto for plants (Meadow Clary!), butterflies (good numbers of Silver-spotted Skippers) and birds... well, when I say birds I really mean in expectation of them. To me it looks like a good birdy place. Marvellous vantage point. Plenty of scrub. Must be on a good fly line. But I have failed here. I cannot even muster up a list of half-decent migrants to wow you with. No Shrikes, no raptors, let alone Common Redstarts or Ring Ouzels. Some lucky beggar had a Common Crane drift over in the spring, but apart from that I cannot recall anything better than a Red Kite being seen here (and let's face it, that's hardly unexpected these days, is it?).

On Saturday I sat in the same place for three hours and saw bugger all. But in reality, of course, I saw an awful lot. Just look at the view! It is one place that I don't mind birding and coming home with an empty notebook. Colley Hill is my balm.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

If you're easily offended, look away now...

This is a Stinkhorn, one of the more phallic looking fungi. No doubt this sort of species was covered up by Victorian naturalists to save the honour of any passing women. Mind you, if it does remind you of a penis, and you are a man, I suggest that you make an appointment with your doctor urgently and get yours checked out. They are supposed to smell to such an extent that you can detect their whereabouts with your nostrils before your eyes have a chance to do so. I bent down to sniff the tip of this particular specimen (I did feel a bit perverted doing so) and can reveal that it was sickly sweet.

All this eroticism was taking place at Thundry Meadows, a Surrey Wildlife Trust reserve close to Elstead. It is an interesting reserve of Alder Carr, grassland and mixed woodland along a stretch of the River Wey. The picture below is looking across the river away from the reserve. Pretty...

I carried on afterwards to Thursley Common. In glorious weather and with a mere breeze, there were plenty of darters still on the wing. There must have been 30+ Black, 12+ Common and 1 Ruddy on show. The Black Darter below stayed still for a snap shot.

Also seen were 2 Woodlarks, 6 Stonechat and a Crossbill. Oh, and some more fungi - but I've done enough about them recently, so I'll shut up.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

North Downs and Beyond AGM

Thankyou all for coming along to this, the first North Downs and Beyond AGM. It's been just over a year now since the blog was relaunched, and visitor numbers have never been higher. No doubt this is due to the high standard of posting that the readers receive. if I can...

Hold on! Aren't we getting high numbers of hits purely down to a number of 'odd' sites sending traffic this way?

Er, I ...

Sites like Google Correction, Shineads and SendPTP?

Ok, yes. I'll admit it. 400-600 hits a day was quite a shock. The best previous day was 300, but they were genuine.

But it's normally aroung 70-100 isn't it?

Yes. But all's not lost. The blog that sent the largest volume of traffic to this particular blog was always Not Quite Scilly and they've opened again. That should bump the numbers up again, just you wait and see!

But it's not just about numbers is it. And we've got some things to address, haven't we?

Have we?

Yes, like the complaints about pan-listing. Some say it's for sad twats. And there's one particular person who reckons that Beddington Sewage Farm gets mentioned far too frequently. Plus, your current obsession with fungi - what's that all about?

Well, I quite like them.

But other people might not want to see yet another picture of a bloody mushroom.

I was going to show the readers a Common Earthball

I wouldn't advise it!

You bloody idiot. That's another set of visitors lost to Jonathan Lethbridge's blog.

It's OK, he just blogs about banking now.

But it's still well written. Better than this pile of...

OK, OK. Shall I mention the new tab feature at the top of the page, with lists and stuff?

I'm sure thet're all dying to look at that...

That's it. I'm closing this AGM. I'm off to string a few spiders.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Dryad's Saddle

The Dryad's Saddle (above), was found in Nonsuch Park, Cheam, this afternoon. It's a much better specimen than the one I saw yesterday in Banstead Woods. A small child could easily sit on it (although I wouldn't recommend it as they would fall straight through it). I'm getting quite excited by fungiat the moment and seem to spend far more time looking on the ground for them than anything else natural history related at the moment.

Dead wood occupancy

Oyster Mushroom
Dryad's Saddle
Porcelain Fungus
All of the fungi pictured above were found on fallen trees in Banstead Woods. There was only a single Dryad's Saddle, and a small amount of Oyster Mushroom, but the Porcelain Fungus was quite common and varied enormously in shape, from long-stalked bonnets to the flat slippery plates pictured above.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The back garden will provide

Another morning, and another bleary-eyed one courtesy of more Rugby World Cup. The moth trap was a little livelier than yesterday, but the Green-brindled Crescent (above) was the only species that got a brief 'ahhh' from me as I turned the egg boxes over.

In an attempt to get to 3,000 before the year's end (I've left it too late I think), I wandered around the garden and added no fewer than three species (courtesy of slugs and snails). All common, and all overlooked by me as I've basically never looked at them before. My fellow pan-listers must despair of my efforts... I reckon there are quite a few more to be had in my humble plot. As I was doing this, three noisy Crossbills flew over.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Last night's trap contents

No Crimson Speckled, Flame Brocade or Ni Moth... instead just 3 macros on a coldish night. They were Silver Y, Brown-spot Pinion and the ever-welcome Merveille du Jour (above). Pan-listing was not ignored as I was able to string/identify Lepthyphantes minutus, a common spider. What with Redwings flying overhead yesterday and a distinct chilliness in the air, it was without doubt autumnal. But hold on ... apparently it's going to be 70 degrees F tomorrow - get those shorts and suncream out again!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Humble pie

Well, Blogger finally caught up with me. I was taken to a 'correction centre' and made to realise that I could no longer go under the guise of a naturalist if I persisted in my ways. I was made to watch ALL previous episodes of Springwatch and Autumnwatch to re-establish a relationship with British wildlife. I wasn't keen at first, but they had ways of making me (see picture above).

After that I was sent out into the wild and told to write down what I saw and have all sightings verified by a celebrity naturalist who officiates in such ocassions. I felt that Miss Humble was rather harsh in rejecting my claim of an overflying Sandhill Crane. She did, however, allow my Loch Ness Monster - I bet that's one that even Jonty Denton hasn't seen!

I've got the next fortnight off of work, so will hope - in between bouts of watching the Rugby World Cup and decorating - to get out into the field... you never know, I might just blog about it.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Blogger investigates North Downs and beyond

Blogger today stepped in to close down ‘North Downs and beyond’ ahead of an investigation into claims that Steve Gale, the site’s owner, is a complete sham.

For several months now, regular visitors to the blog have been noticing that there is little original content. ‘We rarely read about what he has actually seen’, claims Graham James from Merstham, ‘all we get is stream of half-baked ideas and lists that a five-year old could have put together.’ 

Somebody from in the north-east, but who wishes to remain anonymous, was quoted as saying that he’d ‘given up visiting the site ages ago’ and that this had freed up his time to ‘give Bunty more regular walks’.
Mark Telfer,  holder of the key to the kingdom of Panlistia and patron saint to White Prominents was relieved that an investigation was under way, as he had harboured doubts as to Steve’s suitability as a pan-lister. ‘He never seems to go out, and suspiciously adds exactly the same species to his list just after a certain dreadlocked naturalist from Sussex. I think he just visits other people’s blogs and ticks what he sees on them!’ 

The whereabouts of Mr. Gale is unknown at present. Enquiries were made at his local patches, but were met with incredulity. At Beddington, Johnny Allan said that he had ‘never heard of him’, Canons Farm’s very own David Campbell thought that he’d given up birding ‘several years ago’ and the Holmethorpe birders were convinced that he now collected stamps.

The long suffering Mrs. Gale welcomes the investigation. 'He might actually look at me rather than a bloody computer screen. With any luck, there won't be so many potted moths in the fridge. It's about time someone made him grow up...'

If you do come across him, Blogger will be keen to hear from you. He is described as 'a sad-looking man with a permanent air of disillusion and failure' about him. They suggest that you do not approach him.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Top 10 UK bird noises... by my reckoning

A post that has no scientific value at all and is just about pointless opinion and league tables. I love 'em...

Bird song, bird calls and miscellaneous other bird-made noises are as big a part of the birding experience as looking at the blighters. I started to work out what my favourite UK sounds were in this avian cacophany and even put them in order. I'd like to share them with you. However, before I start honorable mention must be made to those species that didn't quite make the top ten but were in the running. A churring Nightjar instantly brings to mind balmy evenings spent on Surrey heaths; Turtle Doves are stunning lookers already, but add to that the drowsy purr of a singing bird and you could drift off into a warm doze; crisp mornings or foggy afternoons during the colder months are always enlivened by the chuckle overhead of a Fieldfare. But none of them made the final cut. The following, in reverse order, did:

That nasal call coming from a mixed flock of finches migrating overhead always adds spice to the day. It speaks of migration and tells you that there are gems hidden within the flock. The discordant wheeze speaks of the wild.

When I was in my late teens I was seawatching at Dungeness when Keith Redshaw looked up in the air and said that he had heard a Med Gull call. I was stunned - how did this man know what one sounded like? They were still a rare bird then. After a few seconds it floated over us, a full adult. It carried on calling as it went westwards and away from us. The muffled, rounded up-and-down 'yawl' gets me every time. If we had to exterminate all gulls bar one species, I'd spare this one on call alone.

A poplar plantation in Breckland one still June morning is a memory that will stay with me until the day I die, made so memorable by the echoes of fruity whistling throughout the catherdral-like stands of trees. Light, space and sound combined have never been bettered.

Not lessened by its ubiquity, the laughing yaffle of our smartest 'pecker brightens up any occasion. If it were a person it would be Ken Dodd (if you are under 40, ask your parents).

The only sound here that is not a call or song, but a vibration of feathers. A drumming Snipe is something that I rarely hear, but one that always excites me. The rhythmic song isn't bad either. Nor, come to think of it, that furtive, annoyed alarm call they give off when you flush the little blighters. An all round audial good egg!

'Vit, vit...' Simple contact call, which, whenever heard - which is frequently - always grabs my attention to zoom in on its caller as it flits quickly by. Less is sometimes more.

When I hear a Swift scream I know that summer is here. I then sit out in the garden during subsequent summer evenings watching (and listening) to them tearing through the sky like 'ragged black comets' (as described by Richard Mabey).

I could listen to a tape loop of the yodelling crow. One can sound like a flock! Three can sound like ten!! Do they call for fun?

It has to be at night, and although I enjoy the 'kewik' call it's the tremulous hoot that gets me every time. The hairs DO stand up on the back of my neck. Mystery and awe.

A displaying bird in flight has so much going on in the sounds that it makes. A range of notes wrapped up in rolls and loops, it can sound almost synthesized, but I never, ever tire of it. There is more than a whiff of rose-tinted glasses about this pick as I cut my ornithological teeth on these waders displaying at Beddington during the mid 1970s.

Dewick's Plusia breeding in the UK

I might be a bit previous in claiming this, but apart from the finding of larvae it seems as if Beddington Sewage Farm is home to a population of Dewick's Plusia. Several weeks ago Peter Alfrey, whose home borders the farm, had a moth of this species fly into a lit room at a time of little migrant activity. This has been followed by his recording of several more since. Today Johnny Allan found an adult at rest on vegetation close to the birder's hide. A hunt, at the right time, for larvae will be made. Foodplants include Common Nettle, Yarrow and Chamomile. It will be interesting to see how far and quickly this population will spread.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

More birding soul searching

A couple of bird species that have recently turned up in neighbouring Sussex have made me question my birding motives. Both Pallid Harrier and Long-toed Stint would be British lifers. Neither are more than an hours drive. Would I like to see them? Yes, I would. Have I been to see them or even seriously consider going to see them? No I haven't. Then why not?

Distance is not an issue. Time and money is not an issue either. I know where to go. I was reading on-line directions to both birds and a familiar wave of nausea washed over me... it's the people that puts me off, and by that I mean the birders. I'd better explain...

Both sites where the rarities are/were have finite parking facilities, so immediately there will be a free for all to get those places. Early arrivals will bag them. There will then be an assortment of sympathetic parking and antisocial parking away from those places. The procession of the green clad hordes (first weekend for both since identification was clinched) will then congregate as one to the viewpoint. I cannot face it. These aren't people to avoid, they are just like me (okay, maybe that does make them people to avoid!)

I'm not anti-social. I like the company of like-minded souls, but not en masse. My interest in natural history was at first borne out of wonder at what there was to see and identify. I used to twitch. I used to seek out the crowd and get comfort within it. But now, I do all of this as much to find peace in a world that I increasingly find alien and confusing. My local patches do have regular birders who I know that I will bump into and I look forward to sharing time with them. But not 50 of them. Or a hundred. That to me is a non-starter.

So, my membership of the 400 Club will never be fulfilled. My twitching peers from the late 70s and early 80s are all way past 500 now, and had I continued even at a gentle twitching pace I would be a 500 plus man. My birding is a strange beast - I'm ambivalent even on a local level, but even so I still venture out, optics at the ready, with hope and ambition in my soul. My expectations are not high although I still harbour hopes of those good birds coming my way. As proof of this, I have been reading up on Pallid Harrier identification, just in case...

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Books in active service

I'm sure that most of you have a natural history themed library of books, barging those of your partner or kids out of the way to be in full view for the admiring hoardes to inspect. Sod the gardening and cookery books, make way for the latest New Naturalist!! Send the P D James collection into the cupboard, I want all of my south American field guides on show (in descending order of height, spines all aligned...)

Do you stand back and admire them? Do you proudly look on as another new tome shines out from the others, promising hours of dipping into? Do you also recognise those that are showing their age or are in distress due to active service?

My New Naturalist volume on British Thrushes that I purchased on publication in the late 1970s has faded to a ghost image of its original state. The reds are now a pale apricot and the thrush illustration is a vague sketch made in a see-through pencil as opposed to the robust blackness that the artist originally drew. The Birds of Pakistan (Vol 1) by Roberts looks as though it has been left out in the sun for the past twenty years - and it certainly hasn't been to Pakistan!

I was amused to see that Skev's latest blog header shows a line-up of some of his lepidoptera books, including volume 1-7 of The Moths and Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland. Just like mine, volumes 1 and 2 have discoloured, and had he volumes 9 and 10 on show I bet they would appear like mine, looking as if they had been present in a room full of cigar smokers over the twenty odd years since they have been published. My early Poysers from the mid-seventies are more dirty-buff than the white they used to be.

My first edition Skinner is the dirtiest book I own. Because it has been used 'in the field' a combination of rain, grass, splattered moths and compromised fingers have seen that a second layer coats not just the cover and spine but most of the inside pages as well. There are several species attached to the plate on which they are depicted... Top prize, however, goes to my copy of The Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Bali and Java by Mackinnon and Phillips that came with me to Malaysia in 1994. On a slippery descent from the top of Bukkit Teresek in Taman Nagara, I fell heavily, scattering the contents of my rucksack across the muddy floor. The said guide came off really badly, coated in mud and sending me into mourning - it was brand new and was nursed like a child owing to its importance as an identification aid. After careful cleaning it served its purpose for the rest of the trip and to this day has a brown caste, that I now consider to be a badge of honour won whilst on active service.

Birds of Surrey (Wheatley) arrived with a hole the size of a ten-pence piece on the back dust jacket; Lars Jonssons original mini-guide to the Mediterranean (not the combined field guide) with ripped cover due to lazy picking up of book in one hand; blood from a small cut on my ear finding its way onto Skinner (second edition); New Naturalist 'Wild Flowers of Chalk and Limestone' jacket totally gone AWOL - I could go on.

They might just be books, but they all have their own tales beyond those that may be inside them.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The birth of a bit of birding habitat

The poor photograph above (light against me, it was raining, photographer is pants, etc, etc) may not mean much to you or even hint at the excitement that it caused this particular blogger. I was on Walton and Banstead Heath this morning, primarily looking for fungi. Earlier in the spring I had stumbled across a recently created pond in the area and was keen to go back and have a look. As I approached it I was disappointed to find that it had been emptied of water and that the ground had been scraped by earthmovers and dumped nearby - so much for checking the populating vegetation. However, close by was a new earth bank complete with fencing and signs warning of deep water. Hello...

As I got closer the expanse of water that revealed itself got me very excited indeed. About the size of three football pitches, a quick scan revealed a Moorhen and three Little Grebes. Why such joy? This particular part of Surrey has very little open water apart from the odd pond. Away from Holmethorpe, Beddington and Epsom Stew Ponds there is next to none, so this represents quite a good bit of bird habitat. I'm not getting carried away, but I can see the odd bit of wildfowl dropping in and no doubt a wader or two. Such places do turn up the most unexpected species, so my visits to Walton Heath may well increase.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The moth that started it all

The Blood-vein (above) holds a special place in my natural history heart as it was the species that really fired my imagination and turned me from a birder into someone who started to look at other things.

My early notebooks do hint that I was aware of non-avian things - the odd reference is made to orchids, butterflies and, yes, even moths - diary entries exist from when I was still living at home as a student, and refer to a Swallow-tailed Moth and a Red Underwing which visited my bedroom through an open window during a hot spell in the summer of 1975.

But it was when I stayed at Dungeness Bird Observatory that my interest grew. In the common room was a cupboard that housed the old log books. As I was a regular I was trusted to assist in any data gathering that the then warden, Nick Riddiford, was involved in. I loved this cupboard. It held hours and hours of captivating reading, old sheets of records stretching back to 1952. I handled them and inspected them with a reverence usually reserved for ancient manuscripts. Those 'old days' came back to life in my head as I immersed myself in the writings of the day. But I digress...

In that same cupboard I came across an index card box. I opened it up and found a collection of cards, each with a handwritten name of a moth, underneath of which was a forewing and a hindwing stuck down with sellotape. A macarbre and crude identification guide, but this was before Skinner published his groundbreaking book which superceded the old, diffcult volumes by South. I was mesmerised as I flicked through them, most of them brown and crumbling under yellowing tape. But there was one card that was fresher than the rest and showed a striking wing with a name that I would never forget - a Blood-vein! Would I ever see such a beast?

I cannot say that I became a recorder of moths overnight. I spent a bit of time looking at those that came to lit windows at night, and it wasn't until 1981 that I inspected an actinic trap with a young lad that I had befriended - his name was Sean Clancy. You may have heard of him.

My first MV experience blew me away. It was 1984 and some visiting moth-ers set one up in the observatory garden. It was like watching a machine hoover up moths. And what variety! I recognised one of them straight away, memorised from a card in the observatory cupboard - BLOOD-VEIN!! I ordered a trap the next day. I've spent so many happy nights (and days) with moths, from Surrey woodland, downland and heathland; Kentish coasts; Scottish hillsides; and my own garden which still provides great highlights such as this years Rannoch Loopers. If you haven't got into them yet, I can thoroughly recommend that you do. You don't need much, just check a lit window at night...