Friday, 29 April 2011

Sod the Godwits, it's a Phyllobius pomaceus

Beddington Sewage Farm once again provided today's entertainment. The promised rain did not materialise, so therefore a diurnal wader and tern passage did not materialise either - apart from the two Barwits that flew through when I had deserted the lakeside and was off doing my botanical survey... I'm getting a reputation as an unlucky birder down at the farm. It seems that whenever I wander off something happens (Bearded Tit, White-fronted Goose and Waxwing have all appeared briefly only to depart before I have returned) - all of them are all good local birds.

All was not lost though, as my assistant botanical recorder, Frankie 'Hoary Cress' Prater showed me a weevil on the nettles. I even keyed it out and feel confident in naming it Phyllobius pomaceus. That's the boy in the photograph above.

The rest of the Beddington Bird Group are taking part in the annual bird race tomorrow, whereas I will be attending a barbeque in Shooter's Hill. My only decision to make (apart from how many sausages to eat) is if I dare to leave my mobile switched on?

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Pan-species listing - a warning!

This pan-species listing lark (no pun intended) can seriously wreck your natural history 'blueprint'. When I 'only' looked at birds, I was, without any complications, a birder. Identification of what I saw was a fairly straightforward matter and the literature needed to take on the more complicated species was both accessible and plentiful.

When I turned my attention to lepidoptera, butterflies were few (and obvious) and moths - as long as I took a circuitous path around the micros - was once again aided by clear identification guides. Even the micros were being increasingly serviced by excellent reference material on the web and in print.

Botany came a little later, but I was fortunate in having an embarrasment of books to help me out with those tricky crucifers and sedges. To sum up, with a little patience I could bird, moth and botanise without the need for much head-scratching when coming up with correct identification (although there are always some exceptions...)

Now... since I have embarked on the ambitious (foolish?) task of trying to identify every living thing that I come across, I am aware of many hurdles being placed before me.

One - problems of identification. Not all classifications have simple field guides. Some have complicated keys that require a degree to master, the use of a microscope and the ability to disect a flea's nether regions. Some of these reference works are also obscure in their whereabouts.

Two - too much information to take on board! I'm starting to drown in identification - help!!

Three - loss of knowledge already gained. If I'm being honest, I'm a worse birder, mother and botanist than I used to be as I'm diluting the time spent looking purely at these subjects. I'm increasingly  turning away from pugs and grass because, well, I frankly haven't got the time.

Talking of which, Four - time. With a career and a family, how do I fit it all in?

Five - loss of confidence. When I spend half an hour trying (unsuccessfully) to nail a moss, or have an identication that I was happy with shot down in flames, I have tended to question the foolishness of spreading myself so thinly across so many aspects of natural history.

BUT - by looking at these species that, up until now, I have trodden on, ignored or swatted, I have become even more aware of the wonders before us. I do get excited when I come across a new fungus, or a flower covered in insects. That spider in the garage gets me scrambling to pot it up and examine it.

It is, without doubt, worth some loss of what used to be stored in my brain and could be recalled with immediate effect. Our natural world is more than a passing Red Kite or a sunbathing Peacock butterfly. But be careful - if you look too closely you might just get sucked in!

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The longhorns are coming!

This is Adela reaumurella, a fairly common longhorn moth that I found in good numbers at Ranmore Common yesterday, along with three Hawfinches (click on the image to appreciate this little beauty all the more). Nearby, on Denbigh's Hillside, a good selection of butterflies included Dingy Skipper, Grizzled Skipper and Green Hairstreak. This late April has felt more like high July, although the pessimist within me predicts jumpers and thermals will be required once more within the next few weeks.

Sunday, 24 April 2011


This nicely marked Seraphim came to the MV last night, along with the common longhorn moth Nematopogan swammerdamella, the later a new species for the garden.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Some you win...

After a couple of recent incorrect identifications (of a grass and a spider), I'm a more wary individual. This morning I approached the moth trap with an air of uncertainty. As far as macro moths go, I'm on fairly safe ground. Micro moths are a bit more of a challenge, but I do have accessibility to all of the literature that I need. Other invertebrates are a different matter. Take spiders for instance. I have a copy of the Collins Field Guide to the Spiders of Britain and Northern Europe by Michael Roberts. That, to my small mind, must be enough of a reference to confidently identify anything that comes my way (save for a foreign stowaway in a box of bananas). My assumption is wrong. I've struggled to match the living spider, or a decent macro image of one, with the plates in the guide. Last week's Thursley spider was a case in point. It could be that all spiders are highly variable and that students of the arachnidae look towards other features to get a correct identification other than 'plumage'. I will not be giving up though.

Back to this morning s moth trap. No moths quickened my pulse, but my pan-species list radar was alerted to an ichneumon fly with a dark tip to its reddish-brown abdomen. My only, woefully inadequate reference in print to such beasts is Chinery's Collins Insect guide (which is a great generalists starter). I turned to the ichneumon plate and illustrated was Netelia testaceus, a dead ringer for what I had trapped. I then read the text for this particular species, expecting to be informed that there were several similar species, but was cheered to learn that 'there are several similar species, but only testaceus has a dark tip to abdomen'. Result! A safe tick!

Or is there somebody out there that will tell me otherwise...

Friday, 22 April 2011

Expert help

I need to thank Graeme Lyons and Ann Sankey for stopping me from making a couple of schoolboy errors. My trip to Thursley last Sunday had me posting pictures of a grass (I thought it might be Early Meadow-grass), which they both corrected to Annual Meadow-grass; and a spider, which Graeme has put me right on - it is in fact Marpissa muscosa.

I take one step forward, and two back...

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The three stages

In his excellent book 'Blood Knots', Luke Jennings wrote:

"The late Bernard Venables, author of the classic Mr Crabtree fishing books, used to say that there are three stages to the angler's evolution. To begin with, as a child, you just want to catch fish - any fish. Then you move to the stage where you want to catch big fish. And finally, with nothing left to prove, you reach a place where it's the manner of the catch that counts, the rigour and challenge of it, at which point the whole thing takes on an intellectual and perhaps even a philosophical cast. I tried this out on a pike-angling friend of mine, the rock guitarist Rene Berg. 'It's like with women, then? he said thoughtfully."

I think that we could legitimately alter that last comment to "It's like with birding, then?"

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Sphagnum scene

I was slightly disappointed at the lack of Sphagnum mosses at Thursley Common on Sunday. Chatting to one of the assistant wardens, he did inform me that there has been a noticeable reduction in their number, the cause of which has been subject to an ongoing investigation by ecologists. He also suggested that the extinction of White-faced Darter at Thursley could have been down to this phenomenon. During the morning, I was fairly confident in identifying Sphagnum molle, fallax and magellanicum.

I emailed Ann Sankey, Surrey's botanical recorder, with an image of my putative Early Meadow-grass. Her verdict is that it is just Annual Meadow-grass. I had high hopes for that Poa. Oh well, I did say I wasn't that hot on grasses...

Monday, 18 April 2011

More from Thursley

This little beauty was found crawling up a Scots Pine just off of the boardwalk that crosses the bog on Thursley Common. I think it might be Sitticus floricola. But, as I'm increasingly having to say, I might be wrong. Oh for a decent spider guide...

There were at least 20 Common Lizards basking in the heat on the boardwalk, ranging in size and colour. Searches for other species of reptile drew a blank. More from the fabled NNR tomorrow.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Is this Early Meadow-grass?

I took myself off to Thursley Common today and had a great time. The weather was immaculate, there were Woodlarks and Redstarts serenading me wherever I went and the air was full of the coconut whiff of Gorse and the warming sniff of pine resin. There was enough of interest to populate several posts, so I'll keep my powder dry for later in the week. However...

On a part of the reserve where the ground rises and the growth is regenerating from the devastating fire of a couple of years ago, I found several examples of this tiny grass growing on compacted sand. The fresh yellowy-green leaves and the jizz of the plants suggested to me that they might be Early Meadow-grass, but I'm way off being a grass expert. Are there any of you out there that fancy commenting? It would be welcomed.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Crane cock-up (of sorts)

A most enjoyable morning at Beddington Sewage Farm, with a female Marsh Harrier flying north, a Little Egret and plenty of migrants (including LRP, Yellow Wagtail, Reed Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats). A feature of the morning was the behavior of the gulls that were present. Up to 750 larger gulls frequently took to the air, spiralling up in an excitable frenzy, with much calling, an assortment of mews and cries, at times somewhat un-gull like. Were the gulls restless because they were readying themselves for their breeding grounds?

At about 12.15 I was walking along the far eastern side of the area, mainly recording the plants, when I heard a Common Crane call. Surely not, I thought. It called again. I looked up into a bright sky that was strewn with the gulls that had gone on yet another excitable circuit. There was no crane sized bird with them, or above them. I didn't hear anything else that resembled a Crane, so put it down to wishful thinking and the number of gulls that were making, at times, most un-gull like noises.

Within ten minutes I received a text message from Johnny Allan, who was staking out the northern lake at the sewage farm. He too had heard crane calls, but, like me, had dismissed them - that is until an excitable birder ran up to him asking whether or not he had seen the two Common Cranes circling and then heading north.

How had we both visually missed them? I was pleased that my suspicions had been confirmed but annoyed that I didn't have the conviction to claim the record at the time. Had I been in 'crane country' I wouldn't have hesitated. Strangely unfulfilling.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

In an English suburban garden

Least Black Arches - not so uncommon in Banstead
Greenbottle - common but better than a Bee-eater close up!
Mid-afternoon and I've been doing what all good men with 2.4 children, a job and a dog do on a sunny weekend - gardening, minor chores, being sensible. When I was in my late teens I swore I would never get sucked into domesticity, but hey....
The MV produced a Least Black Arches, a species that has become commoner over the last few years. I couldn't resist going for a picture of the Greenbottle. They really are stunning up close and underated as one of the wonders of the garden. There's still time for a flyover Red Kite before I pack away my Alan Titchmarsh gardening gloves.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The past is a foreign country...

...they do things differently there.

Thankyou to LP Hartley for my nicking of his opening line in 'The Go-between'.

It's as good a summing up of how our birding, and the birds, have changed in what is a fairly small time span. The first time that I had any of my observations published, they appeared in the 1976 Surrey Bird Club annual report. I've got a copy in front of me. The illustrations look dated and are but approximations of the species they depict, but at the time were admired. There are four plates of photographs - all black and white - and tellingly all but one of the six photos are of birds at the nest. So far so Victorian.

The systematic list is revealing. Very few scarce, let alone rare birds. Cormorants were scarce away from the winter months. There were but four records of Common Buzzard (I can see that many soaring over my garden at the same time now); a Marsh Harrier was the first in the county for ten years; only three sightings of Peregrine were recorded; Grey Partridge was still widely breeding and largely ignored; 30-40 pairs of Lapwing bred; passage Ruff numbers were bouyant; the highest counts of gulls were insignificant compared to todays glut; a single Mediterranean Gull was the fourth county record; breeding Turtle Doves didn't even merit a round-up as they were 'many'; there were seven records of Wryneck; Hooded Crows popped up regularly enough in the winter months; Willow Tit was present in at least 22 areas - today it is extinct; Grasshopper Warblers could be heard reeling at a minimum of 11 localities (try and find one this year and you'd be doing well); Wood Warblers were recorded in the breeding season at 27 localities - if you subtract 27 from that number you'd be close to the population now; Spotted Flycatchers were 'widespread'; Tree Pipits likewise; Yellow Wagtails still bred at three localities; the entry for Red-backed Shrike reads 'Sadly it is perhaps worth recording that for the first time this century this species was not recorded in the county at all'; Hawfinch was to be expected in small parties in central and southern Surrey, including 5 pairs in Priory Park, Reigate; Corn Buntings were recorded from at least 16 widespread areas, including a gathering of 60, plus a scattering of breeding records - since 2000 there have been four rcords in the county; Cirl Buntings were still clinging on at Pewley Down, but as any latter-day Surrey lister will tell you, they are now rarer than Glaucous-winged Gulls in the county. There were no records of Red Kite or Little Egret back in 1976...

These changes have all happened in 35 years. To me, that's not a great deal of time. To younger readers it must seem like several lifetimes. I would love to pick up a copy of the 2046 Surrey Bird Report to see what another 35 years will do to our bird life. No Turtle Doves. No Spotted Flycatchers. Massive twitch for a Marsh Tit. Big counts of Glossy Ibis, Cattle Egrets and Fan-tailed Warblers. I'd be 87 then. I wonder if I can last that long and find out?

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Lou Reed is a difficult acro

When people say that they have a passion for music, I would bet that 100% of them do not like all music. They might dislike heavy metal. Or be able to leave all forms of classical well alone. Chances are that country and western will not be on their radar at the same time as ambient dance.

However, when we say that we have a passion for birds, we do not seem to discriminate. We embrace all species.There will be times when effort might not be put into seawatching, or working ones way through a flock of gulls, but they are not totally shunned. Nobody turns their back on a wagtail because it is one, although music buffs may well turn off Katy Perry when she comes on the radio, or refuse to listen to any nose flute music.Why are we so all-inclusive? Is it because we only have a limited number of species to look at? I like to think that there are paralells to be drawn between musical taste and birding...

Critical ID 
This is the free-form jazz of the bird world. Difficult to embrace, takes a lot of interpretation and relies a lot upon wallowing in minutiae.

Hardcore twitching
The punk of the bird world. Old school meant sleeping rough, hitching, looking wild. The new twitching is a cleaned up version, like a tribute band or the reforming of middle-aged, overweight men (hello John Lydon...)

Local RSPB group outings
A Phil Collins greatest hits box-set...

Raptor migration
Talons, death machines in flight, big barn doors overhead - it has to be heavy metal.

Patch watching
We like to think we're Iggy Pop, but we're more like Coldplay

Imagine listening to the entire work of Neil Young, chronologically jumbled  - moments of sheer brilliance punctuated with tedium.

Scientific study
Worthy, steady and not rocking any boats - a bit like being at a folk festival.

I'm sure you can come up with your own.

Monday, 4 April 2011

(Whisper it), it's a Pan-species post

It's been a while since I mentioned my Pan-species list. The last time I did, it produced a stream of bile from a self-procalimed 'normal person' in Kent. So, if you don't like the idea of blokes identifying anything that moves (and plenty of other things that don't), look away now...

At the moment, my list stands on 2671, comprising:
Flora (1360), Moths (675), Butterflies (50), Birds (370), Dragonflies (33), Fungi (28), Mammals (32), Marine life (11), Other invertebrates (56), Amphibians (5), Reptiles (4), Fish (17), Snails (4), Mosses, lichens and liverworts (23), Grasshoppers (2), Others (1).

I could have added many species over the weekend, especially when walking through the knee-high emerging vegetation at Beddington, where plenty of small beetles, spiders and other creepy-crawlies were on show, but I had no net, no containers and, if I'm honest, no chanceof pinning a firm id on them. One that didn't get away was the spider Pisaura mirabilis, pictured above.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Ouzels of pleasure

After a morning at Beddington SF, which provided plants and butterflies but not the birds, David Campbell rescued the day by finding a pair of Ring Ouzels at Canons Farm. The male and female stayed throughout the afternoon, sparking a mini-twitch. Both spent time out on the Legal & General playing field, but did go to cover for periods of time.