Saturday, 30 July 2011

They used to watch birds there...

..they still do really, but most of the regular members of the Beddington Farm Bird Group have foresaken birding during this summer to immerse themselves in the black art of pan-species listing. At least Johnny still had his wits about him to notch up a Black Kite a couple of weeks ago (shared with Peter who viewed it from his flat window).

The sewage farm plant list is still building nicely, and I've yet to seriously look at the grasses, sedges, willows and roses (maybe next year?). I quite like this laid back approach to observation - if I don't feel like looking critically at something, then why do so? After all, it's not a job. We didn't neglect the birds this morning, with 3 Greenshanks, 10 Green Sandpipers, 5 Common Sandpipers and a messy flock of 2,000 Starlings.

I have an aim for the coming week - to catch a Tree-lichen Beauty in the garden moth trap. It would be a lifer and is overdue. There are also some tantalisingly close Jersey Tigers that would grace the buddleija in the garden if they flitted my way.

I never seem to be short of moth possibilities and long may that continue.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Debbie Harry performs in my garden

I know a girl from a lonely street
Cold as ice cream but still as sweet
Dry your eyes Sunday girl

Last night I was sitting in the back garden, the dusk quickly descending, taking in the calm weather, the muggy night and the bats and moths flitting through the air. But there was something else that stole my attention, and that was Debbie Harry of Blondie, singing to me live in my garden. No kidding...

Over the past two years the following have sung live to me as I've sat in the garden... Simply Red, JLS, The Beach Boys, The Feeling, The Wanted (quiet at the back Stables, I know it isn't exactly The Clash or 999), and there is something special about having these acts do so. I'd better explain.

I live a mile away from Epsom race course. For each of the past three summers they have put on weekly evening performances from a variety of bands directly after a race meeting. You can go and watch the gig by buying a ticket and watching from the grandstands; you can sit on the downs and hear the whole thing for free but see very little; or you can sit in my garden and listen while inspecting the early evening visitors to the moth trap.

If it's a still evening, or the wind is from the southern sector, the sound is clear. From the north however and you can't hear a thing (Texas played earlier in the summer and I didn't catch a note). Last night I heard the encore very clearly indeed - 'Heart of Glass' and a bloody good version it was too. people who actually paid to go said it was rammed - and mainly populated by teenagers. For those of us who grew up with Blondie as one of the biggest pop acts in the world (1978 - 1980), it was comforting to think that a whole generation of kids are finding something in their music.

If you're wondering what this post has to do with the natural world, then I will happily admit to the fact that it has bugger all to do with birds, moths, plants, pan-listing, twitching, etc, etc, etc.

Even I have to admit, there is more to life...

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Mist netting - a necessary evil?

Birdguides has just posted an article about a study into the safety of mist netting birds. This is a subject that often gets non-ringers hot under the collar and I wish I had an extra pan-species lifer for every time that I've heard somebody say that it is a cruel practice. It is something that I know a little bit about.

Between 1976 - 1983 I held a ringing permit, becoming an A permit holder and a trainer by 1979. I have spent a great deal of time handling many thousands of birds, from tiny Goldcrests right through to the veritable avian giants such as geese and swans. Most of these were trapped by mist net (not the geese and swans however!). A mist net, generally, only becomes dangerous to a bird when the person extracting it from the net is inexpert in the process. It takes a person with a 'feel' for the fine mesh to confidently untangle the bird from it. There are situations when weather can play a part in safety - a windy day can tangle birds beyond comfort, rain will chill them as will cold - but any ringer worth his salt will not operate in such conditions.

There are horror stories. Mist nets set over water to trap waders that have collapsed, drowning those birds caught. Trapped birds being predated by cats, rats or even Water Rails. These are rare events. The odd bird does get injured. The odd bird does die (Bullfinches and Greenfinches have a reputation for 'croaking it' in small - and I mean small - numbers).

Such losses are totally regretable, but are very rare. The data that ringing has given us has helped identify migration routes, wintering and breeding ranges, longevity figures, the means to assess the health of birds through fat counts and 'stress' bars on feathers - all in all a tool to help protect millions of birds across their whole range. I feel that the odd loss can therefore be justified.

It is also worth remembering that the light metal ring that is placed on a birds tarsus is specifically designed to allow a bird to carry on its normal life unhindered. Otherwise all data gathered would be meaningless. The use of plastic rings has been used to successfully allow larger birds, such as geese and gulls, to be identified in the field without the need for repeated capture to gather data. The longevity of these birds provides proof that they carry on living an unhindered life.

Read the article if you are a sceptic and it may provide you with some comfort as to the effects that mist netting (and ringing) has on birds.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Hawfinch valley

Headley Heath holds a special place in my natural history heart. It is one of those places that I cut my ornithological teeth on back in the 1970s, with evenings spent in the company of Nightjars and Woodcocks. More recently it has been the moths and plants that have caught my attention there. Today I visited with moss and lichen in mind, but it was the birdlife that stole the show.

I took the picture above whilst sitting on a bench (very dude, I know) taking in the view and scanning the sky for anything that might float by. Earlier in the morning I had heard a calling Hawfinch maybe half a mile from this spot, but was still delighted to then see a flock of 11 of these magnificent finches fly from left to right across the far valley shown in this photo. I have seen Hawfinches here before, in this very spot, one October morning back in 2005 when a flock of eight entertained me for up to 10 minutes, I have since refered to this place as 'Hawfinch valley' (this being reinforced today) even though I have only seen this species here twice in the 36 years of visiting!

Today I downloaded the new Birdguides app for the Dragonflies and Damselflies of the UK. If you have the means to view apps, I would strongly recommend it. Marvellous stuff.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Even the bad times were good

I've just watched a television documentary about cricketer Ian Botham, who, thirty years ago today, almost single-handedly defeated the Australians in the famous Headingley test. The first half of the programme, that looked at his career between 1974 - 1981, had me drowning in nostalgia - not just for the cricketing performances that I followed so avidly at the time, but also because these same years also neatly dovetailed into my early birding life. Botham's test debut recalls a trip to Abinger Common. His rise to 'first-name on the team sheet' was at the same time that I began my mercifully brief flirtation with twitching. His glorious summer of 81 paralleled my own semi-residence at Dungeness. At first I was at a loss to put a finger on what it was that bestowed upon this period really good reasons to cherish it so much...

Viewing any archive news footage from this period is a shock - Britain looked so grimy and downtrodden. The birding was similar. Most birders dressed in ex-army surplus, wore long greasy hair, spots were rife and we carried, by today's standards, poor optics. Rare birds were rare - by that, I mean rarer than now. There weren't so many people out looking for them and thus there weren't so many clued up birders. I think that there had been maybe 25 records each of Radde's and Dusky Warblers in the UK by the mid-1970s - there wasn't as much to go and see. Field guides were few and limited in scope. Getting the 'gen' - good seventies word that - necessitated contacts that had to be earned. If you weren't in with somebody with a car, you had to hitch. And if you did get a lift, cars always seemed to break down back then. It took longer to get to places because of the lack of by-passes and motorways. It makes you wonder why plenty of us consider this the golden age.

Youth has a lot to do with it, of course. You can never replicate the initial wonder that comes when something takes you over and burns with a passion. Anything is possible in those early years - I was going to be an observatory warden and most probably be on the rarities committee by the time I was 30 (no I didn't on both counts). Maybe because it wasn't easy - no pagers, no detailed ID, no relative affluence - each birding success was that much more cherished because we had to work for it.

I do look back on that period with a smug satisfaction that I lived through it and birded through it. Punk, riots, Wallcreepers (I had to get that in) and a stocky bearded Englishman who defined a sporting era by picking up a bat and ball, walking out onto a cricket pitch and giving it large to eleven Australian tourists.

Monday, 18 July 2011

I don't care what the weather man says...

Click on picture to get the full weather effect

Us crazy Brits, eh? Preoccupied with the weather, never a dull moment on our island caught between Azores Highs, Baltic Lows, jetstreams and blasts from the Arctic. We suffer the driest April and May since Velocoraptors stalked the earth and then follow that with biblical rainfall throughout June and July. Watching the Open golf on TV over the weekend was as much about watching the weather from Sandwich as it was cheering on a slightly overweight Ulsterman beat off the American upstarts.

I dug out the picture above, taken at Dungeness last July. We were aware of a murderous black bank of cloud arriving from the west and stood on the moat as it came slowly towards us, building in height and menace all the time. What was most apparent was a raised grey ridge of cloud within it, like a giant cereal bowl. When it arrived rain fell hard for maybe ten minutes before it headed off to do battle over France. No doubt Michael Fish could tell me the name of this particular cloud formation.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Box Hill's Olympic dilemma

Next July, the Olympic cycling road-race will hurtle around London and Surrey. The route includes the roads around Box Hill, including the famous zig-zag. Now, I do like my sport and have plans to go and see part of this particular event. I also like my wildlife. It is here where these two worlds collide. I can think of no better a natural ampitheatre to watch Mark Cavendish take on the world's best than the steep slopes that meander wildly up the side of the North Downs. But where will we be able to spectate from? This particular area is home to a magnificent chalk downland flora and some very localised invertebrates. A sudden influx of several thousand people onto the zig-zag will do damage to this fauna and flora - but as to how drastic the damage will be, I don't know. I have heard rumours of no access at all, that there will be cordoned-off vieweing areas and that in the spirit of the Olympics we will be allowed to trample on Musk Orchids (above), Dew Moths and Straw Belles. Has Lord Coe donned a hard hat and wandered the zig-zag with a man from the ministry calculating the worth of orchids against the TV rights? Will I join in the crush of Silver-spotted Skippers to get a glimpse of the cyclists as they flash past? Or will we all watch from the more mundane A24, having to console ourselves with remote images from the 20 different TV cameras set high on gantries along the length of the climb? There will be damage, I'm sure, whatever happens.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Four easy steps to a moth tick

One: find a Horse-chestnut tree that exhibits the tell-tale signs of leaf-miner damage on its leaves.

Two: pick a leaf and place it in a large sealable plastic bag.

Three: keep the bag in a cool,dry place.

Four: check the bag regularly for the emergence of adult Horse-chestnut Leaf-miner moth(s) and any parasitoids that may also be present.

I put a leaf in a bag on Saturday and had three adult moths today - result!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

"A room without a book is like a body without a soul"

G K Chesterton, I think.

I don't know what it is about looking on other birders' bookshelves, but I found myself clicking on this picture and checking each and every book shown, with a little voice in my head saying "got it, got it, got, haven't got it, got it..."

Monday, 11 July 2011

A rucksack full of Rye

Sunday saw me head south to Rye Harbour. I don't know why my visits to this part of East Sussex are so infrequent - I really enjoy going there.

The enclosure above can be found west of the disused lifeboat station and contains two rare species of plant - Least Lettuce and Red Hemp-nettle. The latter is surprisingly hard to see considering the showy red flower, but there was enough of it inside (and just outside) the compound to make it hard to miss on this occasion. As for the former, well; a scrawny, dull, shy flowerer that sometimes can be prostrate on the shingle is never going to shout out it presence. Yesterday however, I did find a single plant close to the fencing. It wasn't flowering, but it was, after all mid-afternoon - they are best in the morning.

The Red Hemp-nettle above was found much closer to the river, a single plant all on its own. I have seen this species at Rye in small amounts anywhere from the river along the beach almost to Winchelsea. Apart from the fenced off compound it can lead you a merry dance.

The building above is the disused lifeboat station. I cannot pass it without walking up to the doors and spending a few moments reflecting on the sadness that marks it. At 04.30hrs on 15th November 1928, a ship was floundering off of Dungeness in a violent storm. The Rye lifeboat crew responded to the distress call, hauled their boat down the shingle beach and rowed out into the black maelstrom ahead. When they were a little way out those on land received a message that the stricken boat's crew were safe, so a recall flare was fired. The Rye crew did not see it, and rowed on. When dawn broke, their lifeboat, the Mary Stanford, was seen floating upside down in the water, as the first body from the 17-strong crew was being washed ashore. All had perished. The station has not been used since and remains as a monument to those brave men.

I experienced one of those rare, special moments that come along when you are watching and enjoying the natural world (I took the picture above just afterwards). I was walking up to this field and was taken by the creamy flush across its surface. I could see through binoculars that they were the flowers of a species of mayweed, but which species? As I got closer, the warm westerly wind started to bathe me in a sweet perfume, carried to me, no doubt, from the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of Scented Mayweed flowers ahead of me. You cannot buy these moments...

My day was helped along by a good selection of plants, including Marsh Mallow (above), Sea-heath and Sea Wormwood. Up to 40 Mediterranean Gulls were left over from the breeding colony. A flock of 300 Sandwich Terns were also loafing around and I was pleased to be able to watch half a dozen Little Terns. It is far too long since I last watched one.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

One day at a time... for ten years

I quote from Neil Randon's latest blog post, posted yesterday after he went and saw Surrey's fourth record of Red-rumped Swallow:

"I got to Unstead in 40 minutes, and Johnny (Allan) was already in position, alongside Brian Milton, the guy who discovered the bird . It was a major coup for Brian, who is nearing a remarkable landmark. He is fast approaching 3,500 days of continuous Unstead patch watching - that's nearly 10 years without a day off! It takes all sorts."

I'm not going to judge Brian on visiting the same place to go birding on a daily basis for so long - what he does with his life is his choice, and as long as he is not indulging in anything immoral or illegal then we can all keep out of it. My first thought was that he must be remarkably patient and tolerant. When I have spent any time birding in one place I cannot easily do a week in succession, let alone ten years. My second thought was that if there is a significant other in his life, then they must be terribly understanding. My final thought was that he has obviously not been on holiday, or travelled away from Surrey any great distance in all that time. Instead of sneering at such behaviour I applaud it. He has obviously found something that is a passion and keeps on giving. Isn't that something that we all strive for?

The only person that I can recall who has spent a similar number of years working the same site on an almost daily basis is Gary Messenbird, who was as much a fixture at Beddington Sewage Farm  as the Tree Sparrows. Currently, one Mr Johnny Allan is at the same sewage farm on a daily basis (and has been for the past couple of years) in his quest to topple the Surrey year total record (that he also holds). This is after many years that he has spent regularly birding on the farm. And don't think that I have forgotten David Campbell who has been using his break in full-time education to haunt Canons Farm every day that he can (and he cannot only when he rushes of on a distant twitch).

I admire those naturalists that keep at it. I just haven't got the patience to stick at anything day after day. Even weekly visits to a site can pall.

Hats off to them all...

Friday, 8 July 2011

The 'boys' of Summer

Red Bartsia - it must be summer
When do you know it's really summer? Are you one of those people who think summer begins with the summer solstice? Or when the schools break up for the six-week holiday? Is it when test cricket starts, or the football season ends? For me it's when I see Red Bartsia in flower. There is always a mixture of pleasure at seeing it again and sadness that the year is yet again careering onwards. I then start to think of summer as becoming long in the tooth when I see the first Harebell - as much as I like what the autumn brings, an air of melancholia briefly visits me when the first pastel blue bell nods my way. From a moth perspective, a Copper Underwing in the MV leaves me in no doubt as to it being summer. Birds are trickier. My problem with 'summer' birds is that I reckon that the first signs of autumn passage appears as early as June, when waders such as Lapwings and Green Sandpipers start to bother the notebook. Therefore I'd plump for the flocking of young Starlings as the undeniable sign of avian summer. The messy, whirring flocks of squabbling birds, a patchwork of pale buff and early adult gloss plumage is as much a summer scene as ice cream vans, lobster pink shoulders and the smell of barbeques. As for autumn... I'll save that for later.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Flies on me (and a flower)

Mystery 1 - Sandwich Bay in June
Mystery 2 - Sandwich Bay in June
Mystery 3 - Beddington SF in May
Mystery 4 - Sandwich Bay in June, glabrous, glaucous leaves
I keep a folder on my computer full of photographs of species that I have yet to identify. Some of these will remain so forever, especially the mosses and lichens. There are some images, such as those above, which I reckon should have been easy enough to clinch but I have so far failed to do so. I'm being lazy with the flower as I'm sure that a trawl through the garden plant books will surely reveal its name. If anybody knows any of these mystery pictures then please leave a comment. Your only reward will be to dazzle the readership of this blog with your superior knowledge.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


The pan-species list creeps on to 2814...

Flora 1376
Mosses & Liverworts 27
Lichen 11
Fungi 30
Birds 375
Moths 708
Butterflies 50
Dragonflies 34
Mammals 32
Amphibians 5
Reptiles 4
Fish 17
Snails & Slugs 8
Marine 20
Worms 1
Leeches 1
Algae 1
Thysanura (Bristletails) 1
Orthoptera (Grasshoppers) 3
Dermaptera (Earwigs) 1
Hemiptera (Shieldbugs, hoppers) 9
Thysanoptera (Thrips, Lice) 1
Neuropterans (Lacewings) 2
Trichoptera (Caddisflies) 2
Diptera (Flies) 18
Hymenoptera (Wasps, Bees, Ants) 19
Coleoptera (Beetles) 31
Centipedes 4
Millipedes 2
Woodlice 4
Ticks, Mites, Harvestmen 4
Spiders 13

If you are still reading this then you deserve a medal. There is plenty of scope to add to the list, and no doubt my totals for moss, lichen, fungi, flies and beetles will draw howls of derision from many naturalists. Before I draw more flak from the 'Pan-species listing is pointless and why don't you get a life' brigade, I will point out that I enjoy keeping the list, it's a bit of fun and it gives me a much wider appreciation of what there is to see in our country.

So there.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Small Ranunculus

Click to enlarge and appreciate the attractive, but modest, Small Ranunculus

When I started moth-ing, Small Ranunculus was a mythical beast. They were a fairly common species in the south-east of England during the era of Victorian lepidopterists, but then suffered a catastrophic decline, ultimately heading towards British extinction by the start of the First World War. It was not until the 1990s that the species resurfaced, in north Kent and London. Since then it has re-established itself successfully in its old territory and spread to parts of the midlands, south Wales and north-west England. The photograph above is of the third garden record of this species for me, which, this morning, shared the MV along with the fourth record of Beautiful Hook-tip. That little so-and-so flew off just as I was about to photograph it.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Lobster Moth

Only the third Lobster Moth to be recorded in the garden since 1987. Trap counts are not anything special at the moment, although Coronets are starting to appear in good numbers - this used to be a species that appeared sparingly, but can now reach double figures in a single night.

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Bird Observatory - has it got a future?

Having just returned from a weeks residency at Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory and Field Centre, my thoughts have turned to what role such places can play in 2011.

Firstly, I must declare a love affair for bird observatories that stretches back to my first stay at Dungeness in 1976. I have spent over 600 visitor nights at that particular observatory, from sudden one-night residencies through to a four month stint in 1979. I have put up with thin mattresses, fug-fumed bedrooms full of large hairy men, kitchens where the dirty crockery has hidden every kitchen surface and, in the early days, the lack of a shower or bath. And I loved every single minute of it...

I have stayed at Spurn, graced the lighthouse at Portland Bill and turned up with a rucksack at Sandwich Bay.

A sea-change occurred for me in the late 1990s when I realised that I no longer could put up with unhygenic conditions, did not want to share a room with farting strangers and I increasingly enjoyed the pleasures of a good night's sleep without the need to anaethatise myself with copious amounts of alcohol. My search for observatory accommodation took on the need for added civilisation.

Dungeness became a place that I could only tolerate if nobody else was staying (although it has had a recent kitchen re-fit). Portland was almost hotel-like in comparison, with large bathroom/shower facilities and space that allowed you to command your very own. My recent Sandwich sojourn upped the ante with lockable rooms, clean and modern showers, libraries, wi-fi, B&O televisions, shops, CCTV and butler service (OK, I made the last one up).

The days of communal flaggons of cocoa, bird logs by tilley-lamp and cable sweaters being worn to stave off the overnight cold and mallets by the camp bed to fight off the rats are long gone. Visitors demand comfort. They demand en-suite. They demand coffee machines, fruit blenders and juicers. The bird observatory that cannot cater for these demands, I think, is on borrowed time.

There may be observatories that do still function with a film of squalor, but I bet they are patronised by an older, decidedly male demographic. Where will they be in twenty years time? Have observatories got a future unless they diversify into the model of establishing a field centre and trawl for custom from schools, adult education centres and universities? Do they need to hold quizzes, talks, walks and open sessions to maintain a stream of interest and money? Do they need to accept that they cannot exist without enticing people to stay - and then stay again and again? Do they need to become hotels with a natural history theme? Or are they an echo from the past that is slowly, but surely, dying?

I'd be interested to know what you think.