Saturday, 27 August 2011

What are you doing for the next 17 years?

So, 'scientists' reckon that the total number of species to be found on earth is likely to be close to 8.7 million. Whilst idly chatting to Steve Thomas at Beddington this morning, he speculated on how long it would take to see them all. Needless to say, that would be an impossible task. However, if you could be presented with each species, one at a time, for a thirty second peek (this taking place for a twelve hour period each day, seven days a week), it will take almost 17 years to see the lot - (1,440 per day, 525,600 per year). This is what birders do in idle moments...

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Guess the island

OK, where is this? Only clue is that it is off the British coast. First prize, a years subscription to North Downs and beyond. Second prize, two years subscription to North Downs and beyond... (yeah, the old ones are the best ones, etc).

Wednesday, 24 August 2011


As a simple way of filling dead 'cyber space' and out of sheer personal indulgence, 1974 launches a series of 'years in the natural history life of one S W Gale'. I won't be surprised, or offended, if you stop reading right now and go off in search of something far more worthwhile.

It all began during an art lesson at Sutton Grammar School, Surrey, in the spring of 1974. We had been given the subject of 'Conflict' to illustrate. Most of us were up to our elbows in poster paint trying to work up life-like images of warfare. However, a  fellow pupil's work had caught my eye as he had been far more original than the rest of us and was painting a garden scene of a cat pouncing at an improbably coloured bird that was flying just out of paw's reach. I asked him if the bird was a parrot. No, he replied, it was a Jay. He also told me that I could see one in my back garden if I kept a look out. Nonsense, I said, sheer bloody nonsense...

Maybe two weeks later I was dreamily looking out of a backroom window at home, most probably wondering whether or not Martin Chivers would score for Tottenham that coming weekend, when a large, colourful bird hopped onto the lawn. I knew what it was at once. It was a Jay.

Within days, at the age of 15, I had purchased a Hamlyn field guide and was looking out of my bedroom window to see what other birds might be there. The Jay had put hooks in me without any doubt. My small suburban garden mustered up a simple list - Robin, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Dunnock, Great Tit, Blue Tit - and did include my first stringy sighting, that of Tree Sparrow. At least my embryo garden list was not populated by such foolish fancies as Rock Bunting, Ptarmigan and Tengmalm's Owl.

My dad had a pair of binoculars that he never used. I don't know why he owned them, although the box suggested that maybe watching boats at sea was a worthwhile pasttime. I soon 'borrowed' these and took them into the local park. My first experience of birdwatching away from suburbia was on a family camping holiday to the New Forest. One bird from that trip still stands out, a bird that I never thought I would ever see, a species that had looked so good in the field guide that I could scarcely believe my eyes when I actually saw it- a Green Woodpecker.

Until the years end I visited local parks, scoured local downland, haunted local commons and went on a proper birding trip with a man that 'lived over the road' who had a vague interest in wildlife. He took his son and myself to Beddington Sewage Farm. It was a disappointing day, with no flocks of waders or any of the hoped for rarities that John Gooders had promised in his book, 'Where to Watch Birds'. I had also come across a book that I still hold dear to this very day - '70 Years of Birdwatching' by H G Alexander.  By December 31st I had seen 55 species of bird. I had bought a diary for the coming year to enter my sightings in. I had purchased my own cheap binoculars. And modelling myself on HGA, I was ready for the coming year...

Monday, 22 August 2011

P*n-species update - for sad twats only

The latest pan-species update is:

Flora 1378 (+2)
Mosses & Liverworts 36 (+9)
Lichen 23 (+12)
Fungi 32 (+2)
Birds 375
Moths 710 (+2)
Butterflies 50
Dragonflies 34
Mammals 32
Amphibians 5
Reptiles 4
Fish 17
Snails & Slugs 8
Marine 45 (+25)
Worms 1
Leeches 1
Algae 1
Thysanura (Bristletails) 1
Orthoptera (Grasshoppers) 3
Dermaptera (Earwigs) 1
Hemiptera (Shieldbugs, hoppers) 10 (+1)
Thysanoptera (Thrips, Lice) 1
Neuropterans (Lacewings) 2
Trichoptera (Caddisflies) 2
Diptera (Flies) 20 (+2)
Hymenoptera (Wasps, Bees, Ants) 20 (+1)
Coleoptera (Beetles) 31
Centipedes 4
Millipedes 2
Woodlice 4
Ticks, Mites, Harvestmen 4
Spiders 13
TOTAL: 2870
Most of the additions have come courtesy of Cornish rock pools and beaches. Will I reach 3,000 before the end of the year? It would be easy enough to do if I put my mind to it, but I'm quite happy with letting things come to me. I could target hoverflies, fungi, mosses and lichens in the next few weeks and get very close. That would still leave me a good 7,000 species behind Jonty Denton - I bet he's quaking in his boots...

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Nature's very own abstract art

Please take a moment and click on the picture above (I've saved it to a larger size to better appreciate it). I took it on a Cornish headland. If it were to be hung in a gallery of abstract art, it would not be out of place. Lichens... just don't ask me to identify them all!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

It's not only birders...

The following message was sent to the BBC Test Match Special after Ian Bell was dismissed for 235 at the Oval (England v India cricket test match for those of you that do not follow the thwack of leather on willow):

 "Gutted. If Bell had got out on 238, it would have been the lowest score never previously scored in a Test."

I had to laugh when I read that, as only cricket officianados can out compete birders when it comes to quoting trivia and the ability to be anally retentive...

The missing pictures

As promised, a gallery of Wavy St.John's-wort images taken at Greena Moor, North Cornwall, last week.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Culm grassland

Culm grassland. Ever heard of it? No, neither had I until I visited this part of north Cornwall. It is a much reduced grassland/heath habitat owing to it being turned over for agricultural use. It has a specialised flora, including some species that are rare nationally or at least have restricted ranges.

Yesterday afternoon, under a blue sky, I visited Greena Moor, a Plantlife reserve south of the vilage of Week St Mary. You will need precise directions to find it, although there is a sign on a roadside gateway to give you a clue as to the culm grassland's whereabouts.

There are a couple of areas on the reserve that I found particularly rewarding - a sloping field with a stream running through it, the stream side being full of Marsh Ragwort, Water Mint, Greater Bird's-foot Trefoil, Wild Angelica and, star of the show, Wavy St.John's-wort. This latter species could also be found in good numbers closer to the reserve entrance, in a boggy field corner, along with another botanical star, Whorled Carraway. I did get some good images of these plants, and they are waiting to be uploaded onto this post, but at the moment Blogger isn't allowing me to. They will appear soon...

For more information on culm grassland and Greena Moor, click here click here

Monday, 15 August 2011

Hummers and strawberries

I have been reliving childhood summer holidays that were spent on Devon and Cornish beaches. Whereas I then brandished a bucket, spade and small green plastic net at the end of a bamboo cane, I now carry a digital camera and a field guide. As a middle-aged man, and in today's sensitive times, I felt a little awkward entering rock pools that were populated by toddlers, but was able to enlist my youngest daughter to accompany me on my quest for pan-species additions. The rock pools here at Bude are plentiful and seem to me to have plenty to offer the naturalist who's experience in such habitat has, up until now, been restricted to watching Turnstones.

The picture above is of my favourite find of the day, the delightfully named Strawberry Anemone. No doubt if I'd risked drowning as the tide engulfed it, I could have watched the 'tentacles' emerge from the jelly-like body.

Shortly afterwards, this Hummingbird Hawk-moth was seen nectaring on Red Valerian. It was a worn individual, and the photographs were snatched with a compact camera, but these creatures are one of my favourites, so I make no apologies for posting such substandard fayre.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Kernow calling

Well, I must admit to being surprised by the number of comments generated by my recent post regarding 'nature and faith' - or, in my case, the lack of faith. Thanks to the cerebral ping-pong between Mel and Peter, plus the odd call from the sidelines, it kept me informed, amused and a little aware of my own shortcomings.

Not as a consequence of this, or of the riots, North Downs and beyond has decamped to the north Cornish coast. The view above is looking southwards towards the distant cliffs of Boscastle and Tintagel. To continue the 'faith' theme, I visited the famous museum of witchcraft at Boscastle - well worth a visit, regardless of your belief system.

As for the wildlife, I have been rather laid back. The odd bird has caught my attention (Ravens, Peregrines, Little Egrets), botanically I have paid my respects to the local speciality (Wild Leek) and from a pan-species perspective have added a few denizens of the rock pool. My attempts to swell my moss and lichen list is proving frustrating. I find specimens that fit only species found at the top of Scottish mountains and not a Cornish headland, and so start again, deflated. It's hard work, but I will perservere...

A surfeit of pasty, ice cream, beer, cider, rum and clotted cream with need further stiff walks along the spectacular cliff tops to burn up the calories, postpone the heart attack, and hopefully call into action the notebook...

Friday, 5 August 2011

A new blog link

Whenever I add a blog link to North Downs and Beyond I like to alert you to the fact, and give you the opportunity to view some fine work - so please take a look at Mel Lloyd's Sandy Wildlife. She is currently having a high-brow exchange with Beddington's very own Peter Alfrey in the comments area of my post directly below this one - and that's worth a read on its own!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

When an atheist gets a touch religious

Click to appreciate the 'Grand Design'
It's very hard being an atheist who appreciates the natural world. All around you are reminders of the intricacies of natural structure; the minute detail of pattern and colour; the myriad species that inhabit the world. Why is there such variation? Who's it all for?

Now, those of a religious bent will sugggest that all of this variety is the work of God. Mathematicians will cite the construction of species as being the result of evolution into the most workable shape. Biologists will see patterning and colouring as needed for camouflage, display or warning purposes.

I took the picture above on Banstead Downs. It is of Small Scabious. It is not uncommon, and something that I see on a regular basis. But when I actually took it in - actually looked at it as opposed to identifying it and dismissing it - I was quite taken aback. It is a precious thing. This has been crafted, with symmetry at its heart. The more I looked, the more I was sucked in, it became a botanical snow flake. The old questions rose up inside me - 'Why?' 'For who?'

When fossils were first understood as being petrified life forms, those who rallied against the thought that these could possibly really have once been 'God's creatures' suggested that He had planted them for man to find as a kind of hidden entertainment, a treat for us in moments of idleness. I quite liked that quick thinking by the religious as a way of deflecting a challenge against their solid belief system.

I would quite like to be religious, but I never have and most probably never will. I've had moments of darkness, and I didn't ask for nor did I hear a voice. But when you look at a wonder of the natural world - and there are millions of them - wouldn't it explain an awful lot very simply if I were.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Tree-lichen Beauty

Tree-lichen Beauty trapped this morning - thank you very much!
You can liken me to Nostradamus, or a bargain-basement Mystic Meg, but in my last post I suggested that this week would see me capture a Tree-lichen Beauty in the garden MV. This morning that is exactly what happened. It wasn't a totally unsurprising event, as this species has now established itself in the London area, but it was a lifer for me, following hot on the heels of June's back garden Rannoch Loopers.

Apart from a couple of random Victorian records, the first modern British record was in 1991. Since then they have been recorded along the south coast as far as Devon and up the east coast into Norfolk. The colonisation of London has seen a small expansion into the northern home counties, but so far not the south.

My next prediction? A Willowherb Hawk-moth or a Patton's Tiger please!