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...

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll start ticking...

Stewart Sexton alerted me, via his ever readable blog, to this Birdwatch post regarding the new British Ornithological Union species splits. He can celebrate the addition of two 'armchair' ticks whereas I can only put out the bunting (no pun inteneded) for just the one - Siberian Stonechat.

My first was a stunning male that was present on St.Mary's, Isles of Scilly, in October 1979. If memory serves me right, I had just jumped off a boat that had been to St. Agnes (where we had queued to watch a Blyth's Reed Warbler that was, in fact, a Marsh). The second was an immature bird at Spurn, East Yorkshire in October 1985 of which I was a co-finder.

We are currently enjoying an era of 'splitterdom', where adding to your British life list while sitting in an armchair is becoming a regular event. Hooded Crow, Water Pipit, Common Redpoll, Yellow-legged Gull, Caspian Gull and the like have all been greedily gobbled up by the birding fraternity - and if you are a big lister then you can possibly milk two extra ticks from your Bonelli's and Olivaceous Warblers.

I've got a few possible 'full species' squirreled away, including Balearic Woodchat Shrike that I hope will get the nod, although some birding chums don't reckon on this one being likely.

At this rate I will reach 500 for the UK even if I don't ever go out birding again, but only as long as I live to be 150. Although by then we may have entered the era of 'The Lumper'...

Monday, 12 September 2011

I must go up to the downs again...

... with apologies to John Masefield.
I was in dire need of a walk along my beloved North Downs at the weekend, so parked up in Mickleham and went on a circular walk that took in Mickleham Downs, Juniper Bottom, Juniper Top, Box Hill, Norbury Farm, the river Mole and Norbury Park.

This is 'The Gallops', the flat top of Mickleham Downs. On Sunday it was a fragrant mass of Marjoram, Clustered Bellflower and Harebell. There is Cut-leaved Germander here, although I've yet to stumble across it in this particular part of Surrey.

I took plenty of pictures of fungi which I will revisit and try to identify in the coming days (or weeks). The pan-lister was lurking somewhere under the surface.

I arrived at Norbury Park with some anticipation, as last year there was a fallow field full of wild flowers, including plenty of Henbane. My visit yesterday revealed that it is now grassland being munched by a herd of milking cows.

Who out there knows their knotgrasses? I reckon this is Cornfield Knotgrass, found in the same corner of a field that is forever Norbury Park Farm (second poetic reference in the post - keep up...)

Last, but not least, I wound up at the Banstead Countryside Day, organised by the Downlands Project and held in Holly Lane adjacent to Banstead Woods. Over 100 stalls were manned by enthusiasts of all sorts of country persuits, from wildlife groups, arts and crafts, purveyors of food and local political green activists! I said hello to David Campbell and the gang on the Canons Farm Bird Group stand and was delighted to meet, face to face, John Peacock, he of  Banstead Botany Blog. After several years of blog comments and email correspondence it was good to actually meet him. He said I looked just as he expected me to, but as to whether he was expecting a Hobbit or George Clooney, he would not say.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Reservoir blogs

Reservoirs - or 'Rezziz' as in the birding slang - can leave me cold (and not just on freezing January mornings). Although I've seen some good birds on them, from American waders at Staines to a Surf Scoter on an unpronouncable Welsh one, I always arrive at a reservoir with a sinking heart.

Is it their lack of ambience? After all, 'a man made bowl of concrete filled with tap water' is hardly Rogersesque, is it. Especially those without any deviation in contour away from a square or a circle. No emergent vegetation. And thinking about it, no access. Maybe youthful memories of climbing over spiked metal fencing to try and get nearer to distant dots has played its part on my aversion to them.

And then there is their positioning. Always close to a motorway. Or an airport. Or industrial estate. Some of them creep me out by being vast banked beasts rising ominously above nearby housing estates, just waiting to burst themselves and take out the meddling humans in a tide of revenge. Personification? Me?

I have visited the odd reservoir which has been sympathetically landscaped and actually has trees around it, but they also seem to be crap for birds. No, reservoirs just can't win I'm afraid. I'd sooner kick around a bit of habitat with less birding potential just because it has some charm.

Did you see what I did with the post title by the way? This rubbish isn't just thrown together you know...

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Bird crapped in my open mouth...

... is a search engine entry that somebody has typed to get onto this blog during the past week. It doesn't beat the 'Steve, where's my dead dog?' entry point of 2009. I wonder if these people found what they craved?

Monday, 5 September 2011

Under the skin

On one level Beddington Sewage Farm is an eyesore that requires hours of birding input to whittle out each hard won avian nugget. On another it is an oasis in an urban sprawl that freely bestows upon the visiting birder ornithological delights. There are plenty of other levels inbetween - days spent up to the knees in mud watching and listening to Water Pipits; hot days of screaming swifts and scratchy Whitethroats; days of looking longingly eastwards towards an up-Thames squall and praying for displaced seabirds; and other days involving the risk of eyestrain looking through telescopes to pick through the thousands and thousands of gulls resting on ice. All of these states of the farm have their own magic that has snared generations of birders since the 1930s.

It is a site that has a continuous birding record stretching back 80 years (with some records going back even further). There is even a book that chronicles the enormous amount of data that has been collected by the amateur faithful. From the largest breeding colony of Tree Sparrows in the UK, to late summer gatherings of 40 Green Sandpipers. From wintering Water Pipits, to records of Glaucous-winged Gull and Killdeer, there is something here for everyone, with a history that few patches can equal.

I first trod the grassy banks and stared across the sludge lagoons in the autumn of 1974 and fell under its spell. I saw plenty of 'firsts' here and can honestly say I have never - ever - felt more excited birding than I did during 1975-1976 when I started to immerse myself in its birdlife, learning the trade of identification and being accepted into the Beddington camararderie that existed between the regular visitors. I lay on grassy banks as Swifts zoomed above my head only feet away as at the same time Lapwings displayed overhead, collapsing as they did so, on folded wings of bottle green irridescence in the sunshine. These were happy and formative times.

As a 'regular' irregular today I can see beyond the ugly landfill, the piles of earth, the plastic bags flapping in netting. There are plants and insects colonising these man-made scars on the landscape. Here, also, be birds! I can still see the Elms of my youth even though they were felled 35 years ago, I can still visualise the brick outhouses that I sheltered in from the rain, still imagine the small bed in which I saw a Bluethroat trapped and the large fields that regularly held small flocks of Ruff and Golden Plover in amongst the winter thrushes. All now gone, under the wheels of diggers, bulldozers and piles and piles of refuse. My winter Beddington skies are still filled with the ghosts of those Short-eared Owls that were always there - surely for all other winters to come... Today's Beddington is just a continuation of the old one and if I am still standing there birding in 20 years time will no doubt feel just as nostalgic for our current tin hide in which we bullshit so freely between the rare bouts of excitement. It's a refuge from the 'real' world, a place where my carrying a scope and tripod is not met with incredulity. Each and every member of the bird group will have their own reasons for visiting and I'm sure we each harbour our own idealised view on why we continue to do so and what makes the place special. But special it is. The future may be unsure, but even if the Beddington of 2030 is but a blackened tree stump poking out of a contaminated pool, there will still be a birder nearby, checking it out.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Wet, wet, wet

This isn't a post about the disbanded Scottish pop band of the 1990s (apologies for those seeking images of Marty Pellow), but a reference to the state I found myself in at about 13.00hrs this afternoon at Beddington Sewage Farm. The promised rain hadn't materialised (apart from a bit of pathetic drizzle) so I assumed that that was it. I strode out across the treeless farm, ignoring the growing darkness bubbling up from the south. That darkness harboured a good half-hours worth of soaking rain and I embraced it fully. Bins, scope and clothing took a hit.

Birdwise, not as good as hoped for, although at least 4 Hobby were hassling the few hirundines present (and we watched two of them hunt down a Swift in tandem, plucking the hapless bird out of the air after a brief chase), 2 LRP (one pictured above), 1 Ringed Plover, 2 Green Sandpiper, 1 Kingfisher, 1 Wheatear and 1 Whinchat.

The banter between the gathered faithful kept boredom at bay, with subjects up for discussion ranging from Wayne Rooney's hair transplant, The Rugby World Cup, stringing, Peruvian night birds, useless facts and the proposed cultivation of the Hemp that has sprung up beneath the bird feeders.