Sunday, 30 December 2012

One thing to piss me off before I die

I found myself wandering around Kingston-upon-Thames town centre yesterday afternoon. Along with a tide of humanity that seemed hell-bent on spending even more money on such necessary requirements such as DVD boxed-sets, CDs, books and shiny electrical appliances. Recession? Not here, pal...

I was there under duress, not in the best of moods, but to salve my increasingly furrowed brow I walked into Waterstone's the 'book' shop. Oh dear.

I was met by a display of book titles, all themed "One thousand things to do/see/hear before you die". I picked up the tome dedicated to telling us what music we need to consume before we are carted off to where ever we are destined to end up - I think I know a bit about music - and was singularly unimpressed with most of the choices. I scowled at the other books, suggesting what printed word we need to read, what places we need to visit and I remembered that there are at least two natural history books based around this same, lazy, vacuous premise - bird species that we should seek out otherwise die failures and natural wonders of the world that, should we shuffle off this mortal coil without visiting, would result in our lifetime being deemed a failure.

You may think that I'm over reacting here. They could be considered to be harmless books that might just encourage someone to get interested in the subject. I see them as lazy publishing. I bet they have been created by some marketing wallah who was given a 'stretch task' to come up with 10 ideas to create a new publishing stream. In those books dealing with natural history, it's just packaging these precious things as commodities to consume, burp, and then move onto the next comestible. It's so in tune with our time that it makes me want to weep.

Rant over. 2013 will be filled with positivity and light...

Saturday, 29 December 2012

An Englishman in Florida

The latest worthy blog added to my list (see right) comes from Andy Wraithmell (Limeybirder), an ex-pat who now lives in Florida. I met him a few years ago when he was assistant warden at Dungeness Bird Observatory, and if memory serves me correctly he found a few goodies in that time. It will be interesting to read a Brits-eye-view on Stateside birding, plus marvel at how he will now bust a gut to see those European waifs that have become, to him, rarities. Not long ago he wouldn't have got out of bed for them...

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Still ticking along

Boxing day. Full of comfort food and alcohol. Triumphant from success at family Yahtzee. Listening to one of my Christmas present CD's (B52s 'Wild Planet' - a bit of retro vinyl replacement) I took the 'Insects of the New Forest' from the book shelves and started to browse... and there it was.

I took the photograph above at Dungeness in July this year and hadn't got around to identifying it. It resides in a folder of 'mystery species' that I maintain and that I periodically try to solve. That New Forest book has solved it. If I'm not mistaken it's a Heath Assasin-bug (Coranus subapterus). Another one for the pan-species list...

That's the palm of my hand that the insect is residing upon. If you are a palmist and can tell me my fortune from the photograph above then please let me know whether or not:

I'll ever get to 4,000 species

Be able to confidently identify mosses and lichens

Take other birders seriously.

I hope you enjoyed your Christmas...

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Books of the Year

This little beauty found its way to me as a recent birthday present - Mushrooms by Peter Marren. The author is one of my favourite wildlife writers, as he possesses a deft touch with words which marries authority, accessibility and humour to the effect that his copy is an intelligent and entertaining read. What is even more exciting about this particular book is that it is the first of a series to be published by British Wildlife Publishing, the same people that have given us so many cracking field guides recently (particularly the micro moths guide back in the summer). This new series will hopefully be a more colourful (in more than one sense) version of the long established New Naturalists series. I've yet to read it, but flicking through it has already won me over.

This book has made it onto my 2012 'Favourite Natural History Books' list. The others are:

Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Sean Clancy
Do we need another moth book? Well, I find myself constantly referring to this book, not only for the new images (of live and set specimens) but also for the clear identification pointers. It is expensive, but I feel worth it for adding knowledge to my entomological arsenal.

Field Guide to the Micro Moths of GB and Ireland by Sterling, Parsons and Lewington
The first proper field guide that has attempted to bring together those neglected moths to enable most species to be identified with some certainty. It is clear in its limitations, as 'gen det' is a necessity for many species to be confidently identified and this book will help you get close (at least to family level). As a starting point to help de-mistify micros, it is nothing but a success. My copy is already well worn.

Collins Fungi Guide by Buczacki, Shield and Ovenden
There are quite a few field guides to fungi, but they show a small and varying number of species. This is the Daddy of them all, with almost 2,500 species. The illustrations are a joy to look at and, like the micro moth guide, the book does not hide from the fact that not all species of fungi are identifiable in the field.

Insects of the New Forest by Paul Brock
Part social history, part site guide, part photographic identification guide, this soft-back is a delightful thing to browse through, whether to drool over the images of longhorn beetles or to plan trips this coming summer.

Smaller Moths of Surrey by Palmer, Porter and Collins
The Surrey Wildlife Trust excel again with the latest in a long line of Surrey-themed family atlases. A large group of eager recorders (including myself) can now refer to up-to-date distribution maps of all micros recorded in the county. The more specialised (or rarer) get specific record treatment. Next year will see me checking my putative identifications of micros in the garden against this fine book.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Class of 2012 plus more worthy blogs

I finally caught up with some of the 'Waxwing Class of 2012' yesterday morning. Up to 34 birds were taking advantage of a 'champagne-pink' berried rowan in Ewell. I bowled up, found them sat at the top of a conifer, took up my position perched on a low wall and then had close encounters as they came down to the rowan tree to feed. A Carrion Crow spooked them off and I was flushed away by twitching curtains in a nearby house - I hate birding in residential streets.

Lee Dingain's blog has been added to my list of 'worthies'. He only lives about three miles from me but I don't know if we've ever crossed telescopes before - ridiculous really, seeing that we share so much common interest. Where as I'm becoming more sedentary, Lee seems to spend as much time in South America as in North Surrey, so vicarious thrills for us all! It also came to my attention that I hadn't put Benny 'Boy' Mothman's blog on my list even though I regularly visit it, so that has been put right. It's well worth a visit to see what's going on just north and east of London and is a real treat to browse through. What are you waiting for? Go and visit them...

Friday, 14 December 2012

Blog recommendations

I said that I wouldn't post again until next year, so, true to my word, here I am posting again in 2012. I've added a couple of additional blogs to my 'worthy' list.

The first is Marcus Lawson's bird and moth blog from Poole in Dorset. He's just moved there from Kent, where he was a terribly keen and active birder, so Dorset had better watch out. It will make a change if someone regularly finds something special away from Portland.

Second is a blog based on Morgan's Hill in Wiltshire. I have a soft spot for these chalk downs having spent quite a few happy hours on nearby Pewsey Downs in the company of Burnt Orchids, Adonis Blues and flocks of declining farmland birds. I'll be intrigued to read what occurs on Morgan's Hill next year.

I'm on the look out for some other blogs to add to the 'worthy' list that will add a bit of spice to my surfing which does not necessitate the clearing of my web history...

Most of my recent posts have not been backed-up by any photographs - most remiss of me. Therefore I give you the roots of a beech tree, looking very Tolkienesque and slightly topical seeing that 'The Hobbit' has just been released at the cinema. This was taken on my beloved North Downs, just below Mickleham Downs. In the summer months there would be Bird's-nest Orchid here.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

The Decorators have been in

Ahead of time, this modest blog has received its 2013 make-over. I aim to watch on a more local level next year, hopefully discovering a few natural history gems along the way. If I were to create a wish-list it would be a simple one, based on the hope of experiencing a sound enjoyment of the 12-months ahead. That should be enough for any of us and something that I increasingly do not take for granted.

Hopefully I will see you in January.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Thoughts for the day

When I look back on 2012, one thing dominates, and that was the summer month that I spent at Dungeness. It was a pleasure and privilege to be able to walk away from my work and live the life of a 'birding bum'. Having said that, I spent most of the time looking at plants and moths. To be a free spirit and wander across the shingle was, in a way, an exercise in time travel, as it recaptured the summers of the late 1970s when I did exactly the same. Age has given me an appreciation of other natural history orders and an understanding that to be able to act in such a carefree way is something that should not be taken for granted. Once I was back in the office the break took on a golden glow...

Blogging, tweeting, texting - they are all useful technological tools. I have found myself a slave to them all but at the same time bored by them. Too many banal messages (I'm as guillty as anyone else), repetitive images (Waxwings, Waxwings, Waxwings) and unfunny in-jokes have driven me to the edge of giving up on the whole bloody lot. But then again somebody does something useful with it and I am brought back to the realisation that it has its place after all.

Unless something stunning happens I will not post again until the new year. The blog will undergo a bit of a rethink. I have ideas for 2013 which are terribly modest but will reconnect me with my 'study' at a far more basic and useful level.

Thanks for dropping by. Have a good holiday period and I'll hopefully see you again soon.

Friday, 30 November 2012

A birding chocolate tea pot

"Ask not what your interest can do for you, rather ask what you can do for your interest"
With apologies to JFK, somewhere in the USA, some time in the early 1960s

There's an awful lot of people out there looking. Looking at birds, animals, plants, moths, butterflies, overturning logs to look at beetles, disturbing leaf-litter to look for fungi, checking trees for disease, ponds for amphibians, locating bats by detectors.

But are we doing enough to make a difference save for adding more observation to the vast observation pile? I don't know if we are. I don't know if we can make a difference anyway. Defeatist? Maybe. Realistic? Possibly.

It just seems to me that big business, those who weald power, the monied and the agenda setters couldn't give a flying f about whether or not our butterfly populations are becoming fragmented to the point that they cannot sustain themselves. Or that our birds are still falling in number to the point that those of us who can remember The Banana Splits and Whizzer and Chips will also remember when our hedgerows and woodlands were rammed full of bird song.

An example - no two examples.

May 1974. I set up a microphone on my bedroom windowsill to record the evening chorus. The play back revealed such a level of bird song that it was impossible to distinguish individual songsters.

May 1985. Standing in Ham Street Woods at dawn. My birding friend and I were drowned out by bird song to the point that we couldn't hold a conversation with out shouting at each other. And even then it was difficult to hear each other. The noise from the birds was incredible.

If I repeated those experiences today the results would be very different.

What am I trying to say? I suppose an admission that I'm feeling a little impotent as to what use I currently have as far as making a difference. Maybe one of my aims next year should be to change that feeling...

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Plan of attack

With only five weeks (ish) until the start of a new year, as is my custom, I have prepared the way by making plans for my natural history assault on 2013. I find it hard to start a year with no aims at all. I cannot contemplate just mooching about, visiting here and there just to see what's occuring. There is no form nor function in doing so (unless I stumble across a wintering mega, in which case all analysis is off).

My main thrust will be concentrated on my uber patch - that is all of my local patches which, when strung together, wiggle from Ranmore in the SW to Beddington in the NE - about a 15 mile wiggle. I have already collated my bird observations across this area (since 1974) and created my own personal and 'virtual' bird report, something that I love to update. Within this uber patch is found Beddington SF, Holmethorpe SP, and Canons Farm which, for an inland birder, offers plenty of scope.

What I want to do next year is compile a similar report for plants and lepidoptera. There are marvellous habitats on offer where some real highlights can be found and as much as these are the jewels in the crown of 'my' part of the north downs, I'm hoping that a bit of concerted effort in those areas not normally covered by naturalists might turn up the odd surprise.

Although not a listing exercise, I will keep a count of what I find, if only to encourage me to look critically at what I am seeing - it would be so easy to leave grasses, crucifers, pugs and micros (to name but a few) alone. I have prepared the way with checklists, my OS maps are at the ready, and I am all a-quiver to get going. I won't ignore other orders, but they will take a bit of a back seat.

Having said all that, I wouldn't be surprised if I find myself knee-deep in some other project by February...

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Lord of the Owls

So, I've just taken the picture above (as I'm scanning for owls at Amberley Wild Brooks) and a woman, walking a couple of dogs, approaches me.

Woman: "What are you looking for?"

Me: "Owls"

Woman (with much joy and incredulity on her face): "ELVES!!!"

When I explained to her that I was actually looking for owls she seemed terribly disappointed. She no doubt thought that the Lord of the Rings trilogy was, in fact, a documentary...

I managed to see two Barn Elves but unfortunately no Short-eared Elves. Maybe they are still quartering the open ground at Hobbiton.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Ornithological procrastinations

I have settled on my 2013 'Natural History' project and am already looking forward to it with great excitement. I am going to take that ultimate birding vicar, Gilbert White, as my role model, and immerse myself in studying the natural history of the hills and fields of north Surrey. There are a few rules that I am going to impose on myself however:

At all times I will wear a dog-collar and tri-cornered hat, breeches and buckled shoes.

I will shoot anything that I cannot identify, or if I come across a flock.

I will travel everywhere on horseback and stay in an inn each evening.

I will refer to all birds in their original state - such as Wood-Wren, Fern Owl, Bramblefinch - and if I come across such species as Water Pipit, Caspian Gull and Willow Tit refuse to recognise the modern interlopers.

I will employ a man to climb the dizzy heights of such peaks as Box Hill to collect alpine specimens for me.

I will correspond only by post and let interested parties know of my finds three weeks after they have gone.

I will start an egg collection and hold informal evenings showing off my exhibits to like-minded fellows.

I will collect butterfly abberations, sell limed finches to ruffians in the marketplacess and produce lavishly illustrated books with names such as 'Ornithological procrastinations from the woods and dales of northern Surrey' and 'Lepidopterum introspectum Britannica'.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Sick birding

This post was prompted by David Campbell, who was birding at Canons Farm last Sunday with the chickenpox...

I once had a blocked tear-duct. It was quite messy, without getting into too much detail. And then I had a temperature to go with it, a thumping head, a general feeling of malaise plus aching limbs. So I did what all sensible people would do and got into my car and drove 90 miles to Dungeness. The rush of pre-birding anticipation got me through the journey but as soon as I pulled up outside of the observatory I felt terrible. So I immediately turned round and started to drive back home.

It was a long journey. My eye started to weep pus and blood (told you it was messy). My headache started to seize up any ability to think straight. Pulses of pain travelled down my arms and legs. I felt very hot. Then very cold. Then very hot again. The speedometer rarely went above 40. It took an age to get home and when I did I crawled into bed and into a fitful sleep.

I had a call from the observatory at the end of the day to tell me that they had watched a male Red-footed Falcon arrive in off the sea. I was too ill to let it bother me.

It is a universal truth that birders will put up with almost anything to go birding. I've seen people with broken limbs try and cross shingle on crutches to scope a flock of gulls. I've walked through a winter woodland in pouring rain to count tit flocks whilst undergoing chemotherapy. And on more than one occasion, whilst sea-watching, I've woken up terribly hung-over collegues to inform them that something half-decent is coming our way. They would sooner choose to overcome alcohol poisoning on a cold beach than a warm bed 'just in case' they missed something.

Hope you feel better soon David!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Blogger bloat and the meaning of ?

I've not been posting as much recently. And neither have many of my favourite bloggers. Subject matter seems to have stagnated. I cannot motivate myself to drum up new angles or think of subjects to entice the visitor to get involved with. My stats (not that they are the be-all and end-all) have dropped. Comments are rare. Something's gone wrong.

I have recently started to tweet which gets a short observation or idea out there quickly. It does not take the place of a post as it is relying on 'followers' as an audience (and if we are being honest it's an audience that we all want). Maybe these tweets have taken the steam out of my posting.

I have deleted this blog once before, something that I regretted doing. I won't make that mistake again. I need to rethink what it is that I want this blog to do. It's never been my intention to just list my observations but there again it's rather presumptious to assume that my meandering thoughts or slightly wonky take on what we do is - in any way, shape or form - worthy.

So, I will continue to post if I feel the need. I would hope to have something 'new' in place by the new year which will scatch my natural history itch in a more satisfying way and maybe act as a service to those of you who have a real passion (hate that word) for our natural world but maybe want a slightly different take on it. There again, I could always get a life...

Thank you for listening.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Red Kites at night, birder's delight

350 Red Kites in the air together, in one loose flock, is one hell of a sight. I didn't really want to go along to Gilgrin Farm, a feeding station for the kites at Rhayader in Powys. To me, it smacked of being a zoo, but my wife in particular wanted to go along. I am so glad that we did. Driving northbound along the picturesque A470 (is there a more stunning A-road in the UK?) I started to count the kites once we left Builth Wells. As we approached Rhayader I was staggered to see that the swirling mass of birds gathering over the lower slopes of the eastern hills were all Red Kites - maybe 40 in total. As we parked at the farm there were kites everywhere, 360 degrees of action. They were approaching from all directions of the compass, gathering to take the meat that was due to be put out for them by the farmer. I quickly estimated 150 birds, then recounted, 180. Another scan revealed more streaming in, 200+. magical.

There are hides provided for the close inspection of the birds taking the food, but after a few minutes of sitting in one, full of camera-toting tourists, I left, heading for the hill slope. I wanted to experience these birds in the open and without the constant whirr of camera motors. My wife and daughter Jessica joined me. For the next couple of hours these birds flooded into the valley, the image above showing at least 150 birds. Many swooped low over our heads as we hid in a light strip of woodland, the high mewing of the calling birds a constant presence.

These birds are apparently the truly wild descendents of the Welsh breeding population - I saw my first in March 1978 at Tregaron Bog, not far as the kite flies from where I was standing. As the light started to fade the numbers dwindled, small packs of them heading off, in all directions, to distant roosts. At least 350 birds were on show. If you get the chance, I urge you to visit. More information can be found here.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Moths in the murk

With murky, mild conditions overnight it was a no-brainer to switch the MV trap on in the back garden. 18 moths of 12 species was the result, with Dark Sword-grass (1, above), Common Marbled Carpet (1), Lesser Yellow Underwing (1), Large Yellow Underwing (1), Grey Pine Carpet (1), Red-green Carpet (3), Green-brindled Crescent (1), Red-line Quaker (1), Yellow-line Quaker (1), Snout (1), Eppirita sp (1) and Light Brown Apple Moth (5). Will try again tonight - I still haven't recorded Cypress Carpet in the garden and thought that I'd score this year - time is running out.

Monday, 22 October 2012

The first time

What with a deluge of decent species arriving on our shores, the 'birding' component of this blog is going to suffer comparison with any coastal-based blogger. My answer to combat this is to dig into the archives and thrust nostalgia upon you...

My first visit to THE SCILLIES

Straight away there's a mistake - officiandos of the archipelago never refer to the islands by that moniker. Scilly Isles is OK, Scillies not. Got that? Back in 1978 I hadn't. When I was offered a lift to go and twitch the Western Palearctic's first Semipalmated Plover (that had just been found on St. Agnes) I needed no persuasion at all. Those fabled islands had played havoc with my mind for the previous couple of years to the point that I just knew a visit would arrive sooner rather than later. I was soon wedged into a small car leaving London on a Friday evening along with four other birders, all long-hair, spots and combat clothing. Back in those days we didn't do suave.

The Scillonian
Flat calm. Apart from a Red-necked Grebe in Penzance Harbour and a Sooty Shearwater on the crossing, little of note. We lined up along the rail, all earnest birders comtemplating the islands ahead, coming into view. It was a right of passage as much as a weekend's birding.

St. Mary's
Off the boat to be met by a birder leaning against a wall. He seemed knowing and gave off an air of 'been here, seen it all'. "It's still there lads!" was a welcome welcome. A simple transfer to a small boat heading for Agnes followed.

St Agnes
A walk round to the beach that the Plover frequented took no time at all. No wait either as the bird was there, performing to the crowd. I wasn't impressed, it looked just like a Ringed Plover. I didn't go in for subtle. Far better was the Lesser Golden Plover a hundred yards further along (it hadn't yet been split). Birding Gods were nearby - whispers of 'Look, that's Paul Dukes' elicited as much excitement as the birds. A whirlwind of birding followed, with Red-breasted Flycatcher in The Parsonage, together with an Icterine Warbler.

St. Mary's
A quick dash to Porth Hellick for a Long-billed Dowitcher before the light went. Then back to the harbour, where us five London twitchers took up residence in the waiting room. I doubt if 'dossing' would be tolerated now by either birder nor local authority, but for us it was

time for bed...

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Vis mig

I like nothing better than a good passage of diurnal migrants passing overhead - migration and movement in all its glory. This morning at Canons Farm there was, for the first three hours of daylight, a good passage of Redwing (700), Starling (3,000) and Chaffinch (300) in a westerly/south-westerly direction. The odd Redpoll, Siskin and Brambling was thrown in for good measure. One of last weeks Ring Ouzels was still haunting the hedgerows. The Kestrel pictured above decided to pounce on an earthworm and consume it only yards away. Even I had to digiscope it.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

More Ouzels at Canons

Canons Farm is developing a reputation as the London and Surrey hot spot for Ring Ouzels. This spring saw multiple sightings (of several birds) including a bird that remained for at least a week - these facts are a bit vague but close to what happened. This morning, at 08.00hrs, a single bird was found by David Campbell close to Canons Farmhouse, and a couple of hours afterwards, while we were standing side by side with Ian Jones, a flock of three flew into the trees and bushes at the northern end of Legal and General. They stayed on show well into the afternoon when a count of four was claimed. As any regular visitor to this blog will testify, I don't do digiscoping, so the image above is as good as it gets when I do try. If you want good pictures of birds, go and visit Marc Heath's blog. Don't expect any here...

Friday, 12 October 2012

Tweeting hell!

Working in the media as I do (lovey), I have been aware of Twitter for quite a long time. Early doors a web chappie set an account up for me and I sent out my first tweets - no doubt some trite rubbish about nothing in particular. When the web chappie turned his back I stopped tweeting...

My last post had me explaining why I re-activated my Twitter account. And I now have a confession to make. I haven't stopped using it. I have started to follow a good number of natural history related tweeters (and so far only those that might give me a bit of natural history gen, so, for the time being I do not follow Stephen Fry or Tulisa). I check to see if I've gathered any extra followers and feel wanted if I have. I also check far too regularly to see what's being seen and have not been so gunned up since the 1980s. One or two of those I follow have many fingers in the political scene so I'm most probably able to comment on airport expansions and badger culls with far more authority than before.

There are downsides. Sitting in an office being bombarded by birders sending out news of falls, rarities and sea watches can play havoc with my concentration and mood levels. I can now be in a grumpy mood because all those lucky devils out birding are knee-deep in Redwings and Yellow-broweds while I'm meant to be slaving in front of a computer screen- but find myself hunched over a phone waiting for the next tweet to upload.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Woodlarks, Twitter and naming things

It's funny how birds that 'come your way' do so with a great fat dollop of chance. This afternoon I went to Canons Farm and decided to park on the eastern boundary of the recording area in Holly Lane West - I normally park on the opposite side. Because of that decision I found myself walking across a stubble field that ordinarily I wouldn't even look at (for those that do detail this particular field has been christened Pipit Field). Three passerines got up in front of me and quickly settled again. Through binoculars I couldn't immediately see them so I slowly edged closer, more in hope than expectation. After a couple of minutes one came into view, followed by the other two. Each bird's generous supercillium that met on the nape (in a 'V') gave the identification game up quite quickly as three smart Woodlarks paraded in front of me. I didn't need to use my scope that hung redundantly by my side as they were very close.

Then the farce started. I knew that the Canons Farm Boy Wonder, David Campbell, was having phone trouble, but I sent a text and left a voicemail all the same. As I was doing this the birds took off; the short-tailed calling larks circled as if to return, then seemingly pitched down in the Buzzard Field area (all Canons fields have names - many that I don't know the name of). I decided to try and find David - and any other birder on site - rather than try and find the larks again for fear of flushing them away. I managed to get hold of Roy Weller by phone, and send out a group text to local birders, but spent the following hour storming over the considerable recording area without seeing a single birder!

To cut a long story short David (after dexterous use of technology to get birding gen delivered to his ailing phone), Roy and Paul Goodman finally joined me in the general area that the Woodlarks had been, but our search was in vain. This is only the second farm record of this species, with my record of November 2007 being the first. I doubt that it will be the last.

Two things came out of today. I activated my old Twitter account so that information can get out to interested birders who's phones might be playing up. Secondly I'm going to try and remember the names of the fields, woods, gateposts and haystacks of Canons Farm, because it's a lot easier to describe where something is by using two words.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Fennel after rain - and smells

Sometimes (actually, very rarely), I take a photograph that I'm really pleased with. This is one of them. The species is Fennel and I was taken by the raindrops that had hung on to the linear structure of the plant. Every time that I come across Fennel I have to pick a bit and rub it between my fingers. If you've never done so I urge you to try it. It smells of aniseed or licquorice depending on your olofactory set-up. This is one attribute of botany that a lot of people miss - smell. And by that I don't necessarily mean sniffing a fragarant bloom. Plenty of species have aromatic leaves although try snorting those of Black Horehound and you'll wish you hadn't.

Various labiates are full of minty, lemony and herby sniffs (they are herbs after all!). Other families smell of curry, mice (no, really) and fish (yes, really!). One of my favourites is borne out of being (a) rare and (b) Dungeness based. Nottingham Catchfly is a modest white-flowered species that is very local in distribution but abundant at Dungeness. Because you cannot find the plant elsewhere in such profusion, the smell that thousands of plants let out - only in the evening - is something that you can only experience on the fabled shingle peninsula (and possibly a handful of other places). I liken it to a delicate hyacinth, which will waft to you gently on the still air of a warm evening. I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about that...

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Ground Pine still fine

A visit to Fames Rough to check on the rare plants was made yesterday morning. The Cut-leaved Germander has gone over, each plant now a ghostly pale coffee colour that makes it stand out a mile. Several of the Ground Pines still exhibited the odd flower (as above) with most plants looking washed out and yellowish. I came across a large patch of Apple Mint back on Canons Farm which has, up until now, evaded my detection. I then spent the next ten minutes wandering around sniffing the crushed leaves between my fingers - nice...

Wednesday, 26 September 2012


Just to put us pan listers in place, recent research into the oceans plankton has revealed that there are considerably more than the 30,000 species that were estimated to be on earth - this has been increased to a staggering one and a half million! You can read and see all about it here.

While on the subject of pan listing, MapMate, the UK's natural history recording software of choice, lists 56,000 species on its database. The pan-listing leader, Jonty Denton has only just got past 10,000. One lifetime is just not enough...

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Then and now - painful birding

Regular visitors to this blog (all three of you) will recall that I spent most of July at Dungeness. I've posted a fair bit about the plants and moths that I saw, but so far have not mentioned birds. There's a good reason for that - it was very poor for them. In July 2010 a week at Dungeness provided for me a White-tailed Plover (NOT Lapwing thank you very much), Purple Heron, Great White Egret, Roseate Tern and up to 70 Mediterranean Gulls in one sitting. This year was a case of playing 'Spot the Med Gull'- they must have had a poor breeding season close by - and looking at high water levels on all of the pits that kept the waders away. There were two sudden adrenalin rushes however, when a Little Swift was claimed one murky morning over ARC (we spent an hour searching through a thousand low-flying swifts) and also when a Black Stork was watched drifting above New Romney and I waited at the point, in considerable heat for a few hours, hoping to pick it up drifting southwards. If it did it must have drifted over very high. What I did see though included a Serin - which took up residence for five days between the point and the observatory, only giving the briefest of views as it flew over calling - and this juvenile Nightingale, pictured above, after it was trapped in the newly built heligoland trap situated in the moat.

Today I felt very keenly for a member of the local birding fraternity. This birder has staked out Beddington Sewage Farm on an almost daily basis for the past God knows how long. Today there was a Long-tailed Skua recorded flying over Beddington. My first instinct was to be pleased that his efforts were being rewarded. I texted him - 'Did you get the LTS?' The reply came back 'Nope' The poor chap was on site as well, no doubt grilling the gulls or paying particular attention to a skua-less portion of the sky as the skua passed through. If you want to see the photographic record of this first for Beddington then click here. The skua's observer is not without his own rights to claim that the enormous amount of time that he has put into birding the sewage farm warranted such a reward. I just think that his recent travels means that we need to make sure that the sky behind the skua is in fact from Surrey and not just off of Corvo... ;-)

Monday, 17 September 2012

Gripping Gannet

When Derek Coleman embarked on a Grey Heron count at Beddington Sewage Farm this evening he didn't expect to be extracting a juvenile Gannet out of the seventy odd herons strewn across the lakes. Johnny Allan was his usual efficient self and got the information out via text and twitter - this was one species that I couldn't miss as it is a local rarity, what with Surrey being land-locked and the nearest bit of 'coast' being the tidal Thames some way away. I hadn't been to the sewage farm for a few months so my arrival induced a fair bit of good-humoured ribbing. The bird was still present, and stayed until dusk, no doubt to be found at first light if anybody couldn't get there on time this evening. However, it was quite listless and I only hope that it is not found in a dead heap tomorrow. There have been at least six records of Gannet at Beddington, not bad for a land-locked site which is not a reservoir. The rarity-starved regulars are hoping that this bird, plus the London skuas seen today, will bless them with another seabird tomorrow. With all the effort that they put in, they deserve it.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Smaller Moths of Surrey launch

It was my pleasure to attend the launch of the latest book in the Surrey Wildlife Trust's ground-breaking series - that of 'Smaller Moths of Surrey' by Bob Palmer, Jim Porter and Graham Collins. All three authors were present along with the guest of honour, John Langmaid. Bob and Jim gave short speeches and afterwards a discussion took place on the state of micro moth recording in the UK and where the micro effort in Surrey should now go. Most of those gathered (including myself) were contributors to the book and it was pleasing to be able to hold and appreciate something tangible that is testament to everyone's efforts. My own record input is dwarfed by most of those other contributors, in particular the authors who have spent countless hours not only in the field but also hunched over keyboards and page proofs. They thanked the back-up team of which every publication relies upon and who so often remain anonymous. I was lucky enough to find myself sitting next to John Langmaid and spent an enjoyable time chatting away to him - for such an emminent lepidoperist he was most humble and seemed genuinely interested in my back garden records. I didn't quite come over all star-struck and tell him that I saw 'his' Yellow Underwing this summer.

At 550 pages this is the thickest of the thirteen SWT series and can be purchased from here. The book contains distribution maps for every species recorded during the survey period (post 1986) with details of sites and dates for the more notable of them. Those species recorded prior to 1986 but not since each have a written entry discussing the historic record. Unconfirmed records are also treated this way. There are also 32 colour plates of high quality photography depicting a cross section of the species recordeded in the county. The Surrey Wildlife Trust must be congratulated on producing such a wide ranging series of books, all to a high standard and each has garnered a reputation way beyond the county boundary. Apparently the next projected volume will be on spiders.

Friday, 14 September 2012


When it comes to my natural history studies I cannot help but plan things which will have a start date of January 1st. Even if I come up with an idea for a project in mid-March, my tidy mind (OCD?) will want to wait until the beginning of the following year to implement it. I start to visualise a neatly produced report that encapsulates a set of observations made over a 12 month period (or 24, 36, 48 - neat and tidy, you see). Why not be able to initiate such things on September 14th? Or July 3rd? Or December 31st for that matter. I used to stop birding between Christmas and the New Year because I'd grown fed-up with the current years 'campaign' and restless to start the next one. Any time birding in this dead period was seen as wasteful, as if doing so was 'using up' energy. Yes I know, daft.

I have a couple of ideas for new projects. Nothing grand, but things that have got me excited. My track record means that I will probably start one (or all) of them on January 1st and then loose momentum by late February, possibly abandoning them all before the spring is over. Maybe I could start them NOW, as I type this, not constrained by any arbitary start dates - this in turn might not suggest to me an end date to fixate upon (normally December 31st).

Alternatively I could get a life...

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Puss in willows

What on earth is this staring at us?

Ah, it's trying to merge into its surrounding s now

It's starting to move again - look at the horns on that!
This Puss Moth caterpillar caused quite a stir when I found it on a sallow bush at Dungeness back in the summer. Some species look better when not an imago and this is one of them. When I first saw it I showed my ignorance of the larvae of the UK by assuming it must be a hawk-moth. I suppose there are quite a few people out there who think that they know their moths as adults but who would struggle to identify them as larvae, chrysalis or eggs - I'm one of them.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Oppen Pits

If you visit Dungeness today you will come across a lot of fresh water. Gravel extraction has created many large holes that have been filled with the stuff. The Long Pits, ARC, Lade, New Diggings, Burrowes - I could go on. More are being dug and flooded as I type. It wasn't always like this.

It used to be the case that fresh water could be found in one place only, naturally ocurring, well away from any track or road. The Oppen Pits are on the RSPB reserve, roughly half a mile north-east of the Dungeness B power station and but a pebbles throw from the south-eastern side of Burrowes Pit. There are two main pits, neither very large, maybe the size of  a football pitch, although the open water on both is reduced by the infringement of reeds and willow.

I first visited them in 1976 when access was more relaxed. It was where I saw my first Long-eared Owl. Over the following four years I frequently trod the shingle between them and the observatory, across a virtually untouched Dungeness, characterised by large shingle swells characterised by being vegetated in the dips only. Out there there is a feeling of being in a wild place, missing elsewhere on the peninsula. One fine June morning in 1981 provided a fine Woodchat Shrike. I didn't know it at the time, but I wasn't to visit this special place again until this July.

When I knew that I was going to spend a bit of time at Dungeness over the summer I asked the RSPB for permission to visit the pits once more. They are not accessible to the public and it takes a concerted effort to get out to them. I was delighted to be granted access. I visited twice.

Over the past thirty years the vegetation has grown to the point that it is difficult (nay impossible) to get to the open water. Without a machete and thigh waders the best you can do is glimpse the water through the willow scrub (as in the top image).

Botanically it holds some good species in a Kent context. Marsh Cinquefoil is here (above), being found only at Dungeness in the county. Common Sedge and Marsh Fern are also to be found at the pits but with difficulty elsewhere. I found all three without any problem. Birdwise it has potential and I wouldn't be surprised if there are some notable species that are setting up home, but I'm not privvy to such information.

The pits are a special place. The romantic in me is aware that a colony of terns and gulls used to nest on the open shingle between here and the beach. The RSPB watchers that kept an eye on them in the 1930s (when foxes and humans were not such a problem), would have been serenaded by the breeding Stone Curlwes as they did so. When I walked away from the pits the second time I did so with the thought that I might never visit them again. These modest water bodies have given me some special moments and, if you can be grateful to a bowl of fresh water, then I am. Very much so.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The rarest plant in Kent

This is Forked Spleenwort, a plant of mostly western and northern distribution in the UK. It is also found rarely in Devon and from one site in Kent. The Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) consider the Kent record to be introduced. The modern Godfather of Kent botany, Eric Philp, disagrees. He suggests that it is a naturally occuring species that has arrived from continental wind-blown spores. Either way, it is small, not showy and in a Kent context exceedingly rare. I took this picture back in July on the low brick bridge that straddles a stream close to the village of Brenzett.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The bee's knees

July 1979 - I'm twenty years old and acting as Assistant Warden at Dungeness Bird Observatory. I am joined by two young biologists attached to a UK university (I cannot remember which) who spend a week studying the bees of Dungeness. They tell me that the bee assemblage at Dungeness is famous for its species diversity and number. Bees to me are just stripy things that might possibly sting you. During the week the biologists show me many species, either in the field or in pots. When they depart they tell me that they have had a terrific week and I've (as a by-product of their stay) seen a wealth of bees. I wave them goodbye and return to looking at birds, the things that fly that I can identify.

July 2012 - I'm fifty three years old (no surely not - oh gawd, yes I am) and, once again, I am staying at Dungeness Bird Observatory. I have regularly thought back to that 'week with the bees'. Since starting up the pan-species list I've often rued the fact that I didn't keep a written record of those bees that I was shown.What gems had I seen? Since 1979 the bee population at Dungeness has, like elsewhere in the UK, taken a hit. If only I'd kept a record... A rainy afternoon sees me getting out the old observatory log book from 1979 to bathe in the nostalgia of 33 years ago. I find the entries from June-September, mostly written in my hand. I can vividly recall almost all that I am re-reading on these faded, musty pages (and that makes you realise that you really are older when the pages that you have written on smell and look aged). There is an entry made towards the end of July, a list of bees from the preceeding week. It looks like my handwriting! The list is comprehensive and includes a species since declared extinct in the UK (Bombus subterraneus, the Short-haired Bumblebee). This is currently subject to a re-introduction programme at Dungeness. I welcome the list like a long-lost relative.

The question is, can I count them for my pan-list, these thirty-three year-old stripy insects? You bet...

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Beginner's luck

How do you p*** off the local birding fraternity? This is how...

Do not bird for weeks on end. Bowl up to the local patch with an air of nonchalance and without your telescope. Listen to them regale you with how much effort they have put in for not a lot of return. Wander off on your own and within an hour have a fly-over Honey Buzzard that is a patch first. Leave an hour later to go home for lunch.

I know, what a mean, jammy way of going about things. However, I could suggest that had I lucked into a Montagu's or Pallid Harrier then I might feel a tiny bit more guilty.

Sorry David and Ian, but over the course of the year you will both give me a good ornithological kicking! And you can always claim that I'm stringing...

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

A bloody good moan

This blog used to be about things other than 'what I have seen recently'. Apologies for my slipping into the safety of uploading images of moths from the back garden and neglecting the seething inner me. Such internal energy needs to be released...

My first moan is about the books to be found populating the natural history section in 'all good bookshops'. Whoever orders what appears on the shelves needs to go on a course designed to inform them on what the customers really want. My local Waterstones is a curious mix of the bleedin' obvious, with titles such as 'Johnny Kingdom's 100 species of large mammal to see before you die', 'The RSPB book of Quaint Garden Birds' and 'Bats - they are really nice and not at all scary' vying for attention alongside a plethora of natural history writing which has been infiltrated by a trend in reprinting the flowery diaries of long-dead Victorian gentlemen. If you wanted to buy a selection of field guides to start off exploring and identifying the natural world in Great Britain you'd be hard pushed to find a bog standard field guide for anything. Therefore fewer people will bother to do so, but more will become celebrity presenter stalkers and follow Kate Humble on Twitter.

Pan-species listing
This activity has me hating myself on a regular basis. Am I really kidding myself that I can possibly identify even a small proportion of the fungi, beetles, flies etc, etc that I come across. Should I confess to being totally incapable of using identification keys. Should I come clean and admit that I have to leave quite a few tortrix moths alone, particularly the ones that look like bird shit. Am I big enough to accept that there must be quite a few stringy identifications on my pan-species list. And does it matter?

My lovely Swarovski scope lies neglected in a cupboard. Even though it came down to Dungeness with me for the month of July I hardly used it. I didn't bird much to be honest. I was looking at plants, insects, watching the Tour de France and imbibing in the odd pint. Call myself a birder? I used to...

Bird food manufacturers
Do they think we're stupid? In the good old days we used to put bread, fat and peanuts out for the birds and the population levels were OK. Now they suggest that we buy all sorts of exotic seed mixes to cater for 'Goldfinches with delicate stomachs' and 'Gluten intollerant titmice' and charge us top dollar to do so. And what happened to buying small bags of the stuff? You need a fork-lift truck and a 7.5 tonne van to get the bloody sacks home! And another thing - we used to spread it out on the grass and let the birds come down and feed. But now we are invited to buy bird feeders that are designed to look like ornate ironwork stolen from the Paris Metro.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Moth patch turns purple

Friday night's MV trap produced the garden's first Jersey Tiger, Saturday night was even better and provided me with my first ever Gypsy Moth and last night a proper migrant turned up in the guise of a Vestal (pictured above). I have recorded this species once before here in Banstead, back in August 2003. Mothing has a habit of throwing up good species in clusters, so I'd better keep switching that bulb on each evening.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

A gypsy in the garden

It was oppresively muggy last night, the temperature here in Banstead not dropping any lower than 18 degrees C. I woke from a fitful sleep at about 3AM and decided to get a drink of water and, while up, check the moth trap in the back garden. The MV is placed against a white wall and this wall was well populated by resting moths - mainly Willow Beauties, but also an individual that set my alarm bells ringing - where had I seen that before? It then registered that it was a male Gypsy Moth, a species I hadn't in fact seen anywhere, macro number 389 for the garden!

With the current weather conditions and plenty of migrant activity on the south and east coasts I would like to think that this is a primary migrant. However, there is a small population of this species in South London that DEFRA are trying to eradicate, so it could conceivably be a wanderer from there, although if I were a betting man I would bet against it. For all I know the men from the government have killed them off already.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

I've been expecting you...

One of the delights of moth trapping is the 'not knowing' what is going to turn up. You don't have to rely on wandering migrants to give the trap an injection of surprise as there are plenty of residents that decide to go for an excursion away from their normal habitats. Increasingly we are witnessing species that are starting to colonise from the continent, or some that used to hug the coast but are now heading inland. Over the past few years Small Ranunculus, Toadflax Brocade and Tree-lichen Beauty have done just that (I have recorded them all from my Surrey garden). There remained two others that have also done so, colonised areas around where I live, but had yet to grace my Banstead MV. One is Cypress Carpet. The other decided to come and pay me a visit last night and it is pictured above in all its glory - Jersey Tiger.

If there are any moth-ers out there trapping Cydia amplana and have a few to spare, please send them my way. I'm drawing a blank.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Dewick's and Rosy

Dewick's Plusia

Rosy Wave
You might be getting a bit tired of these Dungeness moths by now (at least those of you that are still left visiting this ailing blog), so I promise that this will be the final revisiting of my 'summer sojourn'. The first image is a bit of a cheat as the Dewick's Plusia actually came from Sissinghurst, some dozen miles inland. I had seen this species before, back in 1988, from Greatstone, where it had settled on the glass of a lit window of an estate agents shop. The second moth is of one of three Rosy Waves that were trapped in Barry Banson's Greatstone garden. I helped him process his two traps each morning which was tremendous fun and very rewarding. Back to more local stuff from now, and with a scorchio weekend promised maybe something of note will come along...

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The garden still provides

Tree-lichen Beauty - the second succesive year that I have recorded this species. I've seen it nowhere else except for my back garden.
Toadflax Brocade - a resident now in its third year. I have found larvae on Purple Toadflax by the garage door
If you wait long enough the species will ultimately come to you. It's not that long ago that Toadflax Brocade was a coastal specialist and now it has colonised parts of London and Surrey. And it wasn't that many years ago that Dave Walker, warden at Dungeness Bird Observatory, let me know that he had just trapped the first UK modern day record of Tree-lichen Beauty. I considered driving 90 miles to look at it, but decided not to. I only have to walk 10m from my back door to the MV now to see one. Strange days...

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Box Hill, Straw Belle, Wiggo and Cav

When it was announced that the 2012 Olympic cycling road race route would include the Box Hill zig-zag there were understandable concerns. Such an event would attract a large crowd, but how could they be accommodated without widespread damage to the chalk downland and its accompanying rare species? I was present two weekends ago to witness the event first hand. I had tickets for the lower slopes and we were led to the roadside vantage points without the need to walk across the fragile slopes. Further up the hill was another viewing area, rather knowingly called 'Straw Belle slope', named after one of the species that there were concerns over. On the day I couldn't see how the disturbance had effected the habitat further up, but today I went to take a look...

The first thing that struck me was how little of the grassland showed any disturbance at all - a single path led from the lower zig-zag car park up to the 'Straw Belle' viewing area. Here the roadside exhibited an area of flattened grass of no more than 30m x 10m. Disturbance had indeed been minimal. But what about the wildlife?

I checked the area of the zig-zag that is the well-known haunt of the rare Straw Belle moth. Would I find one? No, I found four. I didn't really need to look for them as the moths were quite active and came to find me. The strong sunlight and easterly breeze made photography difficult, although one happily sat in an open pot and allowed the image above to be taken. In this same area were three Silver-spotted Skippers.

If you want to go and look for yourself, find the 'Kiss My Cav' message painted on the road (left over from the Olympic road race, see top picture). The moths (and butterflies) were alongside this message on the upper slope. The organising committee should be congratulated on keeping its promise to not damage the habitat around Box Hill. I have it on good authority that habitat improvement is the legacy of the Olympic visit.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Goat Moth

I've always hankered after seeing an adult Goat Moth. They have something of the unobtainable about them, being a species that has a low population level and can be difficult to track down unless you know of a larvae infected tree that might just bestow upon a visiting lepidopterist an imago sitting on the trunk. I came across the rather stunning individual pictured above in an altogether easier fashion - it was brought into the RSPB reserve at Dungeness by a member of the public. Result!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Nowt to do with natural history

I was sent this bit of prose that appeared on a Fulham Football Club related website - it does say an awful lot that I wouldn't mind betting that many others would agree with. I'm not a knocker of football - it is my number one sport of choice although I am beginning to pall with the whey-faced spud-heads that get payed such obscene amounts of money to perform with such pedestrian ability. That they get paid well is not an issue, but the current salaries are just out of hand. Our society has created it, along with high property prices and big business greed. Enough of that, over to Fulham FC... I may not agree with every sentiment, but it does get me agreeing along with most of it.

I FEEL so sorry for our professional footballers – icons of our times, or so they believe – as they get ready for a new, exciting season. I don’t think since l888, when the first football league started, have our pro players been so utterly embarrassed, humiliated and shown up. How can they ever hold up their arrogant heads again, compared with our Olympics lads and lasses? We footie fans, suckers besotted by the Premier League, have led ourselves to believe that our football heroes have it hard. We know, poor things, that most days they have to get into their Baby Bentleys by the crack of 9.30am, reaching their training ground by 10. They sit around in their flip-flops, have some breakfast, natter to their mates, ring their agents, arrange their sex lives. Then they go through two hours of training, sometimes even getting up a sweat.

By one o’clock, latest, that’s it. The rest of the day is their own. Then, of course, there are all those awful pressures they are always telling us about. If they are in an international tournament, representing their country, the public hopes they will try really hard, which is so unfair. We can’t expect them to perform at their best, despite their fame and fortunes, or take half decent penalties, or give interviews, or be charming to fans.

No wonder they spit and swear all the time. Ooh, it’s so tough being a pro player. We fans have grown to accept all that behavior, as our heroes try to rub along somehow on £150,000 a week. We give them respect, which is something they are very hot on, nay demand, feeling it is their due.
Even dafter, some of us have even considered them as role models.

Dear God, how could we have been so deluded?

But now, thanks to the Olympics, our eyes have been opened. All those lovely, humble, ungreedy, unselfish, sweet young men and women have shown us how sportsmen can and should behave. For four years, most of them have been up at five in the morning slogging away in the dark and cold, often on their own, for no money, little encouragement, with no fame, no fans, no groupies, no security screen around them. And yet, they have ended up not just nicer, more admirable humans — but also more SUCCESSFUL.

When representing the nation, they have actually won things, beaten the rest of the world. When did our footballers last do that, eh? Back in l966 is the answer. I wonder if our top footballers will now feel so guilty that they will all decide to donate nine-tenths of their income to charity, to promise to work harder when playing for their country and stop making excuses for rubbish results. No chance, of course.

In which case, we, the lumpen, pathetic fans should all decide that football will no longer be our national sport. What is the point of a national sport if we as a nation are no good at it? I think a vote is called for. We should decide that from now on that cycling is our national sport. Or sailing. Or rowing. Anything really, apart from football, which will have to go back to before the 1880s and become a purely amateur sport. That would learn them.

I was thinking about subscribing to Sky Sports again for the coming football season. But here at North Downs and Beyond we are going to say 'No'...

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

More moths

L-album Wainscot - not in Surrey
Archer's Dart - not from my back garden
Dark Tussock - and neither is this.
If you think that I've run out of moth images from Dungeness, then think again. I've not even used the best one yet - I bet you cannot wait (stop yawning at the back there...) Anyhow, here are three species that are local, none of which I've seen away from the Kent coast.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Big blue beastie

This big blue beastie is Helops caerulens, a large darkling beetle that can easily be found after dark crawling over the wooden railway sleepers some 50m east of the bird observatory. I knew to look because Mark Telfer told me about them. I did find some smaller beetles that defied identification. Where's a coleopterist when you need one?

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Great Flowering

The resident botanists are refering to it as a once in a lifetime event. I am just grateful that I was able to witness it. Due to the wet, cool spring and early summer, Dungeness was blessed by a late and profuse flowering of many species, the quantity of which was only surpassed by the vigour of the blooms. When I arrived the Nottingham Catchfly was peaking, the subtle scent charging the evening air. Cat's-ear, Sheep's-bit, Viper's Bugloss, Mouse-ear Hawkweed and even the normally shy Dodder were putting on a spectacular show. After a week went by the modest Wood Sage burst into life, millions (literally) of plants carpeting the shingle with great rafts of off-white flowers. But, nothing lasts for ever... when I left Dungeness the Catchfly was all dried seed head, the Sheep's-bit looking sad, the Wood Sage browning at the edges. The following images cannot capture the event, but apart from my memories it's all that I can offer.

Wood Sage - dominated the vegetation in more open areas of shingle.
Nottingham Catchfly - hard to believe that this species is found in only 37 ten km squares in the UK

Cat's-ear - if I had taken a picture to the left, right and behind there would have been a similar number on show.
Sheep's-bit - in places it created a blue haze above the shingle.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

They came, they saw, they colonised

Moths have a good habit of jumping from the European mainland and colonising the south-east of England, mainly thanks to global warming, a weak Euro and a wish to escape from bland Europop. Dungeness being just about as south-east as south-east gets on this island of ours therefore gets to paw these colonisers before most other places.

Take this Plumed Fan-foot for example. In 1995 Barry Banson checked his Greatstone-based MV (just north of Dungeness) and spied an unfamiliar moth. It was the UK's first Plumed Fan-foot. I was lucky enough to visit Barry on a daily basis during my stay and to go through his two MVs. We recorded four individuals which pleased me no end.

Cypress Carpets may be old hat now, but I still don't see that many of them. We recorded this species frequently enough at Barry's and the bird observatory to make mention of it almost pointless. How times change.

Evergestis limbata hasn't quite got to the level of making lepidopterists yawn yet, although I wouldn't mind betting than within five years they will be treated with contempt. A very smart pyralid, this has gone from a screaming rarity to an expected catch within a matter of four years.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Local moths for non-local people

Most lepidopterists that visit Dungeness have one specific target species in mind and that is Sussex Emerald. It is only known as a resident from here, although the odd wanderer is recorded nearby. The foodplant, Wild Carrot, is not an uncommon plant, so why the species cannot spread from this tiny foothold in England is, to me, a bit of a mystery. There are two local MV traps that will produce this moth in late June and July - the one at the bird observatory and the other in Dorothy Beck's garden. Between them they will record over 100 individuals in a good year. This year has been characterised by a late and small emergence. I saw four at the observatory and seven (including the individual pictured above) at Dorothy's.

One of my favourite moths at Dungeness is White Spot, whose larval foodplant is Nottingham Catchfly, which goes some way to explain why this species is local. The flight period was just coming to its end when I arrived at the very end of June.

There can be fewer more attractive pyralids than Cynaeda dentalis (above). It is another moth of local distribution and feeds on Viper's Bugloss, as does Ethmia bipunctella (below).

There are plenty more 'Dungeness specialities' to whet the moth hunter - a few more will follow in the next post...

Monday, 30 July 2012

They think it's all over - it is now

After 29 days of self-indulgent shingle bashing I have returned to family and home. My wife hadn't changed the locks, my daughters seemed to remember who I was and the dog certainly recalled that it is me who repeatedly throws her ball up the garden for her to fetch. There was so little post waiting for me that it made me feel irrelevant... no time for a leisurely merge back into normailty however as it was off to the slopes of Box Hill to roar on the Olympic road race cyclists.

Back on June 29th I arrived at the not unattractive building (pictured above) that houses Dungeness Bird Observatory. It has undergone extensive refurbishment so now has a modern kitchen, new flooring, a comfy lounge that boasts a fine wall-mounted flat-screen TV, and a cleanliness that is not what one used to associate with observatories. It costs just £10 a night to stay, this reducing to £7 if you are a member. For a budget break it comes highly recommended.

I was resident for exactly one month. I had a brilliant time. I had no expectations other than to selfishly relax and enjoy the varied wildlife on offer. I was lucky in that the wet spring and early summer had conspired to produce a late and lush flowering - for more detail on this see a later post. The stubborn position of the jet stream meant three weeks of south-westerlies (although Dungeness was mainly warm and sunny as the rain bands swept past us only a matter of miles to the north) and then a late shift that saw a mini heat wave for the last week. Insect migration was not a feature, although a few did get through, the identity of these will be revealed in a later post. The resident goodies all performed, particularly the moths! Again, good fuel for future posts.

I didn't really chase the pan-species list. In fact I came to the conclusion that it is counter-productive to do so. Interest in my core groups was reignited, particularly moths, so my time was (and is) better spent on these. That doesn't mean to say any interesting looking invertebrate will be ignored - it won't!

Monday, 23 July 2012

Almost over

My month at Dungeness is almost complete. I have gathered a wealth of memories thanks to the people I have met (including many old friends), the wildlife on show and the special place that this shingle peninsula is to me. So, if you can be bothered to wait a few more days I can promise you umpteen posts on a variety of subjects that may just last for a further month or more. Enjoy the sunshine!

Friday, 6 July 2012

Shingle minded

It's been a while since I posted. The reason being, my mid-life crisis - a cry for help, call it what you will. Back in february I fancied taking the whole of July off and 'doing' natural history. My boss - aka my wife - said yes, (how Katrina puts up with me I don't know) so selecting anywhere in the world to go I settled on... Dungeness! I know, I could be watching hummingbirds in the Amazon or gorillas in Rwanda, but instead I have elected to stay on the shingle of my youth. So far, a week in, it has been a good choice. Cheap accommodation and marvellous weather while everyone else seems to be getting wet.

Because of the wet spring and even wetter early summer the shingle has flowered like never before. There are literally millions of blooms colouring the peninsula, like a grand desert extravaganza. Nottingham Catchfly, a local species, is abundant. Sheep's-bit is strewn across the pebbles. Viper's-bugloss is vibrant. I have managed to photograph quite a few new species for my 'photo list', including Yellow Vetch, Small-flowered Catchfly and Sand Catchfly.

It has not been conducive for big catches of migrant moths - or small catches of migrant moths for that matter - but I have still seen Langmaid's Yellow Underwing and Evergestis limbata, although both are considered colonisers here.

My pan listing is rumbling along, although I am acting laid back and have decided not to chase everything. And if I'm being honest not feeling nearly competent enough to start calling the lichens, mosses, beetles etc that have come my way. I've taken pictues of bugs that will be looked at several weeks from now. Internet connection is slow, so no images I'm afraid. They will appear later. Much later.

By the way, Dungeness Bird Observatory has had a major upgrade, with a new kitchen, flooring and a wall-mounted f-off TV. It helps while away the down-time...

Monday, 25 June 2012


A few days ago I was on Reigate Heath, walking across a boggy area littered with the stumps of recently felled coniferous trees. A black insect flew into view, at first I thought that it was a melanic damselfly. It landed close by and I was confronted with something that I had not seen before - a large ichneumon fly exhibiting a preposterously long ovipositor. It didn't settle for long, but I was sure that I could nail the identification. Back home my trawl through the literature matched it, I think, to a species of Lissonota - but which one? The popular field guides suggest setosa, or fundator, or 'many similar species'. The world wide web threw up many images of supposed Lissonata, some of which were clearly not, being dragonflies and even shieldbugs! (I came across another at Thursley Common this week (image below) which looked a lot smaller than my Reigate specimen. It didn't stay still for long).

This neatly illustrates a problem that the 'official' recorders of natural history are faced with. There are thousands of people out there armed with digital cameras, all taking photographs of species and then posting/uploading them onto the internet and naming them in all good faith. Many are doing so correctly, but many aren't. So we then get a scenario where somebody (it could be me) who does not possess the literature with which to identify something and will go online looking for help. One incorrect labelling of a species can be replicated many times, which means that I could check my picture/specimen against a few sources and come up with the wrong identification. I would then perpetuate the miscarriage of id.

So we now have multiple records of a species that are not quite right - in fact, all wrong. The internet and generalist field guides can give the impressiuon that insects are quite easy. A plate of beetles suggests that you can match your specimen up to the closest pictures and voila... you have an identification. Oh dear.

I am certainly more wary now than I was a few months ago. I try to be squeeky clean with my records but can I honestly say that all of my identifications are 100% correct - that means every grass, sedge, crucifer, pug, tortrix, beetle? I doubt it. Where does that leave those who look after the official databases of our wildlife? Do they, in the case of critical groups, accept only those records submitted by known, proven fieldworkers. That would be safe, but would also mean an awful lot of genuine records will be ignored. It could also act as a deterrent to those 'new' to that particular field of study if the impression is given that their records are not worthy of consideration.

I end on a positive note -  a bit of Common Blue butterfly love-in at Howell Hill nature reserve in a rare sunny interval. Girls on top...

Friday, 22 June 2012

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

I cannot make my mind up about this weather. Yes, it's been cool, wet and at times windy. Agreed, it isn't good for moth catches, butterfly numbers or overshooting bird rarities. But botanically everything is lush. By now we can usually expect all of the late spring stuff to be burnt off, shrivelled up and beyond identification. Perhaps this is good for a number of invertebrate groups? I don't know whether or not those that study flies are rolling around in ecstacy due to a brilliant year, or arachnid botherers have never had it so good. I would like a bit more warmth and sun though - it makes a poor day in the field all the more tolerable.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Bryony Ladybird

This poor, snatched photograph is, I'm suggesting, that of a Bryony Ladybird. I was wandering the border of Norbury Park and Bocketts Farm in north-west Surrey when I came across it. Not being an expert in beetles (or anything else for that matter) I was none the less struck by the washed out browny-red colouration of the wing cases and the carefully spaced out spots. It is found in the general area, having started its history in the UK as recently as the late 1990s.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

A chocolate button a day...

This morning, when the postman handed me a small brown parcel, I wondered whether or not I had forgotten about some strange natural history equipment that I had ordered - a gnat's nether region detector box or possibly an electric shock depth charger for water beetles. When I turned the package over my sender was revealed - 'Haig, Seaton, Devon'. This could mean only one thing - Chocolate Buttons!

For a while now, that Londoner/Devonian has owed me Chocolate Buttons big time. World Wars have been fought over lesser instances of debt. As I feverishly ripped open the brown paper, licking my salivating lips, I had already started to imagine lying on the grass, tipping the whole of the bags contents into my wide open mouth in a homage to Homer Simpson.

Not only was there a bag of buttons - GIANT buttons - but a card addressed to 'Tick Ticker'. It read, 'Please find enclosed well-known cure for Lyme disease. Correct dose is 2 tablets, 4 times a day, but latest research suggests efficacy vastly improved by consuming all the tablets with a single cup of tea or coffee. Enjoy! Gavin'

Such concern amongst the blogger fraternity is humbling. I now feel as if I can bin the antibiotics my GP prescribed in favour of this confectionery medication. Maybe eat them as I watch England stutter win against Ukraine this evening.

Many thanks Gav. I've now called off the heavies...