Monday, 30 January 2012

Davy Jones' pan-species locker

The pan-lister in me couldn't resist buying 'Great British Marine Animals' by Paul Naylor, its third edition having just published. This is a photographic guide to the commoner species found in UK waters and has already helped me add to my marine list (with a bit of retro checking of my Cornish rock pool pictures taken last August). What is sobering is the number of marine animal species to be found in the UK - go on, have a guess. 250? 500? It can't be over a thousand, can it? Yes it can...

Approximately 7,000.

Take sponges. There are in the region of 400 species of sponge to tempt the pan-lister, but Paul Naylor throws in a curve-ball by suggesting that microscopic examination is often essential to clinch an ID.

This book has caused me to adopt an ambition marine mammal, although I doubt that I'll ever see one. The Fireworks Anemone is big, spectacular and inhabits deep water such as the bottom of muddy Scotish sea-lochs. Another thing that is obvious is that the biologists that have given these sea creatures their English names have used the simple trick of looking at them, deciding what they resemble, and calling them just that - hence Strawberry Anemone, Dahlia Anemone, Breadcrumb Sponge, Chocolate Finger Sponge, Prawn Cracker Sponge (I'm not making these up). Now all I have to do is buy an oxygen tank, a pair of flippers, an underwater camera and start inroads into the 7,000 ticks on offer. Lundy, anyone?

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Ranmore Common

I spent five hours meandering over the not insignificant Ranmore Common, as much as to get a bit of fresh air and exercise as it was to hoover up the wildlife set before me. The wooded areas were quiet, although I recorded a minimum of eight Marsh Tits. The open chalk downland was quieter still and teased me with the promise of all of those Chalkhill Blues, Adonis Blues and Silver-spotted Skippers to come. I even stood at the edge of the field at the base of the slope that harbours a fine array of so-called 'arable weeds' - but not today. That is all for later...

Fungi was not hard to come by, although I do shy away from anything that looks as if it has gone over. Fungi can be difficult enough to identify without putrefecation thrown in as an added obstacle. Turkeytail (above) was common and I came across Yellow Brain (below) to add a splash of colour to the day.

I saw an awful lot of moss. It was everywhere. I was tempted, I really was, but I reminded myself not to get involved, there's too much to do without adding mosses to my list of 'things to take up my time'. But there would have been a fine pan-species haul had I collected it, picked up a hand lens and consulted my field guide... no, don't tempt me.

Friday, 27 January 2012

The G word


Can't get away from the buggers at the moment. Every other blog seems to parade the latest images of Iceland Gulls, Med Gulls, Caspian Gulls, even humble Herring Gulls. Of all ages. And races. A grey, white and buff celebration of all things larid.

Why don't I sound so keen?

Well, I do like gulls. I even scope flocks of them and pit my knowledge of them against what is before me. I reckon I'm OK on gulls but not up to scratch compared to the true larophiles that seem to lurk in every harbour, landfill site and reservoir the length and breadth of Britain.

Gulls seem to attract a certain sort of birder. They are pioneers (there is still so much to learn about them). They are purists (the need of critical examination, note taking and good old fashioned fieldcraft is required). They are confident (if you don't have birding self-belief you wouldn't tackle them).

I can understand why some birders look the other way where gulls are concerned. Not everybody has the time, discipline and sheer willpower to take them on. To me, gull watchers are Clint Eastwood, they are Sir Runnulph Feinnes, they are in the SAS - single-minded obsessives who tread ground that most people don't visit.If you think this is bollocks stand next to one as they scan a gull flock. Be prepared to be there for hours. Be prepared to listen to a language that is understood by fewer people than understand Elvish. Be prepared to realise how little you actually know.

If you take on the challenge, then say goodbye to normal birding...

Monday, 23 January 2012

Celebrity birding

One of my shortest lists is of celebrities that I have seen whilst birding. Most of them barely even qualify as celebrities, so the list might be considered stringy...

I've bumped into the ex-Goodie and TV birder on quite a few occasions, but one meeting on the shingle at Dungeness deserves highlighting.
Me: "Hi!"
Bill: "Hello"
Me: "There are a few Whinchats further along"
Bill: "Thanks"
I reckon that's worth a Channel 4 dramatisation at some future point.

The 'All Creatures Great and Small' actor and doyen of BBC1 afternoon TV was walking with a family group at Pagham Harbour. He was not carrying binoculars. I nodded at him (as I would to anybody even if they are not famous) but he didn't see me do so. Or he ignored me.

Artistic film director. Had a house at Dungeness.Regularly past him as I birded close to his garden. Now and again bumped into him within the DBO recording area. Polite waves and nods.

Lives close to Holmethorpe Sand Pits and does walk around the footpaths that criss-cross the area. I have yet to pluck up the courage to replicate the comment that Gordon Ramsay made to her - "You may have f***ed our Prime Minister, but I don't want you f***ing up my kitchen"

Jailed politician and expenses fiddler, stayed at Dungeness Bird Observatory at the same time as me in the late 1970s. Seemed a decent bloke. Most probably bought me a pint, so can't be all bad.

I can't think of any more at the moment. If I suddenly remember bumping into Michael Jackson at Cley or Mother Theresa on St. Agnes I'll let you know...

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Derek, to the bat cave!

Thanks to Derek Coleman and members of the London Bat Group, I was able to join them on one of three winter visits that they undertake to count the bat roost that can be found in two disused tunnels right next to Highgate tube station in north London (above). These Victorian brick tunnels were used by steam trains up until the 1950s and are now boarded up and pitch black inside, save for small caged openings at either end. The floor of the tunnels are a medley of old track, corroded metal and shattered stone, a murderous cocktail without a torchlight to guide us through. The walls have been blackened by soot over the years and age has taken its toll on the mortar - nice hidey holes for the mammals to roost in. There were plenty of experts at hand to explain about bat ecology and the history behind this particular roost.

On a mild day the experts prediction was that the count would be 'in the low-to-mid teens' and they were spot on - we found 15 individual bats, 12 Natterer's and 3 Daubenton's. This was the first time that I had visited any kind of bat roost and enjoyed searching for them in the many nooks and crannies the walls provided.

Above is a photo I managed to grab in torchlight of a Natterer's Bat resting in a specially constructed 'bat brick'. Natterer's was also a lifer - the pan-list gets its 2012 lift-off!

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Plume time

I had reason to try out my recent book purchase (Colin Hart's excellent plume moth book), as this mornings back garden MV 'haul' comprised a Spring Usher and a plume moth sp. If I am honest I thought that the plume was Amblyptilia acanthadactyla, and so it proved, rendering using the book to crack a difficult identification redundant, although I did learn a lot about the species by reading the thorough account (including the English name of Beautiful Plume). This morning I also saw an Early Moth, resting on a wall at Banstead Station.

(Macro: 1 Micro: 1)

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Box Hill, Box and Johnny Rotten

This is Box (Buxus sempervirens), a shrub found as a native in this country exceedingly rarely. Given its status it is not surprising that two of the areas where it does grow are named after the plant - Boxley in Kent and Box Hill in Surrey. The latter is where I took these pictures this afternoon. The image above captures a mature shrub's rather messy and open appearance - it is the mass of foilage between the two obvious tree trunks. To the left you can see the flower buds. I found very little in open flower. At Box Hill it is a very common species. At this time of year, together with the other evergreen species of Yew, Holly and Ivy, this part of the North Downs stays very green indeed. If you want to see truly wild box then this is the place to wallow in it! Box Hill has a cultural part to play in the life of Londoners. It towers (OK, to us southerners it appears to tower) above the town of Dorking, some twenty miles south of the heart of the capital. It has been known as a beauty spot for many years and has been a place of picknicking and walking to Victorians, Edwardians, baby-boomers and beyond. I can think of two songs (both written by Londoners) that name-check this iconic hill. 'On Box Hill' was written by Ben Watt (one half of Everything But The Girl) and 'The Flowers of Romance' was recorded by Public Image Limited and written by one John Lydon. In this latter song the punk idol sings "I've got binoculars on top of Box Hill". So have I Johnny, so have I...

To round off this mish-mash of natural history, social documentation and modern music, please accept this image of Spurge-laurel, an early flowering species found in deciduous woodland, and common in valleys to the north of Box Hill. I found plenty of it today, including many plants along a 100m strip of woodland at Juniper Bottom. It's one of my favourites.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Police in Calshot sparrow warning

Hampshire police today released an 'artist's impression' of what they fear the crowd scenes at the village of Calshot may be like if the Spanish Sparrow remains until the weekend. Locals have been warned that a 'vast army of middle-aged men dressed like Ray Mears' might arrive on site. In a totally unrelated incident, 45-year old Ray Dobie from Gosport was arrested for possessing an illegal aviary of exotic birds, including several Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows and several species obtained on a recent Spanish holiday.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Firing blanks

What do you know? After sending the MV out into the garden to reignite the 'Warren Road Back Garden Moth Year List', and being successful with a Spring Usher, the past two nights trapping have produced... bugger all! Both nights have been very mild, mostly cloudy and I have even inspected the trap in the wee small hours dressed but in my jimjams - and not felt even chilly. I'm not being greedy, a Chestnut would have done!

So, how do I break this blank spell? Make a sacrifice to the Moth Gods? Should I just accept that in suburbia at this time of year a blank night is the norm? Change the bulb? Ah, that jogs a memory. I seem to remember reading somewhere that you should change your MV bulb every season as it loses some of its ability to function at 100%. Is that something that the bulb manufacturers invented to ensure that we buy them more frequently? Whatever the truth is, I will replace the bulb tonight that is, admittedly, at least into its third year.

There is no doubt that those MVs operating in woodland at this time of year are the ones that are going to catch higher numbers. One chilly December night I drove from Brighton back to north Surrey and was amazed at the number of moths that the car headlights picked up as I drove through the countryside, particularly well wooded areas. Literally hundreds of them. I put the MV out in the garden as soon as I got home, even though it was quite cold, convinced by my drive home that I would be successful. The next morning the trap was empty.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Ushering in the moth year

The MV went out into the garden last night for its first outing of the year. A hazy cloud cover kept the moon at bay and it was very mild, an overnight low of 7C being suggested. When I inspected the trap it was empty, although sitting on the wall above it, and being the first garden moth of 2012, was this Spring Usher.

I will keep a back garden moth year list for 2012. It will be interesting to compare it to those from 1987-1996 (when I stopped year listing my moths). I'll keep you posted.

(Macro: 1 Micro: 0)

Saturday, 7 January 2012

2012 and the string has started

There comes a time early in the year when the shiny newness of that year starts to become tarnished. The enthusiasm so abundant when you head out into the field, bouyed with the anticipation of great things to come, starts to whither. The belief that 'this is the year to beat all years' evapourates.

Yes folks, North Downs and beyond becomes a tad grumpy on the ludicrously early date of January 7th.

Today began quite well, as I arrived at Beddington Sewage Farm at first light to be greeted by roost-fleeing flocks of Jackdaws, some of them hundreds strong, at rooftop height. The tip and lake had already attracted several thousand gulls. Yesterday no less than three Iceland Gulls were present here (including a Kumlien's) so I thought that it wasn't asking much to be granted views of at least one of them - preferably the more exotic of them. For the first three hours of daylight, scouring the lake-loafing gulls had produced nothing.

I have a reputation at the sewage farm for dipping on birds when I leave the watchpoint to cover other areas of the farm. It is a daft thing to do, as observers are concentrated at the lake and many pairs of eyes make light work of what flies through. Some of the regulars never leave the spot for fear of dipping. In the past year my list of 'birds missed because I abandoned the watchpoint and went 'walkabout' includes Waxwing, Bearded Tit, White-fronted Goose and Bar-tailed Godwit. Today I can add Kumlien's Gull...

Whilst wandering, I went up to the landfill site fence and took this picture of the gulls pestering the refuse vehicles. Now, I don't want to appear stringy, but I reckon that the 234th bird in from the left, partially hidden by the smudgy looking white thing that might be a Herring Gull (or even three Black-headed Gulls blended together) looks a good candidate for the Kumlien's. It was, after all, seen by a few other birders soon afterwards.

Is it too early in the year to start with the dodgy identifications?

Thursday, 5 January 2012

More Garganey

Just in case any of you thought that my digiscoping skills were getting better, may I present another image of the Holmethorpe Garganey that proves that they are not. I suppose that birders in this country rarely get the chance to see first-winter drakes so there is a validity in posting this as an educational tool (if you believe that spin you'll believe anything...) I just hope that if it does stay it doesn't become some horrible hybrid and show us all up as duck dunces.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Ring flash?

A plea to my fellow bloggers and anyone that has randomly come across this post. I want to start using my DSLR for macro photography and am aware that I need to illuminate the subject that is having its picture taken. I have a Canon 450D (the dust is being blown off as I type) and a Canon 60mm dedicated macro lens. Is a ring flash the simplest (and best) solution? Any thoughts would be welcomed...

Monday, 2 January 2012

Garganey and Garlic Mustard

You don't expect to see a Garganey and Garlic Mustard in flower on January 2nd, but that's exactly what went into my notebook at Holmethorpe Sand Pits today. The Garganey (a first-winter drake) has been present for about a month now and furtively lurks on the same pool that provided us with a Ferruginous Duck back in 2010. A very poor picture, taken shortly after dawn, is above.

Botanically it was most odd, with the picture above illustrating the point - a field full of Corn Marigolds still in good flower. Most plants had tens of flowers on them. More surprising was the single Garlic Mustard in flower, a good three months early in my reckoning. Needless to say, there were no Orange-tip butterflies on the wing to make use of this foodplant, although I wouldn't have been totally bemused if one had floated past!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Austerity birding

Welcome to 2012. Welcome to the world of austerity birding...

North Downs and Beyond has gained access to a secret document that has been prepared for the government by DEFRA. In it there are proposals for further expenditure cutbacks and the saving of energy, but it is obvious that there are going to be big implications for birders up and down the country.

Partial ban on twitching. To conserve fuel, car journeys of over fifty miles will be banned. The government have identified twitching as one area where this restriction may be flouted, so a rapid response team will be dispatched to all rare birds where car registration plates will be scrutinised and the offenders taken away and put on a 'local patch watching' course. To discourage repeat offenders, the confiscation of life-lists is being considered.

Selling of off-shore islands. The government are in talks with 'interested parties' to sell all of the UK's off-shore islands (The Isles of Scilly is rumoured to be in the final stages of completion with China and even Sheppey has been subject to a bid from a Russian oil-baron). If these sales do go through then birds seen on these islands in the past will have to be removed from the British list. To help birders get back species that they may lose, there is a proposal to sell off unwanted species from lapsed birders lists. It has been suggested that a mainland Black-and -White Warbler could be sold for as much as £750. The government would take a 30% cut from all sales. Companies like e-bay will be monitored to stop re-sales by profiteering naturalists.

Species lumping. Most worrying is the suggestion that vast sums of money can be saved by lumping species so that the need to conserve the rare ones becomes redundant. 'Warbler', 'Raptor' and 'Birds found by water and reeds' are just some of the suggested new species names.

European exchange. To foster relations within the EU, shooting parties from the southern european countries are to be invited to spend the spring and autumn at specially selected headlands. This will enable the shooters to finally kill those birds that 'got away' earlier in the year and also boost the economies of seaside towns the length and breadth of Britain. 'A shot in the Turtle Dove and a shot in the arm of our dying bead and breakfasts' is how the report puts it.