Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Who finds the bird?

One of the perks of birding/watching is coming across a rare species. It is, by definition, a rare event. You can never predict it. You can help narrow down the chances of it happening to you by picking your birding arena carefully, and targeting the spring and autumn during helpful weather conditions. But even then you are not guaranteed anything.

I'm not one of those birders who has regularly found rarities. When I was particularly active in the late 70s and 1980s I reckoned on getting between one-three mentions in the BB rarities round-up (and 90% of these would have been 'commoner' rarities). Since then my appearance in that publication has been as regular as Lord Lucan's (before anybody points it out, I am aware that you actually need to go out birding to find something in the first place).

I was always interested in the type of birder who got the goodies - they were not always the ones that you would expect. It would be a fair assumption to make that a highly knowledgable ornithologist who spent a great deal of time in the field would score highly in 'finding rarities', but this is not always the case. I've known some exceptional birders who are just plain unlucky. They have put the time in, they know the score, but just happen to not be in the right place at the right time.

When I used to hang around observatories and reserves (in unhealthy amounts of time) I was struck by how little, proportionately, the staff actually found compared to irregular day trippers. Why was that? Did the resident observers walk around with complacency as a companion whilst the day-trippers were fresh and alert? Did the latter also look in places that the regulars shunned? I've seen this happen quite a few times where 'that rubbish gulley' or the 'crappy scrub' that never provided birds (and was subsequently shunned) played host to a rarity found by a birder who was unaware that that particular place was meant to be rubbish for birds.

I've known fairly average birders, whose appearance in the field might be best described as erratic, find a ridiculously high number of good birds for the effort expended. Maybe this sort of birder has exceptional eyesight or an almost supernatural ability to home in on rarity.

Most of the good birds that have come my way have actually come and found me. They have jumped out on a path as I've been ambling along; called overhead to get my attention; sang their presence from deep in a bush. Rarely have I gone out specifically on the hunt and come back rewarded.

But, I still maintain that time out in the field is the real 'must have' ingredient if you want to 'find your own'. It doesn't matter where you bird (rarity is relative). As long as you keep alert and put the time in you will be rewarded. And one last thing you will need - a big dollop of luck.

Monday, 27 February 2012

The false split

Stewart Sexton's recent rant on the practice of splitting moths into micros and macros has got me thinking (not a bad thing, I know). Splitting them is something that I am guilty of. Stewart is quite right in pointing out that there is no sense behind doing so - they are all moths! It is comparable to splitting a list of birds into passerines and non-passerines.In fact, if we are to be pedantic, a pure list of lepidoptera includes butterflies in the order, being placed between micro moths and macro moths in the systematic list (with a few macro moths appearing before the micros to prove what a debacle the micro/macro split really is).

From my own experience, this division really started when I first took an interest in moths. Apart from The Observer's Book of Moths, the first identification guides I possessed were the two volumes of South's which I obtained in 1981. There were no micros illustrated. Therefore I was not in the best position to tackle them, so ignored them.There was a companion volume for pyralids and plume moths, but I kept away from it.

When Bernard Skinner gave the world his ground breaking book in the mid-1980s a whole new generation of moth-ers were born. Again, no micros were dealt with and this meant that all of the recent converts did not have micros on their radar.

My thoughts are that, if you came into moths from birding in the 1980s (and a lot of us did) you are more likely to have the micro/macro divide. Later converts have been blessed with far more micro literature, plus, more importantly, the internet as a resource. Therefore the chances are that they did not come equiped with 'micro-blinkers' - hence no perceived divide.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Reigate Heath

The top of Reigate Heath. In the distance is the North Downs. Beyond the gorse in the foreground is a slope that is full of Climbing Corydalis and I was surprised to find some flowering this morning. I collected some moss from the sandy heathland and will try to ID them at my leisure. About half-a-mile from this spot is the cricket/football pitch that boasts a fine flora in the summer months (including Annual Knawel). Today, 22 footballers and a referee where running all over them - maybe this is exactly what the plants need, roughing up and disturbance, and they certainly seem to like it. Maybe Plantlife could budget for putting on a game of football at a few of their reserves to help certain threatened species. A beautiful day, apart from what went on at the Emirates stadium...

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Micro flush

The MV sprang into micro life last night with four micro species (pictured) being recorded. They are, from the top, Argonopterix heracliana, Acleris ferrugana/notana, Ypsolopha ustella and  Tortricodes alternella. Also present was a single Chestnut and two Hebrew Characters.

It was great wandering around the trap in a t-shirt, chasing little-flying-things instead of looking at empty, cold air. Spring really seems to have arrived, but I've been here before. We could be knee-deep in snow within a fortnight...

If there are any visitors to this blog who are thinking of getting involved in recording moths then I can recommend visiting any of the county moth groups web sites that have been set up to help them on their way. Many of them exhibit a 'what's flying tonight' page that lists species that are likely to be seen at that given time. I've found the Hants Moths site really useful in that respect for micros. It saves an awful lot of time if you can review the likely candidates for the moth that is sitting in the pot that is set before you.

(Macro: 3 Micro: 5)

Friday, 24 February 2012

Dude moth ticking

The MV trap didn't produce the egg-cartons full that I hoped for, but never the less, three species were recorded, including an out-and-out lifer. Before you start wondering if I've jammed in on a Levant Blackneck, let me remind you that I'm looking at micros this year, and there are many, many common species that I've yet to record - so that is why Agonopterix heracliana is new. Also last night were Tortricodes alternella and Hebrew Character.

(Macro: 2 Micro: 3)

Thursday, 23 February 2012

More potpourri

Sarah Raven's excellent TV series, 'Bees, butterflies and blooms' finished last night with her attempts to turn Birmingham into a city that boasted wildflower meadows within its concrete heart. She and the Brummie councellors succeded to a point. The cameras also visited Leeds and Liverpool where some simply stunning transformations had taken place. Sterile grass banks and prim and proper flower beds had been turned into billowing masses of Corn Marigolds, Cornflowers, vervains and a host of other flowers that encourage pollinating insects to subsequently proliferate. The series has made me think about how we treat our modest garden here in Banstead. We are on chalk and the opportunities are many to encourage the sort of plant species that insects love. I posted about a similar scheme in Cheam Park last June (click here). I'm looking forward to donning the gardening gloves, searching out the trowel and attacking our chalky soil in the very near future. I'll keep you posted.

I have decided to give mosses a proper go. They have been calling to me and I can no longer ignore the calls. Plus points: there are loads of them and no doubt some pan-species action in the garden. Minus points: they're hard to identify.

Tonight is going to get no lower than 10 degrees C (according to the nice man from the met office). The moth trap is switched on. I've already been out and checked it twice. It isn't even properly dark yet. If I don't get at least a Pale Brindled Beauty tonight I'm going to cry...

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Odds and ends, bits and pieces, this and that

This post is nothing but a round-up of the bits and pieces that are currently in orbit within my head at the moment. So expect the cerebral equivalent of 'carpet sweepings'...

Micro-moth field guide. The latest issue of British Wildlife lets slip that 'The Field Guide to the Micro-moths of Great Britain and Ireland' is coming soon! No publication date as yet, but the wording suggests that it will be soon. The team behind it includes Phil Sterling, Mark Parsons and Richard Lewington. Can't wait!

Pan-species. At the start of the year I swore that I would leave mosses alone. I've been out in the field a few times and have come across luxurious banks of mosses that look so, so inviting. I'm weakening. I actually want to start on them in earnest. I've got the field guide. I've got a hand lens. I've got small plastic bages to collect them in. Watch this space.

Other blogs. I'm going through a bout of blog envy at the moment. It seems to me that most other blogs are better written, have more originality, seem to have cultivated larger and loyal followings, post superior photography and are leaving me standing in the corner with my bottom lip quivering. However, I now realise that even if nobody else glimpsed at my efforts the mere process of getting stuff written and out there is a good process to go through. Keeps the mind working. Acts as a way of sharing with others, beit information or thoughts. I feel as though some of my best friends are other bloggers and I've not even met them! How sad is that!

Listing. After 38 years of keeping lists I have only just realised that I am an avid keeper of lists but a poor chaser of them. This lack of chasing is down to the fact that I cannot possibly compete with those that are full-blown chasers. I'd like to suggest that whereas I am evenly balanced, they are socially inept - but as some of them are big buggers and know where I live I won't share that thought with you.

Blockers. I shared some of my good bird blockers with you a few posts ago. I've just thought of another - the Devonian Hudsonian Godwit of 1981.

Poor digiscoping. This is the Kumlien's Gull from Beddington SF that I saw on Saturday. It's been blown up and sharpened to within an inch of it's life. You will find better on several hundred other blogs. Why have I posted it? Absolutely no idea.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Kumlien's Gull

I thought it about time that I went along to Beddington SF to join in the 'white-winger' festival that is currently on tour there. Yesterday there were 5 Iceland Gulls (including a Kumlien's) plus a Glaucous Gull, making this England's hot-spot for such beauties. If you want a feather-by-feather account of them, visit Johnny Allan's blog. Today we managed to locate three Iceland Gulls, including the Kumlien's. Numbers of gulls at Beddington are boosted by the operations taking place on the refuse tip - Monday to Friday being good for numbers, Saturday not so good because the tip only operates for half a day, and Sunday normally poor as it is shut. Today's haul was, therefore, commendable. By the hide is a feeder set up for the Tree Sparrows. This Water Rail has taken a liking to the spilt seed beneath it.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Back to the birding womb

The time-line of my birding life is rather interesting (well it is to me, anyhow). It goes like this:

Local park - local sewage farm - day trips to the coast - observatory regular - twitcher - observatory regular - day trips to the coast - local sewage farm - local farm.

What seems to have happened is that my progression from novice to the heady heights of fairly knowledgable twitcher has regressed back down the ladder to where I started. I might not have reverted to novice, but I'm the first to admit that I'm not as good a birder as I was 'back in the day'. And do you know what? It doesn't bother me too much. That former birding prowess has been watered down by my other natural history interests taking up my time and space in my ever shrinking brain. What now appeals to me is very simple - it's almost like going back to the start, when an illustration of a Green Woodpecker or a Jay in a fieldguide would get my ornithological juices flowing. I'm quite grateful that this has happened. I am appreciating birds for being birds rather than for their perceived status. To wander around in blissful indifference to what someone might be watching down the road is liberating. It's not doing my blood pressure any harm either.

I might start to write 'Zen and the art of ornithological maintenance'...

Saturday, 11 February 2012

The snowfields of Banstead

My perverse approach to birding surfaced once again as I elected to turn my back on multiple Iceland Gulls at Beddington and also treat the Holmethorpe Smew in similar fashion. Instead, I spent most of the day at my other local birding patch, Canons Farm/Banstead Woods.

The thermometer in my back garden was registering -8.8C at 07.00hrs. Instead of driving on the icy roads I walked to the farm, which only takes 25 minutes. Once on site I immersed myself in the task of counting everything that I came across. This is the sort of simplistic ornithology that I enjoy, meandering about fields and woods with a notebook in hand, counting the mainly common ensemble set before me. There were highlights: the two noisy Crossbills flew low to the east; a Woodcock was noisily flushed from underneath a Yew tree; a loose flock of 25 Great Tits that fed on the ground underneath beech trees just like Chaffinches; the vibrance of colour in the reflected light and the fact that the birds seemed to be celebrating the calm day with a surprising amount of song and display.

There were few winter thrushes here although suburban gardens not far away were still harbouring hundreds of Redwings and Fieldfares. They say that in London you are never more than six feet from a rat (or is it six metres?). Well, the same can be said for Surrey and dog walkers. Even in the middle of Banstead Woods, well off the footpaths, dogs would come frollicking up to me dragging its owner along in its wake. Before I'm accused of being 'doggist' I must point out that I am myself owned by a Cocker Spaniel...

Friday, 10 February 2012

Still blocking after all these years

Picture the scene, Old Father Time Steve is sitting in front of a public house's roaring fire, a battered copy of British Birds at his feet, a foaming glass of beer in his hand and a young, eager twitcher at his side...

Young twitcher: What did you do in the war when you went twitching Steve?

Steve: (Chortles) Oh we didn't have pagers and mobile phones then you know...

YT: (looks up in the air and tutts) Cut out all of that 'we had it bad' guff and tell me about the birds

S: Yes, well, er, most of them are commoner now you know. When I went to see an Alpine Swift at Fairburn Ings in 1979 it was an unblocker! Even the 'big boys' hadn't seen one. People still ran for Pallas's Warblers!

YT: (looking interested) Tell me about the blockers

S: (Glassy-eyed, staring into the distance with a smile) Ah, the blockers. I'm glad you asked me that. There are some of the old twitches that still have value now, that can get most birders all agitated and needy. Take the Cornwall Varied Thrush for instance...

YT: (visual gasp)

S: Yes, that was in 1982. Unblocked now for THIRTY YEARS

YT: Any others?

S: Oh yes (warming up to the theme). The year before I was on Scilly, when an Orphean Warbler took up residence. Nice bird that was... unblocked now for THIRTY ONE YEARS.

YT: Is there more?

S: Oh yes, the best. The best till last. Have I ever told you about the Wallcreepers?

YT: No! Did you use the plural there?

S: Oh yes (looking smug). After seeing one at Hastings in 1977 I went to a quarry in Cheddar and saw the wintering bird in 1978. Unblocked now for THIRTY FOUR YEARS

Older man standing at the bar: That's nothing. I was wandering down a country lane in Suffolk in 1962 when a Houbara Bustard ambled past. Unblocked now for FIFTY YEARS...

S: (crestfallen) oh...

YT: (ignoring Steve and speaking to old man) Can I buy you a pint?

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Munro bagger for a day

A munro is the name given to a Scottish mountain whose peak reaches 3,000 feet or more. There are 283 in total.  Yesterday I had a grand plan - to climb all of them. To become a munro bagger and a munroist. This would combine my love of mountain flora and spectacular scenery. It would keep me fit. It would add adventure to my otherwise safe life. This morning I decided to look at this challenge in a bit more detail and started to consider the task a shoe-in, a done deal, not a problem at all. Then I came across this on Wikipedia:

"The usual ascent of the Inaccessible Pinnacle itself is by its long east ridge, a climb of 50 metres vertically involving two roped 30m pitches. Although graded Moderate (the lowest grade now in use in the British grading system), with good holds, the ridge is narrow and exceptionally exposed. This route was described by an early climber as "a knife-edged ridge, with an overhanging and infinite drop on one side, and a drop on the other side even steeper and longer". Some climbers prefer to tackle the much shorter west ridge (20 m), graded Very Difficult. It is usual to descend from the summit of the Pinnacle by abseiling off the west end, and a permanent anchor is sited on the summit for this purpose."

The Inaccessible Peak is a munro. Even the name sounds scary. I have seen a picture of it - it is scary! For someone who cannot go higher than a single storey on a ladder, it is the stuff of Room 101.

Today I have abandoned my plan to conquer all 283 Munros. I might manage 282 of them...

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Of flowers and Ravens

I have just spent a most enjoyable and informative hour watching 'Bees, Butterflies and Blooms' on BBC2, presented by Sarah Raven. The aim of the programme (and series) was/is to highlight the plight of Britain's wild flowers - not only the fact that their decline is one that is an aesthetic loss to us, but more importantly the worry that our insect population are in freefall and that this in turn reduces the number of pollinators of many of our important crops.

It was a joy to see flower-filled meadows and actually have a botanist, on prime-time television, showing off the delights that such places harbour. I was immediately reminded to plug Sarah's latest book (pictured left). You could at first mistake it as nothing but a coffee-table book, but you would be wrong. Inside you will find stunning photography, particularly the habitat spread shots that will leave you looking deep into them for several minutes before being enticed away to read the individual species accounts, that are packed with useful information and personal observation. Sarah comes from botanical stock. Her father, John, was a well-known botanist who was co-author of one of my favourite botanical books, the New Naturalist volume 'Mountain Flowers'.

There is a lot that we can all do to help the plight of wild flowers and the insects that rely on them, and that is what this series is all about. No doubt tonights programme will be on 'catch-up' but if you don't have one of those new-fangled boxes plugged into your television set, then make sure that you watch next week's offering. If you are interested in wildlife then you really ought to...

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Winter Heliotrope

Nothing gladdens the heart on a winters day more than a bank of flowering Winter Heliotrope (OK, I can think of several things that do, but for grammatic effect I will choose to ignore them). These plants were cascading over a bank of dumped topsoil close to Reigate Hill. Flowering was not in profusion, but plenty of the tassel-like flower heads were present. This species is naturalised in Britain and can often be found on roadsides, the large rounded leaves giving the plant away long before the flowers do.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Dream time

I regularly have this dream. I am at a bird observatory. Sometimes it is Dungeness and at other times it is Portland. If it is Dungeness, the observatory building is in an old house that has many levels to it and is quite well furnished. The habitat immediately outside the building is as Dungeness actually is, but the further I walk away from the sea it becomes luxurious woodland with grassy glades. If my dream is at Portland then the observatory building is a much smaller affair than it really is and it is situated on a massive cliff headland, not dissimilar to Gibraltar (the British protectorate, not the observatory in Lincolnshire). The fields are disected by deep rutted tracks. Most of the time I am just about to start my holiday at whichever observatory the dream is featuring, or just about to depart from it. Quite often I have forgotten my optics. There is never, ever, any birding involved. When I wake up I long to return to the observatory dream, maybe I have this longing because I spent so much happy time in my youth in such places.

My other natural history related dreams are few and far between. The most vivid of those few that do occur feature magnificent wild flowers that resemble nothing to be found in any field guide. Another dream featured an MV full of stunning moths, none of which I had seen before.

I can wake from these dreams with a feeling of disappointment that it wasn't real and these stunning species that I had been looking at are but figments of my imagination. Maybe, in a parallel universe they do actually exist, and it is also there that I dream of sombre brown moths and insignificant dandelions...