Saturday, 31 March 2012

Koch's Gentian and Toothwort

A proper North Downs wander this morning, between Colley Hill and Buckland.The unseasonal warmth of the past ten days had given way to what we would expect from late March. There was little insect activity over the cropped turf which, although to be expected, was never the less disappointing.

Back in the mid twentieth century someone decided to plant an exotic gentian on the downs close to Buckland. When I first stumbled across it in the late 1990s I was unaware that it existed, but research soon revealed that it was already known about and had been identified as Trumpet Gentian (Gentiana clusii). The latest edition of the botanical bible known as 'Stace' has revealed that this species has been re-identified as Koch's Gentian (Gentiana acaulis). It grows in three close spots, two of which I looked at today. Flowers are starting to unfurl (see picture above on the left). Over the years quite a few botanists have visited and paid their respects, even if their notebooks have had to be altered after the event.

Also today I found, in the usual place by the western steps descending Colley Hill, at least 100 spikes of Toothwort, a parasitic plant. A fine specimen can be seen to the right in the picture above.

Three singing Chiffchaffs gave the proceedings a hint of spring, but I would have needed to be at Portland Bill rather than the north downs to feel immersed in a deluge of spring migrants. It appears that they have witnessed quite an amazing arrival this morning.

Friday, 30 March 2012


I like lists. No, I’ll rephrase that, I love lists. Lots of them reside in my notebooks, on my computer hard disks, inked onto printed pages. Most of them are bird-centric, such as life lists (for the World and every country that I’ve visited), county lists, lists for each month, record counts for each species, earliest and latest dates for migrants. I could go on – OK, I will – patch lists, birds seen in the hand, birds seen dead, birds seen copulating, birds seen defecating (the last two kept when I was a very strange teenager), birds seen on TV – I’ll stop now. I’ve yet to mention my lists for plants, moths, dragonflies, fungi... and, of course,  the ultimate list of lists, the pan-species list.

If you are shaking your head in pity at such juvenile behaviour, I understand. But there is one aspect of my listing that other listers just don’t understand. I don’t chase my lists. I am a compiler of them, a keeper and maintainer of them but I do not enjoy having to drop everything and chase after additions to them.

This week a Bittern turned up on one of my patches, Beddington Sewage Farm. It was the first one recorded there since 1966. I was at work when the first alert was put out. If I were a true lister I would have feigned a sudden illness and rushed over – I could have got there in half an hour. When I finished my working day I weighed up the situation. The bird was still there. I had a fifteen minute walk to my car and then would have to drive through rush hour traffic to arrive on site, sans optics and not dressed to bird. Even half a lister would have gone. I didn’t. I went home and sat in the garden with the family having an evening drink. Did I think about the Bittern during this time? Yes, I did a bit. Was I annoyed with myself for not going? Not at all.

Do you know what honestly meant more to me this week than seeing a local Bittern? It was recording three species of butterfly for the first time in March. (I have an earliest date list for butterfly species, plus a monthly one). They were, if you are interested, Orange-tip, Holly Blue and Speckled Wood. I wouldn’t swap one of them for the Bittern.

I know a lot of people who won’t understand that. But that is what makes me a keeper of lists and not a chaser of them. Sometimes I wonder if the turning of my back on such events as the Bittern is not some perverse demonstration against running with the crowd or behaving like an ornithological sheep.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Moths that won't keep still... this Tawny Pinion. I gave up in the end as it would only settle when it was cosy in a pot. I don't like to hold on to a moth for too long, so I accepted that the photo would include vibrating wings. However, the neatness of the thoracic crest is still obvious. This is only the eighth to be trapped in the garden in over 25 years.

This week I have been spending my lunchtimes walking the suburbia of the north Surrey sprawl trying to find a Holly Blue. I've not seen one in March before and what with the weather being perfect for early butterflies at the moment didn't want to miss my chance. Today the time spent peering into front gardens paid off as one of the little beauties fluttered down the middle of a road and made my day.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Red Kites a go-go

They are commoner than Kestrels at the moment. At 15.40 a Red Kite flew onto the garden list here in Banstead. I even had time to rouse the family to enjoy it as it circled above the house and then drifted westwards. David Campbell was watching another at about the same time over at Canons Farm (maybe a mile and a half away as the kite flies), and a further two went through at Beddington. Whether or not these are genuine continental migrants or wanderers from the re-introduction programmes doesn't really matter - they are stunning to watch.

Garden MV update: only Brindled Pug added to the year list over the past two nights.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Mr Blue Sky

It was one of those 'good to be alive' days, with unbroken sunshine, unseasonable warmth and more butterflies than I can remember for so early in the year. I was at Beddington SF during the morning - early afternoon and recorded the following: Small Tortoiseshell (26), Small White (7), Peacock (8), Brimstone (2), Red Admiral (1), Comma (1), Orange-tip (1) and Speckled Wood (1). The latter two species were my earliest ever. Birds didn't miss out on the celebration as a Red Kite flew north-westwards and the wintering Cetti's Warbler was in good voice. It's hard to think that we will most probably have a few more wintery days to come before we can safely put away the gloves and turn off the central heating.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Early Thorn

Both Early Thorn (above) and Twin-spotted Quaker were new species for the year this morning, courtesy of the back garden MV. The former species seems to me a bit too frail for a moth that is on the wing so early in the year. The current chilly nights are, regardless of the temperature, producing enough moths to make it all worth while, although I can recall blank traps in early May. I'm not going to get carried away yet!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Sexton's Hollow and Oak Beauty

At the base of the North Downs close to Ranmore Common is a small depression that has a magical feel to it. This place has a reason for being there, is hidden from most walkers and is a lost world. In summer it most probably has Bee-eaters feasting on rare insects above it; special plants such as Ground Pine growing on the disturbed chalk within it (possibly); and without doubt harbours plenty of moths to get the lepidopterists pulse to quicken (including the extinct Feathered Ear and Orange Upperwing). It has no name - until now. As the winner of the North Downs and Beyond quiz, this sacred place will forever be known as Sexton's Hollow. When I next visit I will take some pictures and fill you in on its history (and natural history).

This morning moth trap was enlivened by two Oak Beauties, species number 19 for the year. Almost as ubiquitous as a photograph on natural history blogs as Wheatears!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Win a...something or other

There are eight species shown across the top of this blog. Be the first to name them and I will award the winner a prize (and not the ficticious Giant Bag of Chocolate Buttons that a Devonian blogger offers). What that prize is, I'm not quite sure yet, but it will be something that will not be worth getting too excited about.

Pale Mottled Willow the other night at the MV brings the back garden year list up to 18 species. Not that impressive...

Friday, 16 March 2012

The naming of parts

Why do we have a compulsion to want to name all that is observable?  Is it because, once we have given something a label, we therefore imagine some sort of ownership of it? Do we also imagine that we have, at the same time, tamed it?

I would like to be able to observe the wildlife that I come across without the need to know exactly what it is. Why can I not be satisfied with watching the tumbling display and haunting calls of a particular bird, and appreciate it for being just that without needing to know  that it is a Lapwing? As much as I can wallow in the stygian gloom of a damp woodland dell, my day is sullied by my inability to identify the mosses that are present within it.

This ‘naming of parts’ is a recent human phenomenon. It is only in the past 350 years (give or take a few) that we, as a species, have got involved in cataloguing what is also sharing the planet with us, purely out of curiosity and the wish for knowledge. There were of course names for certain organisms before this, but they were given out of necessity, to be able to identify those of use (either for food, medicine or artistic purposes) or to be safe in knowing which were harmful.

I think that the unquestioning identification of ‘life’ is a modern ill. Psychologists suggest that we assume superiority over what is being named. ‘Man’ used to believe that ‘he’ belonged to the land – we now think that land belongs to us along with the life forms on it. I still carry on trying to name what is before me. I enjoy doing so. But I do stand back from that and wonder whether or not it removes me from a more pure form of appreciation of it.

Please let me give an example of what I'm on about. A few years ago I went to Malaysia and spent three weeks in the rain forest. I was birding and focused on that and that alone. My knowledge of other life forms in that habitat was poor. During this time I came across many butterflies, maybe as many as a couple of hundred species. I couldn't name one of them. Instead of being frustrated by this I was liberated. When I came across a crowd of them feeding at a puddle or underneath a fruiting tree, instead of trying to identify the many species present I was able to just watch them for what they were - beautiful insects. I still treasure these moments as among the most vivid in my natural history experiences. Tellingly, not one of those species that were a part of these experiences was named.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Epiphyas postvittana...

... is finally on the garden moth year list taking me up to 17 species.

It's been a strange week. With spring yelling out at me with sunshine, bees, flowers, butterflies and warmth, I'm feeling decidedly underwhelmed. Content, yes. Enjoying it all, yes. But still slightly detatched from it all. I'll never understand myself, so what chance has anybody else of doing so...

Sunday, 11 March 2012


The past few nights has seen a little bit of back garden MV action. Additions for the year have been:

2nd March - Common Quaker
9th March - Diurnea fagella, Double-striped Pug, Small Quaker
10th March - Clouded Drab (above)

Today saw one of my year highlights - the first butterfly. The 2012 award goes to a Brimstone, that was twice seen flitting through the front garden between 12.30 - 13.00hrs.

2012 back garden moth total limps to 16 species

Friday, 9 March 2012

No data = data

I think it was Bill Oddie who advocated the practice of wringing birding mileage out of 'nothing'. The example he used (if it were indeed he) was the art of turning a perceived lack of data into bird report entries, such as 'No breeding Stonechats at Empty Common this year', or 'observer reports no spring passage of Whinchat at Boring Reservoir' and 'No Wood Sandpipers at Smelly Sewage Farm for the first time since 1957'.

So, in light of nothing to talk about, let me present my very own post about - lack of data.

So far this year I have not recorded a single Light Brown Apple Moth (Epiphyas postvittana). This is highly unusual in that over the past few years it has become one of my commoner winter moths. Am I facing a local extinction or a plummet in the local population? Has this lack of presence been noticed elsewhere?

No data = data. As the Americans would say (and also our increasingly brainwashed youth), go figure...

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Welcome to the bogdump

Beddington Sewage Farm has been given the nickname of 'The Bogdump' by some of the members of 'The Beddington Farm Bird Group'. You could take the name as a term of endearment, or accept it as a bittersweet acceptance as to what the area has become. Either way, it is a fairly accurate description of the place.

Historically, to birdwatch on the sewage farm you needed a permit. Once granted (and it was freely done so), you were sent a piece of paper that gave the bearer permission to birdwatch on the premises. I had such a permit from 1974, and was never asked to provide this proof. This was a time when the area was not fenced off from the public, there existed a public right of way that bisected the farm and operations from the sewage works were low-key. It is also a sign of the times that, even though there were areas of sludge into which a whole gang of urchins could disappear, the health and safety police were not around to warn them of such perils.

Since 1990-1991, the whole area has become off-limits. A high fence stops entry, mainly to save the innocent wanderer from becoming victim to heavy plant machinery, industrial debris, steep refuse strewn banks, deep water and effluent, and  - if some people are to be believed - a mutant strain of birder that is capable of eating others. You see, with such big business as landfill and waste disposal, the allowance of the public on site is either forbidden or closely regulated. So, in an act of kindness from big business, some birders were allowed entry behind the fence by means of a magical key. At the time of the magic keys creation, those birders active in the area drew up a list of 'worthies' and the keys handed out. I was not a regular at the time and didn't get one. Was I bitter? If I'm honest, a little bit. Having been one of the few regulars throughout the previous 15 years I though I warranted at least an invitation to join in. Where is all this leading?

There has recently been a suggestion - an accusation even - that the present day key holders might be elitist and inclusive. That those who are allowed into what is arguably one of London's and Surrey's top birding sites have an 'I'm alright Jack' attitude to those who are left pressing their noses up against the chain-link fence. I can understand why this might appear to be the case.

Having been on the outside looking in, it is easy to assume that you are not considered 'worthy' enough and that those on the inside confer superiority on themselves. I can vouch for most of the current key holders in that they are sociable individuals and more than a few of them go out of their way to distribute information from the sewage farm (and beyond). Guided tours are regularly arranged. If a rare bird arrives access is sought with the permission of the site managers.

You can birdwatch over parts of the farm without a key. The south lake, currently being used by several Iceland Gulls, is viewable from a public footpath. The resident Tree Sparrows are also easily seen. More than a few of the current keyholders were once those who began 'outside looking in'. If anybody really wants a key than they can apply to the group to go onto a waiting list, as the group actively seeks out keys to be returned if the holder is not using them.

But a word of warning. Once you are inside the fence, it is not necessarily a pleasant birdwatching experience. A lot of the farm is off limits. It smells. Apart from high summer you will be knee-deep in mud. Big machinery rolls across the land. Rubbish abounds. The ground is an undulating assault couse.

So, if you really want it, welcome to the bog dump!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Bowing to pressure

I didn't post last night because I was out having a drink in 'that there London', pretending to be a normal person who doesn't trap moths in his garden with a bright light; who also doesn't hang around with middle-aged men at a sewage farm; and neither do I prise bits of moss out of the ground and place them in a plastic bag; or even look at the reproductive organs of flowers through a hand lens...

So, two night ago the MV did quite well, with Tortricodes alternella (8), Amblyptilia acanthadactyla (2), Emmelina monodactyla* (3), March Moth* (2), Dotted Border* (1, pictured above), Hebrew Character (1). Those marked with an * were year ticks. I have also bent to severe pressure from someone who lives in the north-east to drop the micro/macro split, so, the back garden moth year list moves on to

11 species (all moths, no difference)

PS, note to Mr Sexton. Where do you stand on the italicization of Latin names?