Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Another one bites the dust

In my brief, but glorious career as a twitcher, I saw a number of highly desirable species that had become blockers. For those who do not know what a blocker is, it is a bird whose rarity has not been diminished by turning up again enabling other birders to see it.

I used to have a good list of blockers. They are slowly dwindling in number...

The Semipalmated Plover in Devon was an UNBLOCKER

The Belted Kingfisher of a few Aprils ago was an UNBLOCKER

And now, the cherished Orphean Warbler that I watched on St. Marys in 1981 has been UNBLOCKED.

Just keep away from my Wallcreepers, Varied Thrush, Hudsonian Godwit, Little Whimbrel, Golden-winged Warbler... I need them as currency for bragging rights!

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The can of worms is opened

It has become abundantly clear that if I want to become more proficient - no, just plain proficient - with the identification of insects, I need help. Lepidoptera, Odonata and a few select groups are already well catered for with expansive field guides, so these are not really the problem. I'm more concerned with all the other stuff! Also, I'm under no illusion as to the long journey ahead of me. I've set myself a target of getting to the point where I can look at most insects and have a fair idea as to what order it belongs to and maybe even what genus. As to how easy it will be to reach this state of proficiency, time will tell. At the moment I couldn't look at a beetle and say with any confidence as to whether or not it is a jewel, rove, ground, leaf - you get the picture. The same is true with bugs, flies, bees (and so on, and so on..)

My plan of action is to go right back to basics. With this in mind I have ordered the Royal Entomological Societies 'British Insects' book that promises an overview of ALL 558 families found in the UK. I've had a peek at the dragonfly section (which you can do by clicking here) and if all the others are like this it will give me a good grounding in what all 558 are about. It may not initially help in identifying an insect down to species, but that is not what I'm after. Just an idea of what type of insect is before me will do. Keys can come later - maybe much later.

Heyshott was certainly a catalyst for action. I've ordered a pooter, a pond-dipping net, one of those plunger tubes that you examine bees in - is there any end to all of this?

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Meet the Duke

The bare facts are these: yesterday's pan-species meeting at Heyshott Down supplied me with 29 lifers: 14 Mosses and Liverworts, 7 Beetles, 4 Spiders, and single Butterfly, Snail, Treehopper and Hoverfly. But the numbers were really incidental. I could have had many more. If I had written down the latin names that I was bombarded with correctly, I would have understood more fully what was in my notebook. If I had run from group to group like a mad man, then I could have eavesdropped on what identifications were being made. In the end I decided that it was a little bit uncouth and pointless to come back home with a great long list of names that meant nothing to me beyond being another tick in a book. What I can do with my 29 additional species is remember them (or at least try) and absorb them.

My favourite moments? My failure to see Duke of Burgundy was ended, as at least eight of the little beauties flitted around us on and off throughout the meeting (see image above). I was also rather taken by the manner in which one of the other species was added. We had come across some Ramsons growing along the edge of a steep, dark, woodland path. Somebody mentioned that there was a hoverfly that could be found on this plant. Within seconds a sweep with nets provided a hoverfly. Was it our quarry? In lieu of anybody having the hoverfly guide with them, a smart phone went online and we matched the image up with our specimen. Ticks (almost) all round!

This awareness of insect/plant association was put to good use when we came across some Deadly Nightshade and it was suggested that if we looked we may find the flea beetle associated with it - and we did!

So, what did I take from this meeting of some of the keenest minds involved in recording natural history in the UK? Well, although my level of ability in many groups was well below the average of those gathered, rather than feel defeated by it I feel inspired to try and improve. I know it will not necesaarily be easy, but having seen pan-listers in action it's funny what you can glean as to how to go about your own recording. Books that have long remained dormant on my bookshelf (Stubbs Hoverflies for one), will be getting a long overdue dusting down.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Pan's people

What is the collective term of a group of pan-listers? A ticking? A frenzy? I hoped to find out when I joined the second and final day of the inaugral pan-lister's meeting at Heyshott Down in West Sussex. The event was organised by Graeme Lyons, to whom many thanks are due. Attendance was healthy, with some travelling from as far as Leicestershire and Merseyside. Both days had unbroken blue skies, were hot and today was also characterised by a stiff easterly breeze - this made photography difficult - the combination of glare and shake making for not altogether ideal conditions for obtaining decent images.

I was gladdened by the all-inclusive feel of the group. There were many experts within it, but nobody was anything other than modest, helpful and friendly. We had a good laugh which always makes a fine day in the field even better. Faces were put to names and I can safely predict that this will not be the last such gathering. Oh, what have you given birth to Mr Telfer?

I came home with a notebook full of latin that I need to decipher. What did we see? You'll have to wait until I can fathom that one out for myself. The post is in the post...

Friday, 25 May 2012

They've arrived!

Two new publications that have just been added to the North Downs and beyond library were not only eagerly anticipated but will both, without doubt, aid identification of their species greatly.

Collins Fungi Guide and British Wildlife's Micro Moths of Great Britain and Ireland are going to encourage an awful lot more naturalists to take on these 'difficult' groups. Both tackle a vast fauna that have identification challenges within them. Neither publications claim to be the definitive word, and in the case of the micro book clearly state the need to leave certain families of moths alone unless you want to use a microscope and have a penchant for examining their nether regions.

The illustrations in both are superb, the layouts well designed and a joy to browse through. I haven't used either in anger yet, but with the teams behind them they cannot be anything other than 'must have' books.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

In lieu of Bee-eaters

I wish I could tell you about the local flock of Bee-eaters that I found, regale you with tales of how I tracked down rare plants along the North Downs, and amaze you with my new found prowess with all things moss. But none of that came to pass. So, until these things actually come true, please accept my image of a Holly Blue, which sat out a dull spell at Canons Farm yesterday.

So, it's the Europa League (and not the Champions League) for Tottenham... at least the Met Office are promising proper summer weather for later in the week. I ran the garden MV for the first time in weeks last night, but the catch was severely depressed in number. More like February than mid-May.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Pan-lister panic

Rumours were rife this morning that the senior UK pan-species listers are panicking. In what is thought to be a damage limitation exercise, several of them have reportedly been seen killing off all life forms present at several sites in Sussex. A junior pan-lister, who wishes to remain anonymous, said "There is a two-day meeting for all pan-listers planned for the end of May in Sussex. At first it seemed to all like a good idea, but then several of those at the top of the table started to get cold feet. After all, they would be handing hundreds of ticks to their competitors. Also, us near the bottom of the table are all youngsters, and those at the top all old geezers, so we've got time on our side to catch them up. It's only just occurred to the crinklies that they will be shooting themselves in the foot..."

Pan-list supremo Mark "White Prom" Telfer was unavailable for comment, although sources close to the Bedfordshire-based twitcher claim that on a recent hunting expedition field trip into an unidentified southern county he added Indian Elephant to his UK list as a by-product of his natural history cleansing recording. It was also suggested that he was helped by a mysterious man sporting dreadlocks...

Local birder Melvin Dunnet added: "I watch over several parts of the South Downs and have seen small gaggles of men with blow-torches scorching wide areas of downland, chopping down scrub and erecting bird-scarers."

The pan-species two day field trip is expected to go ahead, but as we post we cannot confirm that all those listers under 4,000 are going to be asked to wear bilndfolds.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Pink Purslane

A stroll along the North Downs at Ranmore was interupted when I descended to Abinger, where I wanted to check on a site for a local moth, Balsam Carpet. This latter site is on the Greensand where a silty-bottomed stream meanders through woodland. I failed with the moth (maybe a little early, maybe it's not a good year for them), but did come across this stunning show of a plant that I hadn't seen before - Pink Purslane. It is an introduction, commoner in northern and western Britain apparently than down here in the south. As I made my way back onto the chalk slope I found another fine stand of this same species that I'd totally ignored on my way down. So much for my observational powers...

A little cracker - almost looking like a crane's-bill

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

New wave of nature writing

If you go into any bookshop in the country at the moment, and head for the 'Natural History' section, you will notice a sea-change amongst the books upon the shelves. There is an increasing percentage of these books being taken up by the 'new wave/dawn' of nature writing. The good old fashioned field guides are being elbowed out by the demand for personal observations on nature that are drenched in literary worthiness. Most of this is a good thing. I have recently read 'Fire Season' by Philip Connors and am currently reading 'Edgelands' by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts. They are both part autobiographical, part observational and part educational, but they are not books to help you identify anything in the field, although you could claim that it helps you identify with fellow human beings who see deeper into nature than most people do.

There is also, piggybacking along with this new movement, a sudden mania for reprinting older works of a similar vein. Little Toller Books are reprinting such volumes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of them includes a firm favourite of mine - 'Island Years' by Frank Fraser Darling. Read it and at once be compelled to give up modern living and go and find an offshore rock to warden!

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Iceland Gull in May

A damp, cold and breezy morning at Beddington was typified by this first-summer Iceland Gull that fitted into the wintery ambience admirably. I was fooled into calling this bird a second-winter, but the larophiles present (Mister Allan and Alfrey) pointed out that the all dark eye (not seen in this image) negates such a call. I still live and learn...

Also today were three Ringed Plovers, a Greenshank, a Dunlin, 8 Common Sandpipers, a Hobby, 16 Yellow Wagtails, 12 Wheatears and three Whinchats.

One of the regulars (Dodge) quipped that he was going home to put up the Christmas decorations because, what with the current weather, it felt the right thing to do. On the way home in the car, the news bulletin announced that today was colder than last Christmas day throughout much of the country.

Friday, 4 May 2012

The weather's not all bad

Unless you suffer from SAD, the continuing trend for cool, wet and overcast weather is nothing but a mild irritant. Yes, it can get you down, but before you know it we'll be basking in a period of unbroken sunshine, high temperatures and a call from the government for drought conditions to be declared (oh, hold on a minute, that's already happened...)

So, where are the positives? Well, it's not a bad time to be out birding. The seawatching has been interesting along the south coast, headlands have been receiving falls of migrants and for the inland patch birder things have been very interesting indeed. Take Beddington Sewage Farm for example.

The local birders there have long known that heavy overcast with an easterly component in the wind (preferably ENE) will bring down passing migrants within the birders vision. Because coverage is good (thanks mainly to Johnny Allan and Peter Alfrey), not much gets missed, and over the last seven days the following selective waders have been recorded on site:

Saturday - Turnstone (1), Bar-tailed Godwit (1), Whimbrel (5), Greenshank (1), Grey Plover (1)
Sunday - Redshank (1), Grey Plover (1)
Monday - Ringed Plover (2) This was a bright day
Tuesday - Whimbrel (1)
Wednesday - Ringed Plover (1), Greenshank (1), Dunlin (5)
Thursday - Ringed Plover (3), Bar-tailed Godwit (2), Redshank (1), Greenshank (4), Dunlin (1), Grey Plover (1)
Friday - so far today Whimbrel (1), Redshank (1), Dunlin (1), Grey Plover (2).

Apart from this waderfest there have been Common Terns, a Ring Ouzel, a Whinchat and plenty of Wheatears (25 today), Yellow Wagtails and hirundines.

So, instead of most of these birds passing overhead high and well out of view, they are having to fly lower - and some even land - to give us land bound beings the chance to witness migration in action. I was there last Saturday and found the experience exciting. It's one of the reasons I bird. With the weather set to continue in this vein, I'm looking forward to a repeat performance tomorrow.

STOP PRESS: 15 Dotterel in a field at Canons Farm this pm :-)