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...