Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Last Quality Street in the box...

... is usually a fudge in our household. But what with tins of Roses, Heroes and Celebrations nearby, there is no such thing as a lack of chocolate at this time of year. But just as there needs to be one item of confectionary doomed to be the last one left, the same is true of 2013 posts. This is it.

I won't do a round-up of what I've seen, as it has, by and large, been a spectacularly ordinary year. Instead please accept this bullet-point stream of consciousness that has the year of 2013 as it's link.

Twitching heaven: there were more 'rares'* to see than ever before and if you fancied the odd long haul to the northern isles then so much the better. You could have filled your boots and gripped back more than a few goodies on us old-timers, even if the last time some of us twitched was the 1957 Bardsey Summer Tanager. Out of all of those rare birds on offer, I saw precisely none of them.

Surrey gets rare: who'd have thought it, that most maligned of birding inland deserts managed to rustle up a male Pallid Harrier, a Roller, a Red-rumped Swallow or two and a Two-barred Crossbill. Bloody hell! There have got to be a few Parrot Crossbills out there in my fair county, haven't there? Out of all those rare birds on offer, I saw precisely none of them, although I did go and look for the Two-barred Crossbill - which induced disbelief from those who thought they knew me.

Windfarms attack! The rotor blade that sliced to death a rare Needletail became slightly more infamous than any serial killer back in the summer. I got on my high-horse for the first of several 'opinion' pieces that appeared on this blog, suggesting that the use of the word 'tragic' was not appropriate in this case. Rumours of the Needletail being given a Viking-like funeral on a boat made out of Birding Worlds is only slightly exaggerated. Speaking of which...

Birding World. The publication that was so successful in its early days that it enabled its owners to buy up half of Norfolk, ceased publication. So, goodbye to papers on the pupil colour of second-winter hybrid Herring Gulls. So long to reading about small geese in massive flocks of big geese. Cheerio to all of those pages of pictures of Redpoll's arses...

They think Spurns all over! It is now... no hold on. That strange, narrow, curvy bit of East Yorkshire once more faced up to the big bad North Sea and sent it packing. Breaches and erosion may come and visit, but Spurn still lives. I stayed there for a fortnight in 1985 and had some brilliant birding. I wonder where the regulars will go if it does finally join the rest of the local geology beneath the waves?

BOOM! This has to be the word of the year, used in all innocence to announce the arrival of a rare bird. And the arrival of a knob at the other end of the text... hold on, didn't I say I wouldn't do this any more - take the mickey out of others who are actually out there birding? Where was I most of the year - yes, indoors, tapping out bile from a computer keyboard, that's what... excuse me while I go and thrash myself with a birch until I bleed...

Duskygate: it took one bird and one small group of Devon birders to bring about the downfall of several blogs and a couple of birders careers. Be careful what you wish for in your garden and if it does come true don't tell another soul!

Auk madness: a guillemot with a deformed bill gave hundreds of families a days rest from their annoying husband/father/ brother as they abandoned the family Christmas to show their chums all the Xmas presents that they had been given - ceramic mugs that said 'Tit lover', knitted jumpers depicting a white-haired, bearded man with a rosy nose (Bill Oddie?) and the latest field craft accessory from Ray Mears - camouflaged defibrilators for avian windfarm victims.

Well, that's it for 2013. I bet you that up and down the country right now there are thousands of birders cleaning their optics, checking the weather forecast (rain, rain, rain and wind) and looking forward to tomorrow, a day when a Wren is the equal of a Brunnich's Guillemot, a Blackbird the equal of a White-billed Diver, and we all start off the year on an equal footing. But remember - that blissful state of affairs lasts but one day. Enjoy.

Monday, 30 December 2013

England birding football XI

Again I am indebted to the Bard of Littlestone who, together with a bit of help from The Bedford Plover, came up with the following football team. It must have been a very slow sea-watch...

Rob Greenshank

Ray Wilson's Petrel
Jackdaw Charlton
Terry Butcher Bird
Ashley Cole Tit

Carlton Palmer Dove
Franklin's Gull Lampard
Bobby Moorehen (captain)

Rodney Marsh Warbler
John Raddesford Warbler
Mick Leach's Petrel

No Man United players considered as they are divers!

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Life's learning curve

For 2014 I need to learn a few lessons and eradicate the negative aspects of 2013. These mostly centre around my irrational disapproval directed towards twitching and the banal use of Twitter. Confession time: I have twitched in the past and I do use Twitter (and sometimes in a less than useful way). I must also accept that twitching and the misuse (in my opinion) of a social media tool is harmless. I have the choice not get involved - it is an option.

Twitter does have its uses. It enables me to keep up to date with what is being seen (birds as well as other life forms). It can be entertaining. I can also keep abreast of what my fellow naturalists are up to. There is a downside to all of this, and that is that I will receive every single tweet sent from everybody that I follow. That is how it works. That is something that I have to accept if I am to use Twitter. So, I need to approach it like a prospector who has to sift through a heap of mud to find a gold nugget. Embrace the BOOM! Smile at the 'well dones' for driving a few miles in a car to see a bird. Accept hero status being bestowed upon the ordinary. It doesn't matter. It may do my blood pressure the world of good by doing so. And as for twitching - is it really any different than me driving to the New Forest to look for a rare plant? No...

I hope to get out into the field more next year. I have some freeing up of time. More birding. More botanising. More mothing. The pan-list might benefit. But as long as I benefit from it, that is all that matters - and when I mean benefit, I mean that my time spent doing all of this is enjoyable, is fulfilling, is worthwhile. I cannot quantify this by 'lifers' or 'ticks' alone. That would be shallow.

Most of my interest has focused down to my self-styled 'uber-patch', the local area which includes a small section of the North Downs and the woodland and heathland to the north of those same hills. This will still be the place that gets most of my time. It is, to me, a special place. However, I have neglected other places for too long, so I will try and make the effort to go a bit further afield. There are species, and places, that I miss. And others that I want to see.

Life balance is a skill that we all need a bit of help with. Even after half-a-century plus on this planet I haven't cracked it yet. Maybe 2014 will allow me to get a bit closer to achieving it.

Whatever you are planning to do, may it work out for you - and those close to you.

And if you detect any hint of sarcasm, anger or disapproval on this blog again, please let me know. It was all getting a bit tiresome.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Ho, ho, ho!

The Holly and the Ivy - oh how festive of me....
Unless a Dusky Thrush appears in my garden, I doubt that I will post again this year. So far in 2013 I've posted 220 times, which is an awful lots of waffle, rant, p*ss-taking and - sometimes - observation for you to have to contend with. Visitor numbers have BOOMED! (see what I did there?) this year, with one or two posts having ridiculous numbers of visitors. I'm not complaining, just grateful and bemused.

All that is left for me to do is wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Whatever it is that floats your boat, be it a 'rare' or a slime mould, I hope you get plenty of them in 2014.

Ah, I hear the postman has just delivered - and it's the new Checklist of the lepidoptera of the British Isles! Well, that's the rest of the day taken care of...

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Time for a change

After 33 years of continuous full-time employment I'm now a free agent. So, if you are in need of a freelance graphic designer, art editor or need help with a bird survey, please let me know.

My extra 'free' time will mean a bit more of it being spent in the field, so the pan-listing should benefit, and I might actually find a decent bird locally - it's been a while.

Apart from 'doing the right thing' and being on hand to carry out the domestic chores that need attention, I will endeavour to write and paint my way to competence.

2014 will be very interesting indeed...

Friday, 20 December 2013

It's just not cricket!

My thanks go to the Bard of Littlestone, who put together this splendid team of birding cricketers.

Cook's Petrel
Rod Marsh Warbler
Clark's Nutcracker
Tom-tit Graveney
Bell's Vireo
Andy Flowerpecker
Jack Snipe Russell
Mitchell Stark's Lark
Ryan Harris' Hawk
Graham Swann
Montagu's Panesar

12th man - Martin Crowe

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Where BOOM! came from

I think that I may have found the inspiration behind the adoption (by a certain sort of birder) of the term BOOM! This is taken from Black Adder goes Forth and was written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton in 1989 - a full 24 years before Britain's finest birders used the word in conjunction with sending out news of a 'rare' being found.

Baldrick: "Hear the words I sing / War's a horrid thing / So I sing sing
      sing / ding-a-ling-a-ling."

George: (applauding) Oh, bravo, yes!

Edmund: Yes. Well, it started badly, it tailed off a little in the middle,
    and the less said about the end, the better. But, apart than that,

Baldrick: Oh, shall I do another one, then, sir?

Edmund: No -- we wouldn't want to exhaust you.

Baldrick: No, don't worry; I could go on all night.

Edmund: Not with a bayonet through your neck, you couldn't!

Baldrick: This one is called "The German Guns."

George: Oh, spiffing! Yes, let's hear that!

Baldrick: "Boom boom boom boom / Boom boom boom / BOOM BOOM, BOOM BOOM--


I would sincerely like to thank Birding Frontiers and The Next Generation Birders for their frequent BOOMING! this autumn. It has cheered me up no end. Please carry on, but only use the word in an 'ironic' context. Maybe think up a new word for next year? Here are a few suggestions...



F*** ME!

Please feel free to use them.

Worthy blogs

I've added a couple of extra 'worthy blogs' to my list (on the right there).

The first is A new nature blog by Miles King. The second is from George Monbiot.

Both are thoughful (and thought-provoking), taking blogging to very high levels indeed. If you want to look deeper into our natural world, the movers and shakers (and destroyers) then take a bit of time and have a look. You won't be disappointed. They both show my stuff up for the fluff that it truly is.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

NDB moth of the year

It wasn't a great year for moths locally. The long, cold spring delayed things to absurd lengths. Although not in the area, my early June visit to Martin Down illustrated how late the season was perfectly, when, on a lovely sunny and warm day, there was little on the wing.

As far as the back garden was concerned, macro highlights were few - Jersey Tiger, Tree-lichen Beauty  and Toadflax Brocades all put in repeat performances, but there was one major surprise and that was this...

...no doubt a wanderer from the chalk downland south of home was this spanking Royal Mantle, my NDB moth of the year. It was also the year in which I tried out my newly purchased pheremone lures. They were a major disappointment, with my only success being two Six-belteds at Chipstead Bottom. Again, the weather may have played havoc with emergence dates and population levels. I'll try again next year.

NDB bird of the year

What could my best bird of the year be? To be honest I've most probably done less birding this year than any other, concentrating as I have on other natural history orders or watching the many sporting events on offer (Ashes tests, Lions tests, Premiership footy). Spectacle of 2013 would probably be awarded to the 110+ Hawfinches at Mickleham, but they come in as runners-up to this little beauty...

For a number of days in mid-March my wife had reported seeing a strange bird in the back garden. She knows most of the commoner species, so the fact that this baffled her had me wondering what on earth it could be. After interrogating her with a blow-torch whilst I was wearing a Bill Oddie mask, she confessed to seeing red flashes somewhere and white in the wing. I suggested Redwing - no, smaller than that. Brambling? A proffered illustration drew a shake of the head. I then showed her a picture of a male Black Redstart and she exclaimed "That's it!". Totally gripped off (and, if I'm being honest, slightly sceptical) I staked the garden out one late afternoon and within ten minutes was watching a spanking male Black Redstart hopping about by the back door.

It remained with us just short of a fortnight, being seen in the front and back garden, plus in neighbouring properties. I never heard it sing. Needless to say it was a garden tick. The weather throughout its stay was very cold with biting easterly winds. Why it remained for so long is a mystery - did the weather influence it to remain off passage? This particular bird will live long in the memory.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Tickling the Ivory (with a few grebes thrown in)

I'm all casual about these recent British Ivory Gulls because I've seen one before - 1980 in Dorset! Some of you old timers out there may remember the 'double' twitch that this gull was part of. The Ivory Gull was frequenting the western beach where the Ferrybridge causeway joins the Isle of Portland, whilst a Pied-billed Grebe had taken up residence at Radipole Lake in Weymouth. I needed two attempts to see the grebe, and since then have seen several - Kenfig (Mid Glam), Tooting Bec Common (Surrey) and Singleton Lake (Kent). The Surrey bird was one of those rarities that proves that anything can turn up anywhere, as it decided to frequent a small pond on a south London common, more the haunt of toddlers feeding the ducks than rarity-seeking birders.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

A rare bird-footballing joke

I may have written the first rare bird - footballing joke. I was so pleased with it that I tweeted the thing and now I am recycling it as a blog post. Here it is...

BOOM! Ivory Gull seen on the pitch at White Hart Lane feeding on the corpse of Tottenham Hotspur.

Now, for those of you that know nothing about birding and football (or only a bit about one of those subjects), I'd better explain the construction of the said joke.

BOOM! - used ironically to lampoon a small section of the birding glitterati to announce the finds of rare birds.

IVORY GULL - a topical rarity, as a few have been seen in Scotland, NE England and now Yorkshire.

WHITE HART LANE - home ground of Tottenham Hotspur (my team)

CORPSE - Ivory Gulls are well known for scavenging on the corpses of cetaceans washed up on beaches

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR - have just been beaten by Liverpool 5-0 at White Hart Lane

If there are any budding stand-up comics out there, you can have this one free of charge.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Where in the world?

I was looking through some chalk downland images of mine after having read Robert Macfarlane's book The Old Ways, when I came across this old favourite of mine. Can anyone guess where it is? There is a prize, but I will not reveal what it is until it has been won...

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

End of the (birding) world.

If the rumours are true, the next edition of the journal Birding World, will be the last.I can clearly remember the day that I was shown the first issue of Twitching, a small A5-sized publication that, as the title suggested, catered for the mushrooming population of twitchers.Those of us who were twitchers, had an interest in scarce migrants, rare birds or the art of identification, were immediately hooked. Until then, apart from the worthy, but dry British Birds, there was no competitor - thus Twitching took off. It was soon renamed Birding World and soared even higher. It was the 'must read' publication for the birder.Ground-breaking identification papers and stunning photography kept the magazine in pole position for a number of years.

I gave up my subscription a few years ago. Why? Because I became fed up with the diet of gulls and geese that was being served. Maybe they were cutting edge subjects, but small geese and intermediate gulls bored me after a while. I don't know why the publication is being closed. Financial reasons? - print is a dying medium we are told. Internet competition? - Birding Frontiers (the people who brought us BOOM!) is a free identification resource and forum. Whatever the reason, it deserves a virtual pat on the back for being there during an exciting time in the evolution of birding and bird identification.I used to look forward to it falling onto the doormat every month, and there weren't many things that the postman brought back then that I could say that about.

Monday, 9 December 2013

A blogger comes clean

For anybody out there who has only come across me via this blog, I must come over as a miserable luddite, always at the ready to have a pop at the modern birder and the way that they conduct themselves. It's fair to say that even those people that do actually know me might agree with some of those statements.

I'd better come clean and put the record straight.

Subject: Steven William Gale
Age: 54 (almost 55)
First started birding: 1974, aged 15.
British BOU list: 376 (not many is it)
Birding history: Began by birding local parks, golf courses and Beddington SF. Regular trips to Staines Reservoir and Pagham Harbour. Started a life-long love affair with Dungeness in 1976. Twitcher phase lasted between 1977 (Hastings Wallcreeper) until 1982 (Nanquidno Varied Thrush), although a few other twitches were undertaken afterwards. Last twitch was the Dungeness Canvasback in 2000. All other lifers since have been incidental.
Birding admin: South Kent recorder 1982-84, Dungeness Bird Observatory committee member 1979 - 1984.
Foreign trips: France, Spain, Greece, Austria, Israel, Malaysia.
Current birding: mainly local patches with the odd trip to the coast. Time shared between other wildlife orders.
Tools: Swarovski bins and scope, Panasonic compact camera, twitter account, blog site

As you can see, I do have, and use, a Twitter account. I use it to gather birding information and, in the rare event that I find something of interest, disseminate it. I also text (or phone) such information to my closer friends. I keep field notes throughout the year and send observations to the relevant recorders (mainly birds, plants, moths and butterflies). I maintain a blog and read many others for a mixture of entertainement and interest.

So, where does my ranting and mickey-taking come from? You can clearly see that I am no luddite as I have adopted 'new media'as it comes along. A big fat dollop of this bile can be referred to as 'tongue-in-cheek'. I might not BOOM! and 'rares' myself, but I'm guilty of sending out just as much waffle as the next person. Age has a part to play. As each generation comes along they bring with them new ways of doing things, new jargon and it is the way of life that the 'oldies' get left behind - even if it is just a little bit. Some can call it sarcasm, others satire, or it could be just having a bit of a laugh with a subject that I've been involved in for almost forty years.When I describe birders as looking like a load of 'overweight middle-aged men dressed like Ray Mears', what do you think I look like when I'm out in the field? You've guessed it - an overweight middle-aged man dressed like Ray Mears. When I take the p*ss, I'm taking it out of myself and the world I losely inhabit. In conversation with birding friends it is clear that many of us 'older' birders see the humour of what is going on. And it is humourous - who cannot see the harmless absurdity in Twitter handles such as 'BigBoyPipitShagger77', the congratulating of birders for travelling to see a bird somebody else found, or the fact that a 54 year-old overweight birder spends some of his spare time sitting in front of a computer blogging about it?

Such things enrich our lives. I want more of these quirks to be present. I like BOOMS! as much as I find them absurd. If they didn't exist then someone would need to come up with something else. And remember - the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about at all.

Friday, 6 December 2013


Scuse me mate, don't think I recognise you. What's your name?


No, your proper name.

That is my proper name. It's John.

No, your birding handle. You know, the one you use on Twitter, like SuckMyList1976 or BillyBigTicks88.

I don't use Twitter.

Don't use Twitter?!! How do you find out what's around then?

Well, I go outside with my binoculars and telescope and look.

With your possee?


You know, with your team, your gang, your crew. Burn up a Cornish valley together or thrash a Scottish Island?

Er, no. I just look in the local parks, woods and farms. On my own.

Blimey, that's a bit odd. When did you last BOOM!

Sorry, you'll have to run that past me again.

When did you last find a rare and tweet it?

I don't use Twitter, I told you. And what does BOOM mean?

You've got to say BOOM! whenever you find a good bird.


Dunno? (scratches head). Everybody else does it. (Phone makes silly noise) Scuse me... Ah, it's BigBoyPipitShagger72. He's just driven 500 miles to year tick a Lancey. I must text him..."That's brilliant mate. Congratulations. Top birding"

Why are you congratulating him? His only driven a car to see a bird somebody else found.

Dunno (scratches head). Everybody else does it. Anyway, where's your big lens?

I haven't got a camera.

Well, how do you record your BOOM! rares?

I've got a field notebook and a pen. I observe the bird and write a description.

You'll never get that accepted. Lone birder, no photograph. That equals no record pal.

Whatever happened to field descriptions?

That's so 1990s. You need photographs from every angle and preferably a feather or shit sample. Let the lab boys look at it. Forensic birding we call it. The only way a single observer record will get through is if you're one of the birding elite.

Who are they?

Someone like you wouldn't know them, but you can spot them a mile off. The rest of us are dressed like Ray Mears, but they look subtly different.


Wearing a bandana. Maybe an Australian bush-hat. One of them wears a white disco suit like John Travolta. There's an unwritten rule that says 'All birders are equal, but some birders are more equal than others'. A dissenter said that it was all getting a bit Orwellian, whatever that means, but he was taken away and sent on a crash course in 'intermediate gulls'. That wiped the smile off his face...

It sounds to me that we've regressed.

You'll have to explain that to me.

Well, in Victorian times a rare bird would only be accepted if it was shot and the skin presented to the recorders. Then we discovered field-craft and could identify birds by describing what we saw by the writing of field notes. Now, it seems, field notes are no good and we need pictures to prove it. We've come full circle.

S'pose so. I've never found anything though because I spend all of my time chasing BOOMS! and rares. Hold on... (phone makes silly noise)... Right, I'm off. There's a flava wagtail showing characteristics of friedegg at Portland. I'd better go before the crew beat me to it. That would make 345 for the year if I'm following UK400, 342 on the Bandana list or 299 with BOU. Are you coming?

Believe it or not, I'm quite happy here.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Laboratory birding

So the BOU have removed Slender-billed Curlew from the British list. The 1998 Druridge Bay bird is no longer considered acceptable by today's standards. Those last three words are quite revealing. Does this mean that as each generation of birders comes along there will be a forensic examination of all the past rarity records so that all which remain are those that satisfy the up-to-date criteria?

If anybody had the time, a trawl through all of the rarity descriptions (pre-digital photography) would reveal plenty of description only accounts. And many of these would be for species that were still poorly understood as far as their identification in the field. If today's high standards were imposed on these older records, how many would survive intact? As we carry on in the era of splitting, there are times when to see a bird very well is not going to ever be enough. We will need mp3 recordings and DNA sequencing to get records accepted. I think there is a danger of imposing today's standards on records that were scrutinised (by experts remember) in days gone by. Unless one of these old records has irrefutable photographic evidence that clearly shows a mistake has been made then we ought to leave well alone.

I know the Curlew has always been contentious, but why is it only now being overturned? It is fair enough to assume that the '10 rare men' who initially accepted it did so by studying the facts in front of them and were happy to give it the green light of acceptance. So, what's changed? (By the way, I didn't see the bird in question.)

Will we ever get to a time when, along with your optics and a notebook, to be considered a red-hot birder, you will have to carry test-tubes and a microscope into the field to make sure that your finds will be accepted?

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Something in the air

There is something disturbing in the early winter air. Something that makes birders angry, others confused and a few just plain sad. This has resulted in closed blogs, threats to close blogs and a great big dollop of confusion all round.

Me? I'm actually alright for once, a bemused spectator to all of this angst. But it does beg the question "Why do we do it then?" The 'it', in this case, meaning birding and blogging. I've been down this route before on quite a few posts, so I won't go there again. Is it the colder weather? The darkening afternoons? The thought of scraping ice off the car windscreen? Or the dreaming of hirundines and swifts on balmy evenings, hawking over insect-filled meadows with the summer stretching ahead of you like a great big comfort blanket?

And if your passion is moths, then let's face it, although there are a few species still on the wing, there are slim pickings for the next few months. Same with wild flowers.

Now is the time to sort all of those field notes out from 2013 (you do take notes, don't you?) and send them into the relevant recorders. Clean your optics. Make plans for 2014. And enjoy yourself... to borrow from The Specials - it's later than you think!

Monday, 2 December 2013

Twitcher's Hall

As some of you will know, I live in Surrey. And as some of you will also know, people who live in Surrey are very rich and very posh. Just to prove this point I thought that I'd share with you this photograph of my 'main' residence (above). It is called 'Twitcher's Hall'. I bought it from one of the Birdguide's chaps, who was in need of spending a lot money very quickly to avoid taxes - he has just purchased half of Berkshire. I spend most of my time here, although I do like to spend long weekends at one of my other homes, dotted around the picturesque villages of the United Kingdom, which are boarded up for most of the year and killing off the communities that they are in. It's not my fault that the locals cannot afford to buy them, is it?

I was hot-air ballooning over my acres last week and it struck me just how unlucky that I am - not a decent water body to be seen. There are a few commoners cottages in a dip, so I will just have to eject the tenants and flood the area. I'll soon get the old list up!

This is Evans the butler, sweeping up after a 'twitcher shoot' that we held on Sunday. It worked a treat! We texted a few select twitching types, telling them of a Hawk Owl on site but making them swear to suppression. Thirty of them turned up and we bagged the lot! Trouble is, they left quite a mess, all of that army surplus gear in tatters. One chaps bandana was hanging at the top of one of the Christmas Trees which caused us all to laugh - I nearly left it up there...

Evans has been with my family since the Pallas's Sandgrouse eruption of 1888. He can remember when our Turtle Dove shoots would bag 300 birds in a morning, but now we are lucky if we kill 3 in a spring. Bloody things used to wake me up with that confounded purring in the morning. I reckon the Maltese have got it just about right on taming these winged vermin.

Anyway, enough from me. I'm just about to go and meet Owen Paterson to discuss my being invited onto a government environmental think-tank. Hope none of those bloody troublemakers are there - you know, the likes of Packham, Oddie and May. I'd better take my gun in case any of the blighters are!!

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Old Ways

I have just finished reading Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways and it is a book that will long remain with me. The human relationship with the creation and maintenance of pathways is explored, looking through the ages and across the types of land (or sea) affected.

The link between walking and thinking is explored. We meet a colourful cast of characters whose lives are woven into the natural world via an intimate understanding of it through the medium of travelling and embracing the landscape around them.

The book is also an homage to Edward Thomas, writer and poet who died at the Battle of Arras during the First World War. He lived and wrote about his beloved 'South Country', centred on Hampshire and Kent. Bouts of depression were walked off in the chalky hills and these journeys led to an outpouring of writing prior to, and during, his fateful journey to France.

We are also introduced to Eric Ravilious, English water-colourist who, like Thomas, died while on active service, but during World War Two. I was ignorant of his work, but have now obtained a book of his glorious paintings of the downland that he knew. These southern downlands seem to have captured an ideal of what these men were fighting for - gentle rolling hills, white-chalk pathways, discrete copses, singing skylarks.

There are passages of this book that will haunt you - Macfarlane's walk on the sands of the Broomway, a world of neither land nor water off the Essex coast; warm nights sleeping out in the open on the top of chalk downland, being woken by Skylarks singing as the light starts to break; a terrifying experience on Chanctonbury Hill that defies explanation; a walk across mountaintops to reach his grandfather's funeral; furtive excursions into Palestine where a friend keeps open the 'old ways' of travelling in a no-man's land; devotional pilgrimages around the lower elevations of asian mountains.

It is a book of many facets. If you appreciate the natural wonders of our world and like to think that our link to it goes beyond just walking on top of it, then this book will not speak to you, it will shout. After reading this, a walk will never be the same again.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Return to Priest Hill

A month ago I posted about a visit to Surrey Wildlife Trust's newest reserve, Priest Hill, only a mile from my home. It wasn't a positive post as I moaned about fencing and lack of access. Today I returned, determined to be a bit more positive!

Belted Galloway cattle are now on site and are being used to chomp away at the dense grass sward that covers the vast majority of the area. I circumnavigated the reserve, and started to feel the first fingers of positivity prodding me. My mood was lightened further when I was in conversation with a couple of local dog-walkers. They explained that, if the gate to a large field was padlocked, then entry was not permitted (due to cattle being present or management work being undertaken). However, if there was no padlock on the gate then access was permissible. If this is the case then I'm happy, as such access will open up areas to look for plants and insects. Birding on site will not be a problem whatever the access, as the habitat is open, with uninterrupted views across the site. No shrike or hunting owl can hide here!

On a dull, late November morning there wasn't much to see. But time and effort will surely reward the observer. It's so close to home that it would be criminal not to make regular visits.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Who owns the data?

Dylan Wrathall has joined in on the 'patch watcher debate' (click here to read it) and has made a number of interesting points. The one that got me going was dealing with bird information and who owns it. That's quite a hot topic at the moment.

Let's assume that you are walking along a hedgerow, binoculars at the ready, and a Red-flanked Bluetail flits out of the vegetation and starts to hop about in front of you. You have found the bird and at that moment in time, nobody else has seen it, let alone knows about it. What do you do with that information - that there is a Red-flanked Bluetail present at this particular patch of yours. There is more than one scenario. You could say nothing and nobody need ever know about it. Or you could say nothing and then send in the record (with a description) to the local bird recorder sometime in the future. There again, you could tell a few close friends and leave it at that. Or you could text, tweet, phone and shout so that the whole of the birding world knows about it. But, whatever you decide to do IT IS YOUR INFORMATION AND WHAT YOU DO WITH IT IS ENTIRELY UP TO YOU. I've put that in capital letters because it's up to the individual what course of action they will take, whether you agree with how they deal with it or not. Of course, to say nothing and tell nobody will have no repercussions, because as far as everybody else is concerned, it never happened. To do nothing and spill the beans later - well, let's just say that you will need to be prepared for a backlash, whether it's warranted or not.

But, once your news has gone out into the public domain, it seems to be taken for granted that this is now public property. Bird information services (texts, pagers, websites, magazines) will publish it (and charge customers for it) without asking you if it's OK for them to do so. IS THIS FAIR?

The companies that own these services wouldn't use a photograph that you'd taken of the Bluetail without your permission to do so (and you might also get paid for them publishing it). So why should information be free? Is it written in law somewhere that information sent out into cyberspace is public property? And what about information that hasn't been 'released' by the finder in a digital format, but by a friend who has tweeted this information after getting a phone call or a private text message about the Bluetail's presence?

A hard one, this. The more I think about it the more confused I get. If I send in my bird records to a county recorder, I sort of accept that these can be used in the publication of that county's annual bird report. But what of third-party usage beyond that, particularly one in which the third-party is making money? There must be a legal ruling on all of this, but I'm not going to contact a solicitor to find out - have you seen how much they charge an hour?

For most of us, the free use to others of our birding data is just accepted and we don't give it much consideration. It's an unwritten rule in the world of amateur ornithology. But there are professionals out there who are more than happy for us to carry on with a free supply of product...

Thursday, 28 November 2013

December Moth

Yes, I know it's still November, but moths don't bother considering the names that us humans give them. It was a mild night last night, so the MV went out and my highlight was the capture of two December Moths. They are annual in the garden, but it's always a pleasure to see one. It is a species that looks wrapped up for the winter - look at that shaggy mane covering the thorax!

I was still holding on to the belief that a Cypress Carpet might still be on the wing - I've yet to record it in the garden. I wouldn't mind betting that 2014 will see it appear. And there is still the hope that the Black-spotted Chestnut will colonise from north Kent. Our lepidoptera is in a fluid state.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

200 up.

No, not my life list, but the number of posts I've put up so far this year. A lot of it is drivel but the odd one has touched a nerve. Yesterday's post on patch birders is still running - it's worth reading the comments so far added.

Apologies for the lack of photographs recently - I hope to put that right very soon.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Is the local patch birder endangered?

I was involved in a three-way Twitter conversation this afternoon that was really quite interesting. It was between 'local' birders, with one member of the triumvirate voicing concern that the local birding scene is slowly withering on the vine.

Let's look at the facts. It was suggested that there are 50 -60 keen birders who live within the immediate catchment area of Beddington Sewage Farm, Canons Farm and Holmethorpe Sand Pits. Of these, only a handful are what could be termed 'regulars' at one of these patches. In fact, the numbers of avid patch watchers at all three sites is dwindling. This doesn't concern me as much as it did one of this afternoon's tweeters.

Let's take each patch on its own, with Beddington first up. This is a site that has been covered by birdwatchers for close on a century. It has an unbroken and thorough ornithological record since the 1930s. But within this time there have been peaks and troughs of effort. The 1950s and 1960s were considered a golden period, followed by a fallow 1970s that really didn't pick up again until the late 1980s. In recent times the regular group of birders has become smaller through various reasons, but there is still a nucleus present. What it most probably now lacks is the omni-present birder (such as Gary Messenbird and Johnny Allan). It is true that Peter Alfrey lives practically onsite, but he does persue a life elsewhere.

Canons Farm has a very brief ornithological pedigree. From 2005 (when I was one of very few birders present - so few that I never saw one) to last year (by which time a bird group had been formed and a regular band of half-a-dozen birders combed the site most weeks) the area has been given an intense coverage. But that is only true of one birder - David Campbell - who had the time, enthusiasm and patience to carry on blitzing the farm and its neighbouring woodland. You may have noticed that I wrote 'had the time'. That is because David is now at university in Brighton. It gives me no pleasure in saying 'I told you so', but when the Canons Farm scene snowballed three years ago, I did predict that it would only last as long as he was constantly birding there. You need more than one obsessive to be part of the scene to hand the baton to.

Holmethorpe has always been a one-man band and that is Gordon Hay. Others have come and gone (and come back again), but nobody has shared his unwavering enthusiasm to bird the place on an almost daily basis for close on 30 years. I can remember a time (maybe 10 years ago) when Gordon, Graham James and myself set up a website, newsletter and text alert service and it looked as if things might take off. But there weren't enough birders that interested, if truth be told.

Surrey does have other hot spots that lure the obsessives - Tice's Meadow and Unstead Sewage Farm for example, and there are other corners of the county that are given a good grilling on a less formal basis.

Birders come and go. They phase, they move away, they die. But generally, if birds turn up, birders won't be far behind. For Beddington, Canons and Holmethorpe, these are just blips in an evolving story. But what is blindingly obvious is that as much as you 'can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink', the same is true with birders. You can enthuse all you like about a place, take them there, give them a guided tour - but you cannot necessarily make them adopt it as a regualr patch.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Pan-listing tourism

Next year, if everything goes according to plan, I will become a bit of a 'pan-listing tourist'. I'd better explain...

In the murky world of pan-listing, additional credit is given to those who seek out and identify species for themselves. Although this isn't something that has been admitted to, the inference is there - to be shown something by somebody else that you couldn't have identified on your own (although countable) somehow lacks purity.

Most of the naturalists who keep a pan-species list do strive to identify all they can, but there are some groups that are just so difficult that you need to seek the help of the experts. Such groups for me include lichens, bryophytes and fungi (I won't even bother to mention the myriad insect orders). I do possess excellent guides for all three of the mentioned groups, but when out in the field I soon relaise that I need help if I want to get beyond the basics.

So, I have found a bryophyte field trip being held on Epsom Common next February, and a Surrey/Sussex based fungi group that hold field meetings throughout the year. These I will make an effort to attend. At a crass, base-level they will provide plenty of lifers. But on a more meaningful level, the education that I will obtain from experts in these fields will hopefully kick-start me into becoming a better naturalist. Hopefully my 'educated guesses' will be transformed into correct identifications.

I will look around for further opportunities to dabble in 'pan-listing tourism' as the year unfolds. It might be the only way that I can get a handle on a lot of our wildlife.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Should really be going to Specsavers

North Downs and beyond proprietor, Steven Gale (aged 54) has finally had to admit that his eyesight is deteriorating. The 60 year-old blogger was seen to be looking at small writing on packaging with bemusement, holding the offending box at various distances from his head until he could (sort of) make out what the wording read.

"I used to handle 6 point copy no problem", he told reporters today, "but now I cannot read anything that isn't in bold caps and in a clear san-serif font".

Gale (who celebrates his 67th birthday in December) has been observed using reading glasses on several occasions over the past couple of months. Reports have also reached us that his driving has become erratic, he cannot recognise his wife from further than 30m away and his field skills have plummeted even lower than were suspected.

One of his daughters (who wishes to remain anonymous) revealed that he uses a large magnifying glass to go through his moth trap in the morning. "It was so sad", she added, "he was identifying Heart and Darts as Pale Mottled Willows. I saw him totally overlook a Red Underwing, and they're big mothers!"

After squinting at our reporter for a few minutes, Gale did acknowledge that his body was slowly starting to lose its vigour. "It's no surprise that after 58 years my eyes are starting to weaken. But I've still got my hair, all of my teeth (give or take a crown) and I don't think that I'll need a hip or knee replacement for at least several months. For a man of 62, that isn't bad!"

Friday, 22 November 2013

Not (any more) Quite Scilly

The Devon Dusky Thrush has claimed another victim - that of the excellent blog 'Not Quite Scilly' (created by birder and all-round good bloke, Gavin Haig). No longer can we click onto the site to read about his birding exploits in south Devon, be told of his latest super-human feats on a bicycle or be amazed at his heroic consumption of chocolate, cake and single-malt whisky.

It is not for me to comment about his reasons for taking this drastic action, all I can do is respect his decision and make public my admiration for the writing that he shared with us over the recent years. A new Gavin Haig post was always something of a treat - I never knew whether I was about to be served up with a witicism, a dollop of nostalgia or be gripped off by some birding news.

I met up with Gavin back in August and was given a grand tour of his local patches. It was a splendid day spent in good company and stunning habitat. And we ate Lemon Drizzle Cake...

All the best Gav - I hope to meet up again very soon.

Revolutionaries, math and a dream

A bit of a miscellany today.

The Bard of Littlestone came up with a few 'birding revolutionaries' which included:
Goosey Goosey Ghandi
Martin Luther Kingfisher
Kamal Attaturkey
Napoleon Bonaparte's Gull
Oceanodroma Castro

Not to be outdone, I joined forces with him to compile this list of 'birding rogues':
Josef Starling
Vlad the Impala (OK, it's a mammal)
Redpoll Pot
Jack Snipe the Ripper
Pitta Sutcliffe
House Martin Bormann
Heermann's Gull Goering

Today I am mostly disliking the use of the word 'math' (as in 'Do the math')

I had a dream last night that the Next Generation Birders had been outlawed and were rebranded as 'The Birding Youth', were then nicknamed 'Green Shirts' and started burning the notebooks of known rarity supressors. I'm in need of a holiday...

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Thoughts for today

I've become sick and tired of poking my nose into other people's business, so God knows others must be even more sick and tired of me doing so. Enough's enough...

Today I would like to share with you a bit of hippy wisdom, which is..

If you want to be free, all you have to do is let go

I like that. The other bit of wisdom comes from Mad Men, the television series based in the advertising agencies of 1960s New York. A character was complaining about how unfair things in his life were, and as a response, he received this gem:

The universe is indifferent

I'm trying to take both of these on board. It's never to late to put on a kaftan and light a joss stick.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

You know you're a veteran birder...

...when you walk, and not run, if a rare bird is found.

...when you can recall draw-tube telescopes.

...(and you used to own one).

...when you remember when British Birds used to be essentail reading.

...if you still refer to Chiffchaffs as Chiffchaffs, Wheatears as Wheatears and do not have the time of day to place the word Common or Northern in front of them.

...when you take a cushion to sit on when going into hides or for the beach when sea-watching.

...when any journey to a birding destination is marked out by the number of toilet stops.

...when you need reading glasses to write in your notebook.

...if you still use a notebook.

...when you think that your current telescope might 'see you out'

...if you get all nostalgic about being chased off of Minsmere by Bert Axell

...or twitched a Little Egret

...if you need an afternoon snooze after birding all morning

...when you can predict exactly what's going to turn up by looking at the weather forecast

...and remember a time when gulls were just that - gulls

...if you know your bird calls

...(and their latin names)

...if you've had a holiday at a bird observatory

...if you've slept rough at a twitch

...(and hitched there)

...when you have no idea how many species you have seen

...if you can remember the exact dates and details around birding highlights from thirty years ago, but absolutely no idea what you saw last month

(This post is dedicated to the crusty old men who stare seawards from Dungeness beach)

A Dusky Thrush, a bird recorder and the ignorant

(I was going to remove this post because I realised that I had gone ahead and published it even though I certainly do not know all of the details behind 'the situation'. I was, without doubt, premature and should keep out of an argument that is going on a couple of hundred miles away. It's nothing to do with me and my thoughts are worthless. I am keeping it live though as I do believe in the right of individuals to tell as many birders - or as few - about the presence of a rare bird as they please. I do, however, accept that if you do invite a select band of birders to see a good bird (in other words, to a site that wasn't sensitive enough to stop the chosen few entry) then you will have to reap what you sow. In a tight birding community that can only lead to fractures. I'll move away now...)

When a county bird recorder questions his relationship with birding, birders and in particular 'rarities', you know that something is up. Please read Steve Waite's post here to see what 'the grubby few' can do to the mind of a decent person who, in his own free time, acts as a conduit between birdwatchers and the information that they crave.

I know that there are those of you who think that I see only the bad in the birding world, pick on the negative and wallow in all that is broken. That's not entirely true. But do take the time to visit Steve's post and ask yourself this. If the dissenting voices (via tweet, forum, blog or good old fashioned speech) are readily identifiable, then surely they should be told the error of their ways by their peers. There have always been loose cannons in birding, but now they have many platforms from which to spew their bile. What will happen is that more and more decent people will retire from 'public ornithological service' and the release of rare bird news will lessen. I won't blame those that decide to keep the bird news to themselves, but the ones that will complain are the ones that need only blame themselves,

Monday, 18 November 2013

The calm before the moan

To act as balm in an increasingly tetchy cyberspace, the picture above was taken on Saturday morning along Hawfinch valley (aka Juniper Bottom). The lighting is all over the place, but my trusty compact camera caught the shafts of sunlight perfectly well. You can stick your 'rares' up your proverbial, when I go out into the great British countryside, I prefer to take in what's around me rather than drive several hundred miles to attend a convention of 'Ray Mears dopplegangers', all crowded round a bush where someone else found something unusual. I know, I used to do it, and I shouldn't judge others, but the more I think about it the more absurd such behaviour appears. Still, they've all got much bigger lists than I have, so that's 'learned me' and shown me up for the low-lister that I truly am...

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Internet-based birder

I came across this post's title via firstly a tweet, then a blog post from Jono Lethbridge. I get the impression that the phrase 'internet-based birder' was used against him as an insult (and apologies if I'm incorrect here). This got me thinking.

Birding is no different as a hobby when compared to stamp collecting, train-spotting and following a football team. There are, within the number of participants, varying levels of participation, knowledge and obsession. Being a certain sort of birder (or birdwatcher if you prefer, because the world 'birder' does confer a certain place within the ornithological world) does not mean that all the other sorts of birder are either less competent, relevant or worthy.

We all get from birding what we want - whether that be driving to Wales to look at a lost warbler, watching a local park, or helping out at a reserve in a work party. I have my own personal opinion on what I think is more meaningful, but that doesn't make me right. Nor, logic would suggest, wrong.

Back to being an 'internet-based birder". The suggestion here would be that, rather than paying ones dues out in the field, the person accused spends far too much time writing blog posts and playing around with curves in Photoshop. If that were the case, so what? Appreciation of birds does not have to be expressed by hours spent in the field. To be inspired by their form to produce art is, I reckon, a more creative way of expression than by merely looking through a scope at a bird and then driving a couple of hundred miles before repeating the process.

I've banged on about it before, but what we all do has never before been so scrutinised. It's all our own fault if we insist in telling the world via blogs and tweets what we are up to and what we think. The downside to this is that there seems to be an open season for others to comment on what we do - again, it's the nature of social media.

An example: David Campbell, a young birder who I know very well, has just started a university degree course. He is also in the middle of a rabid bout of twitching. During term time. When he should be at lectures. If he did not tweet and blog about his exploits, nobody would be the wiser. But because he does, he has received plenty of 'comment' about bunking off. Part of me wants to chastise him, but then when I think back to my student days I was just as bad. And, more importantly, what the hell has it got to do with me? Ah.... well, in a way, when somebody uses Twitter and blogging to tell me what they've been up to, then, in a way, I've been invited to comment. When you sign up to these things and create an account you are living in a glass house.

Am I less of a birder in 2013 than I was, thirty years ago, in 1983? I don't think so. I was out in the field an awful lot more. I was sharper in the field. I found more (if we are to use that shallow reference point). But my appreciation of the natural world is far wider now, and I get just as much enjoyment from writing stuff like you are reading now. If the term 'internet-based birder' was to become common currency, it's a moniker that I wouldn't be insulted to have bestowed upon me.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Elfin Saddle

A glorious late autumn morning saw me wandering the woods and footpaths that form most of Juniper Bottom and Top in Surrey. Once again, no Hawfinches, although they might be lurking nearby in smaller numbers than last winter - it's easy to forget that they were only knowingly present during March, so who knows when they actually took up residence? Apart from at least 7 Marsh Tits it was all quiet on the ornithological front. Where would I have rather been today - here or standing with 100 other blokes in someone's garden in Wales? No contest, and not just because I have already seen Orphean Warbler in Britain.

I do like beech woodland, at any time of year. It has a majesterial feel, like walking through a natural cathedral, the light of a special quality.

My highlight was this Elfin Saddle - not uncommon, but I have not seen one before. Yet another fungi with a great name.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The one's that got away

I mentioned the following scenario a couple of posts ago. I will now expand...

One clear, calm November morning, sometime in the mid 1980s, Sean McMinn and myself were birding the fields to the east of Boulderwall farm at Dungeness. It was a glorious morning, a real pleasure to be out. We picked up a small, dumpy passerine high above us and it called once. It was a dead ringer for a Trumpeter Finch. Sean was familiar with them from many visits to the Middle East. The bird carried on eastwards and out of view. It did not call again.The air was still, the acoustics were excellent, and we both felt as if a star prize had got away. We didn't release the information and only mentioned it in passing to our close birding chums.

The only other time that I have (knowingly) recorded a rarity but not submitted it was also in the company of Sean. It was late October and we were sitting in the Dungeness Bird Observatory back garden, mugs of tea in hand. We didn't see the bird that called, but it was very close - without doubt a Red-throated Pipit. We had both seen (and heard) hundreds in Israel the previous year. It did not call again. We decided that there would be little point in submitting it, or even mentioning it.

The more time that you spend in the field, the more likely it is that such incidents will occur. Dealing with them can be interesting.

Monday, 11 November 2013


I'm currently reading Robert Macfarlanes's excellent book 'The Old Ways' (and a gushing review will appear soon). In it he writes about the Gannet colony on Sula Sgeir and the presence, for a few years, of a Black-browed Albatross. This particular individual was already well-known to the birding fraternity, having been present on Bass Rock in 1967, then relocated in 1972 at Hermaness, staying for twenty years before disappearing once again, only to resurface at Sula Sgeir between 2005 and 2007. He was named Albert Ross and caused many a birder to head north for a tick.

This reminded me of another bird that stayed around long enough to be given a name - and that was George the Glaucous Gull, who haunted the north Norfolk coast between Cley and Salthouse between the early 1960s and early 1980s. I saw him in 1977 and felt as if I was meeting a proper celebrity - I bet there are a few birders out there who stared at him through their optics and felt that they were in the presence of ornithological royalty. When he went (to that great beach in the sky no doubt), a first-winter bird turned up shortly afterwards and was christened - Boy George!

Friday, 8 November 2013

You find a rarity - what next?

The following is borne out of recent discussions with birding friends:

Scenario One
An elderly neighbour tells you that she has seen a strange bird feeding on her back garden lawn each morning for several days. You are invited into her house the following morning as it has appeared again - it is an American Robin. It is only viewable from her sitting room window. You cannot view the garden from anywhere else. You know that she values her privacy.

Scenario Two
You are monitoring breeding Ringed Plovers on a shingle beach. A spanking male Black-eared Wheatear appears amongst them. It is still there two hours later. To reach the spot from where you are watching it, you needed to walk across several Ringed Plover territories.

Scenario Three
You are at an east coast migration hot spot that is very busy with birders. You flush a bird that flies into a thicket of hawthorn. You have brief views. From what you've seen, you are highly suspicious that the bird was a Desert Warbler. A birder approaches you shortly afterwards and asks you if have seen much.

Scenario Four
You are a walking through a field when a bird calls from above. It calls just the once. You cannot see it but you recognise the call as that of a Trumpeter Finch. It does not call again.

Scenario Five
You come across a large pipit. You suspect that it might be a Blyth's Pipit but you have no experience of the species. You have three birding friends that you could call on who live close by. Two of them are the height of discretion. The third is a manic tweeter.

Each of these scenarios opens up different dilemmas. The most obvious is - should the news be released? And if the answer to that is yes, then should such a release of news be selective?

One question that needs to be asked in all of this is "who owns the observation"? When a 'good' bird is found there is a great assumption that the details behind such a sighting should immediately be placed in the public domain. Why? Where is there a written understanding that an observer has to be compelled to share such information? And if a birder decides - for whatever reason - to not release such news, should they expect immunity from castigation for not doing so? In most cases, the immediate accusation from those who are annoyed by a news black-out is one of suppression - but it is rarely the case that reluctance to release news is down to a deep-seated wish to grip others off.

But we live in times when instant news is the expectation. Five minutes delay is five minutes too much. And just to know what species has been seen and where it was seen is no longer good enough. Who saw it? For how long? How well was it seen? What did it do? Where did it go? Is the observer a stringer? Did they see the under-tail coverts? The inquisition, whether realised or not, is always there. If you don't believe me, just look at a twitter feed (which can be knee-jerk instant reaction without any time being spent thinking about what words are being released into the public domain - or their possible effect), or a forum (you know what the score can be here, mud-slinging, half-truths, witch-hunts).

Is it any wonder that some birders prefer to withdraw from the arena and either NOT release news under certain circumstances or at least release the news SELECTIVELY.

We also a need to look at the 'stage' of the birder's development when considering all of this. A keen, young (or beginner) birder will want to curry favour with their more experienced congeners and so get news of finds out there as quickly as possible with the expectation of praise and kudos. They might also be chasing lists and so not as understanding of the 'reluctant releaser'. Older hands might be laid back about garnering praise (they may well already have proved themselves in the birding arena) and possibly wiser about the possible ramifications of an influx of birders into a habitat or the affect it might have on local people, or the chance of vilification if the identification is proven incorrect. Of course, birders do not easily fall into such clearly defined groups, but these groups do exist and can handily represent differing takes on the subject.

One tweet - just one - concerning news of a rare bird, will have alerts going off on several hundred phones within minutes. Then the conversation begins. If the news is not straightforward, then the fun starts. It didn't used to be like this.

By the way, of the five scenarios that I gave above, one of them genuinely happened to me...

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Busily doing nothing

A free morning and the possibility of a local Yellow-browed Warbler saw me at Holmethorpe Sand Pits shortly after eight. Although up to a dozen birders were present, the bird failed to appear. This is the sort of situation that sends me into a game of chance - do you stake out the known haunt of your quarry in the hope that it will come back again - or do you wander off, trying to guess where the bird might have gone but in the knowledge that you increase the chances of missing the bird when it reappears where it has appeared before? I did a bit of both.

The fact that I didn't see the warbler was made all the easier by spending a wonderful couple of hours with my old mate Graham James. We were joined by David Campbell (taking time off from his university course in twitching), but sadly I missed Neil Randon, who had obviously set his alarm far earlier than I.

As much as I spent four hours in the field searching for the warbler, it cannot be considered that it was time spent birding. Standing still in likely spots can only entertain for so long...

A brief stop at Canons Farm (to count the Linnet flock) was made. There have been counts of 600 birds - today it was just 250.

Before the light faded I visited the Red Cage site in Banstead, where the latest eruption has folded like a tired souffle (see above). These fungi are disturbing, looking like offal, heart valves and rock-pool debris. And all from an egg.

Monday, 4 November 2013

A pervert in the woods?

I received an email yesterday from someone who gave me precise directions to an area in the New Forest where there are currently many Devil's Fingers fungi on show. This was a case of 'reaping what you sow', as the gent involved had asked for, and received, directions to some Bog Orchids from your's truly several years ago. But I digress...

I have a couple of days off work at the end of the week and am considering going to look for these exotic fungi. But hold on - I wouldn't be doing this if it was a rare bird and not a mushroom, would I? And why not? Well, I think I know the reason why, and that is people. If I do go to look for the 'fingers' I will most probably be the only other person there - possibly one or two others if I were present all day. If it were a rare bird then there would be a gaggle of green-clad middle-aged men already present when I arrived, a procession of others throughout the day and I would be uncomfortable.

Now, this use of the word 'uncomfortable'. Why would I feel that way? Well, standing with a number of other blokes (they usually are) decorated with binoculars, telescopes and tripods does stand out. If you are on a nature reserve it's expected, but most rare birds (or fungi for that matter) will appear where the public go and they do not expect to come across a re-enactment of 'Last of the Summer Wine' crossed with 'Autumnwatch'. There is a great deal of staring and pointing from those sans binoculars. I feel faintly absurd.

A couple of weeks ago I was wandering around Oxshott Woods looking for Starfish Fungus. There were lots of families on Sunday strolls, dog walkers and cyclists. Plus one middle-aged man, all alone, lurking in the undergrowth, furtively. Was he a sex pest? A dogger? A ne'er do well? No, it was me. But all of the looks that were coming my way suggested that I was. At one point a dog ran up to me barking. The dog's owner explained that 'he's barking because he finds it strange to see a man in the woods without another dog'.

I saw the fungi and got out of the woods as quickly as possible.

Saturday, 2 November 2013


The St. Judes storm gave us Southern Softies a bit of a shake-up earlier in the week. North of Watford they most probably wondered what all the fuss was about, but we mustn't lose sight of those whose lives were affected, and for a few it was truly tragic. In all honesty there was little to show for it in my neighbourhood - a few fence panels down, the odd branch splayed across the pavement and one fallen beech tree that closed a side road for an hour or two. In the copses and woods signs of the violent weather were more apparent, as the images above show. At least in these places the trees will be left alone, opening the canopy and giving home to dead-wood loving invertebrates.

As I sit here typing this, the wind is up again. No doubt a few trees were weakened last Monday and will take only a little persuasion to fall...

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Where is Staines Reservoir?

Is Staines Reservoir in the county of Surrey?


It is you know, if you live in Staines your postal address is Surrey

But it's north of the River Thames, Surrey is south of the river, any fule kno that*

Ah, but in 1965 there was a shake-up of the administrative make-up of the county. Surrey lost the London Boroughs of Croydon, Kingston, Merton, Sutton and Richmond, and in the same process gained Spelthorne. Staines Reservoir is in Spelthorne.

Hold on a minute, I lived in Sutton between 1971 - 1997 and my postal address was Surrey


And my beef isn't with an administrative carving up of a county, but with it keeping an unchanging biological recording unit.

You mean the vice-county?

Yes, or Watsonian county if you like. These were set up in 1852 to create uniform units of land for the purposes of scientific data gathering. Many were based on the ancient county boundaries. Surrey was small enough to be one vice-county (VC17), but larger counties, such as neighbouring Kent and Sussex were divided into two (West and East).

So, where do you think Staines is then?


Middlesex doesn't exist any more

Yes it does, what about the cricket team?


And also the London Natural History Society still has a recorder for the Middlesex part of their recording area.

Look here, Middlesex was taken apart and shared out between Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Surrey and Greater London in 1965. I've already told you that.

Why did the Birds of Surrey, published in 1971, not mention records from the Spelthorne area at all? Or subsequent annual bird reports?

Ah, but the recent Birds of Surrey, published fairly recently, did.

But only as an additional, stand alone paragraph at the end of each species account. It was treated very much like an uninvited guest at a party!

Yes, but it still got in, didn't it. And the Surrey Bird Club website always reports news from Staines on their latest bird news page.

OK, but please tell me this. If we have used the vice-county as a recording unit since 1852, shouldn't we maintain it so that all of the data gathered over the years is from the same unit? It makes no sense to suddenly add on an area because some governmental body started playing God with units of land.

But a lot of birders have seen a lot of good birds at Staines

What's that got to do with it?

Well, their Surrey lists are a lot longer because of it

Well doesn't this just illustrate the absurdity of listing?

Don't you have lists?

I do, but they are still arbitrary

What about the birds that you have seen at Staines Reservoir but not in Surrey?

What about them?

Well, what species do they include?

Baird's Sandpiper. Long-billed Dowitcher. Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

Go on...

Wilson's Phalarope. Red-necked Phalarope. Little Tern. Sanderling.

That's not bad is it. Haven't you seen Long-tailed Duck there as well?


And Snow Bunting?

Oh, yes...

I make that at least nine birds that you could have added to your Surrey list. So, I'll ask you again. Is Staines Reservoir in Surrey?


* courtesy of Molesworth

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Hawfinch no show

Juniper Bottom, looking up the valley. Larches in foreground were good for Hawfinch in March

Juniper Bottom, looking back towards car park. The bank of yews supplied the March Hawfinches with food.

Last Sunday, after paying a visit to the Starfish Fungi, I took myself to Juniper Bottom, mainly to check for Hawfinches. Wintering roosts can start to build by now, but I am more than aware that the flock that was present here in March might well have been a one-off, or not start to form until later in the winter. Time will tell. No birds were seen, or heard.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Lou Reed

This might be a natural history blog, but I do wander off subject occasionally.

Lou Reed passed away yesterday, in the same year as Kevin Ayres and Ray Manzarek - the golden generation of the 60s and 70s are slowly leaving us.

I have long held Transformer as one of the greatest albums. If only for that, Mr Reed has my eternal thanks. I would also recommend his 1989 album New York as worthy of investigation.

He could, apparently, be a right old curmudgeon. Artistic temperament? Prima donna? Maybe a bit of both. Regardless, he was one cool dude...

Apparently, he said this:

"One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz."

Sunday, 27 October 2013

A starfish miles from the sea

If you go down to the woods near Oxshott today, you're in for a big surprise...

No teddy bear's picnic, I'm afraid, but something even more bizarre - Starfish Fungus (Aseroe rubra). After having seen Red Cage during the week I'm positively overdosing on exotic fungi. A big thanks to Seth Gibson for the precise grid reference that led me to a fine cluster of these beauties in several states of development.

Fully 'out', with a slick of foul smelling gunk on top
An egg, awaiting to give birth to an alien like the one above
This one's gone over, looking like a tideline corpse - more marine than mycological

Thursday, 24 October 2013

When does a Common Swift become a Pallid?

I have to ask the question, and not because I disbelieve that there are Pallid Swifts in our skies. It seems that for the past few years, any lone swift seen above our fair country in the late autumn has as much chance of being a Pallid as a Common. Are there Pallid Swifts in our skies much earlier in the autumn that are just not being picked up, mostly because there are plenty of Commons about? Are birders not conditioned to look for them earlier in the autumn? Does a lone, late autumn swift get grilled all the more  and so any Pallids present are not getting missed? And what about all of those late swifts from yesteryear? How many of those, that were passed off as Common, were in fact Pallid?

A few years ago, on November 28th, I was walking along a street in Sutton on a mild, heavily overcast day. I happened to look up just as a swift came into view, very low. It passed directly over me and I saw it very well. I was more than aware that there was a very good chance that it could be a Pallid, but it was just a Common. I was a little disappointed. I think that I was unlucky in the bird just being the 'common' species. I wouldn't mind betting that there was more chance of it being a Pallid that late in the year.

The past few days have seen a number of Pallids being found. I would be interested to find out how many Common Swifts are being reported at the moment. What is the ratio between the two species from mid-October onwards? Is any swift seen from late October onwards statistically more likely to be a rare one? I wonder what date Common Swifts become Pallid in the birders psyche?

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Red Cage (Clathrus ruber)

Just before I left the office this evening I checked my emails to find one from Banstead's very own botanical guru, John Peacock. He was alerting me to the appearance of Clathrus ruber, a sessile stinkhorn that rarely appears in the UK. It has an English name - Red Cage.

I have longed after seeing this species, and had looked in vain for it before, when John discovered it growing under a yew tree in Banstead two years ago. Last year was a no show, so his message had me detouring from home. The light was fading and I only had my camera phone with which to record this striking fungus. I could see two fruiting bodies from some way off, one much larger than the other. There are several coral-red species, all with an exotic and startling appearance that, I believe, come from Australasia. Their appearances may be increasing, particularly on municipal wood mulch.

The irony of rushing off to twitch a fungus is not lost on me. I expect cries of 'hypocrite' to come from several birders...

Thanks John, you've made my day!

Ash to ashes

To read about more grief for our Ash trees, click here

What with ash die-back, they now have the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle to contend with.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Yet to see

There will be species that, no matter how many years you have been looking, still evade you. These are mine:

For all of the hours spent seawatching I have not connected with either Cory's or Great Shearwater. The more pragmatic amongst you might point out that SE Kent is not the best place to see either of these species, and I'd have to agree with you. My seawatching time in Cornwall has been limited - a concerted late summer blitz to that fair county should supply me with them if I so desired. Corncrake for the 'southern' birder is unlikely, unless you are the holder of a 'golden ticket' and manage to flush one of these skulkers on passage. I've not been to the breeding stronghold of the Western Isles, although the introduction programme might just up the chances of a chance encounter. The same might be said of Capercaillie - I'm not going to bump into one of these on Leith Hill (Surrey) and if I did I would expect to have my optics confiscated at once. As for Scottish Crossbill, I will ask only this - do they actually exist?

I have been a little lazy in seeking those 'local' species - I could hoover up Heath Fritillary, Lulworth Skipper and Glanville Fritillary was a small amount of effort. maybe 2014 will see me do so.

Just dealing in 'macros', the closest species that evade me are the Foresters (Common, Scarce and Cistus) and Wood Tiger. I know the sites, I've even been to some of them, but my timing has been all to cock.

Leaving the colonising species alone, the one stand out omission for me is Club-tailed Dragonfly. Present nearby in the Thames and Arun basins, this should be easy enough if I put in a bit of time.

There are plenty more, and one of the reasons that spur us on to keep on looking and searching. But it's not all about the lifer, is it.

Monday, 21 October 2013


This afternoon, Blogger announced that it was suspending the site North Downs and beyond until further notice. This has come about after several complaints were received by the company as to the content of the blog and the attitude of its 'owner'.

A spokesperson for Blogger said: "We have been monitoring this site for some time now. We felt compelled to step in as there has been a sudden rise in the number of complaints regarding the tone and direction that the blog is taking."

Blogger has released some of these complaints and they make uncomfortable reading:

"North Downs has become home to a radical ornithological hate preacher who should be deported at once"

"Who on earth does he think he is? Well I'll tell you who he is, a old bitter fool who is out of step with the modern birding world. He can bugger off back to draw brass telescopes and low lists if he wants, but he can leave the rest of us alone!"

"He can stick his Wallcreepers up his *rse, he hasn't seen anything in the field for over twenty years - no, make that thirty years!!"

"This buffoon hides behind pan-listing to make ammends for his poor birding performance. He could wander around Shetland for a year and still not find anything of note. A rank amateur"

"I used to like Steve, but then he went all Victor Meldrew on me."

A petition signed by such bodies as the Surrey Wildlife Trust, the UK400 Club and even some of his closest friends has been handed into Google in an attempt to get the site permanently closed down.

This afternoon Steve Gale released this statement:

"I think it's for the best if I don't post for a while. Modern birders are largely vapid, self-serving and shallow beings, who have invented a world for themselves in which heroism is easily gained by doing very little indeed. The migrations of their cars back and forth across the country is as tiresome as it is predictable. The world does not revolve around the number 400, the call of a Parrot Crossbill or on how many 'rares' you have self-found. This is a world that I breifly inhabited and now turn my back upon."

Blogger canvassed for reaction to his statement at several east coast hot spots, but nobody that was asked had ever heard of him.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Don't fence me out!

This morning I wandered over to Surrey Wildlife Trust's newest reserve (so new it isn't yet open) at Priest Hill, Ewell. I've known this area for many years. I used to play school football on the playing fields, have wandered over the abandoned eastern half with binoculars and/or dog and spent more than a few hours doing botanical survey work for the Surrey Botanical Society. Basically it is a flat area, maybe one mile long and half a mile wide, largely comprising basic grassland with a small amount of scrub. It does not possess a rich fauna and flora although I doubt that much work has been done over the years - however, I'm sure a trawl through the literature would result in one or two nice surprises.

You can read about the SWT's plans for the site here.

Now, as you can gather from my last post, I have a downer on the over use of fencing. Like this:

I took this picture this morning, looking NW across the reserve. The wide ride that you can see used to be accessed by the public, but is now criss-crossed by several fences. I should point out that local people have, until now, walked over this ground for many years, although I'm not sure that access has ever been strictly 'open' - this happened to be one of those abandoned parcels of land that had been utilised by those people living nearby.

More fencing (left). I walked across the site and was herded (by fences) into a narrow funnel. I doubt that 10% of the area was open to me. Most of it appears to be off limits - and this was an area that had 100% access until recently.  Maybe I am ignorant to the needs and ways of running a 21st century nature reserve. It could be that, once the prep work has been completed, some of these fences will be taken down, or access granted via stiles or kissing gates.

I believe that livestock will be utilised on site, so of course secure fencing is needed, but surely not to the exclusion of people? Belted Galloways are used at Headley Heath and Colley Hill without the need for the exclusion of humanity.

If we wish to educate the public at large, encourage the appreciation of wildlife and use the amateur naturalist to add to the understanding of an area, this cannot be done by fencing them out. And why fence them out anyway? What is being protected? Rank grassland? A pair of Skylarks?

My hope is that access will be allowed beyond that which is currently offered. I hope that the only thing on show here is my ignorance. The nearby reserve (also SWT) at Howell Hill is fenced off, but has gates at either end granting access the whole site, a wonderful chalk-spoil hill full of orchids. Priest Hill seems to offer the visitor a walk around the edge of its perimeter fence. I was looking forward to a reserve within walking distance from my home. I hope that I've got it wrong, and that, at the opening, all will be of a positive nature.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Actual birding. For a change

Yes, today I was out in the field, with not only my binoculars, but also my telescope. Proper birding. I didn't necessarily go to proper birding places though, deciding to cover some of the local patches - it beats driving ninety miles to scratch my ornithological itch.

First stop was Canons Farm. One large finch flock (on the otherwise correctly named Skylark Field), comprised 200 Linnets, 60 Chaffinches and a lone male Brambling. I stood and scoped them in between their frequent bouts of taking to the air, but couldn't string anything rare.

Holmethorpe Sand Pits was next. Where do I start? I really like the place - large waterbodies, farmland, hedgerows - but it's so bloody difficult to bird! All the water is fenced off and 90% of the fencing has mature vegetation between it and the water, making observation nigh on impossible. The pit known as Mercers West can be viewed only from a small gate, and a bramble bush the other side of this gate has now grown to about the same size and shape as the field of view that we once enjoyed. Spynes Mere is just about viewable from the northern flank (because the path rises high above it), but all the good habitat is safely kept clear of the birder by several fences, thorny growth and quick growing trees. An assault course couldn't be better designed. At least the Watercolours Lagoons are viewable - wrong! Again, copious planting (behind more fencing) has matured so that hundreds of metres that were once birdable are now not. Whoever got the fencing and planting contract from the Surrey Wildlife Trust must have been able to retire on the proceeds. In the few places where I could peek at the water I did see a drake and duck Red-crested Pochard and 29 Wigeon. I will most probably wait until all the leaves have fallen from the trees before going back. A note to the SWT - please cut back this preposterous vegetation. Or are you trying to discourage the public from looking at open water? A clear view might actually encourage some of them to engage in the natural world rather than just snag their clothing on barbed wire and brambles. This habitat shouldn't just be available to a few souls who populate the monthly work party! There are people out here who would love to be able to record the wildlife that the area undoubtably holds in a meaningful way and share the results with you and the recorders! This reserve is the most observer unfriendly I've ever visited! There are no viewing ramps, hides or easy access for the able bodied, let alone anybody who is disabled. Come on, it cannot be that difficult to organise. If you haven't got the budget then you shouldn't have spent so much on fencing, hawthorn plugs and guelder rose bushes. And yes, this is critical, but hey, criticism happens - I get it at work and at home, it's just a part of life. I'm not anti-SWT at all, I think that they have some cracking reserves and their series of books are excellent.

Lastly, calm. I love Colley Hill and spent a couple of hours skywatching. Only a couple of Common Crossbills of note (no wing-bars or parrot bills) but that was good enough for me.

Colley Hill:  looking east. The Crossbills flew down into the wood at the bottom of the slope

Colley Hill: looking west. I've always fancied a Ring Ouzel along the top bushes. That's not asking too much, is it?