Monday, 29 April 2013

12 out of 61

So far in 2013 I've published 61 posts.

Out of those, only 12 are directly related to the natural history that I've recorded at that time.The rest are a mixture of opinion, waffle, nostalgia and the wittering of a confused person.

Maybe I need to get out into the field a bit more...

Friday, 26 April 2013

Heroic tales

Those that couldn't do it - because they were too old, lacked the courage or were needed in other places - could only admire these brave lads from afar. They sent them messages -

"Go and do it for all of us that cannot"

"No regrets. Just do it now"

And when these heroic men succeeded, they were showered with more tributes -

"Well done"

"Well done indeed, great work!"

"Who dares wins!"

Are we talking about Second World War Spitfire pilots here? No. Intrepid explorers discovering wonderous things in far-flung wilderness? No. Brave firefighters risking their lives on a daily basis? No, not them either... we a talking about birders who got in a car, drove a few miles and saw a bird that somebody else had found. Welcome to the world of Twitter! Welcome to what passes as success and which draws admiration in the 21st century! I think I need to time travel back to an era when things weren't so f***ed up...

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Rock Thrush and hypocrisy

I have been right royally entertained by my Twitter feed this afternoon, following the trials and tribulations of birders sharing their angst and deliberations as to whether or not to travel to Spurn to try and see a Rock Thrush. These cries for digital help have been answered by others tweeters, egging them on to go, or bemoaning that they would join them but for work. Some have admitted to bunking off employment, lying to the 'other-half' and stealing cars to make a Humberside-bound get away - thank God I got out of twitching years ago!

Before I appear 'holier-than-thou' I must admit to being guilty of one of the longest episodes of bunking-off in recorded history. It was October 1979 and my good birding friend Dave Eland was about to leave for a two week holiday to the Isles of Scilly. I spoke to him the evening before his departure, me green with envy, but I couldn't take it any longer - he had space in his car so I asked for a lift. He was only too happy to oblige. There was a problem however. I was, at the time, a full-time student at art college and it was term-time. No problems, I thought, I'll sort that out when I return...

Two weeks later, after a fairly average Scilly sojourn (best bird a Rose-breasted Grosbeak), I returned to college where my head tutor ushered me into his office. "Where have you been?" he asked. I adopted a very sad face, looked at the ground and mumbled something about 'family problems', 'private matters' and 'rather not talk about it'. And do you know what - it worked. I think he felt sorry for me for the rest of my time as a student, no doubt imagining all sorts of horrible goings-on at my home.

Now, what I find interesting is my reaction to similar examples of bunking off that are being performed by modern-day student birders (yes, you David!) Having been a serial bunker-offer in the past, I am now a bit sniffy about it (my current thinking suggesting a lack of application in the perpetrator's studies and loose moral fibre). Talk about being hypocritical! I put this down to trying to convince myself that it is more desirable to conform to dull normality rather than living the dream - I am certainly attempting to call night 'day' with this. After all, this ornithological enthusiasm 'burning brightly' doesn't last forever, so why not grasp it while it's there? I'm looking out of a window now at the sky and wishing I was birding, that's for sure.

But, I can type this, happy in the fact that I'm laid-back about the presence of a Rock Thrush at Spurn and have no compulsion to leave at once.

Having already seen one in this country does also help...

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Two things...

Both of today's thoughts (and that is a grand description for what follows), come courtesy of the latest issue of Birdwatch magazine.

A whole page of this issue is devoted to photographs of birders 'birding'. In fact some of them aren't even birding, more gurning at the cameraman taking the picture. This is, of course, harmless - but who is it aimed at? The only people I can think of  whose lives will be enriched by seeing them are those who actually appear in the pictures, although one of the images does show a young lad, so I would assume his wider family would be proud of seeing him in print. Maybe this is part of media's obsession with celebrity culture, of pushing the 'me, me, me' (to steal, once more, from Mr Lethbridge). In fact, one of the pictures is his! I can see the worth of a news-worthy image (3,000 at the Golden-winged Warbler) or curiosity value (a rare bird perched on someone's head, which evokes memories of that Nutcracker a few years back). Whatever next - a photographic page of birders packed lunches?

On the opposite page was a news item about the multi-splitting of Red-bellied Pitta into a further 17 (I think) species. Most of these will be found on single islands spread across Indonesia. My thoughts at once went to Chris Goodie, author of the superb 'The Jewel Hunter'. In it he tells the tale of his year in which he successfully saw all of the worlds pittas. Not any more he hasn't...

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Arise, Sir Birder...

This is for the Bluetail, soldier

Jono Lethbridge recently touched on the subject of arrogance in birding - (you can be teased by the promise of a rant here). Now...

One of the 'givens' in this birding game is that it is a substitute activity in lieu of us not going out and being 'hunter-gatherers'. OK, some of us do work and earn money to fulfil this role in life, but the primal experience of hunting down and killing your food is missing. In the evolution of man this is still a recent loss to the day-to-day activity of a human being.

Thus, going out into the field, armed not with a bow-and-arrow but a pair of binoculars, is the modern version of hunting (at least for some of us). And because of this, whether you believe it or not, birding defines your prowess as a man (or a woman if you are one of the 0.009% of birders that is not a man). If you go out into the field and not find a good bird, you are WEAK. If you cannot identify species properly, you are WEAK. If your fellow birders do not rate you as a birder - yes, you are WEAK. This is where stringing, boasting and arrogance come in. Because to be seen as weak in our society is not welcomed, and those who feel as if they need to do a bit of self-promotion to boost their profile will start to massage the truth, manipulate the facts and ensure that everyone else who birds is aware at any small successes that come their way.

Think about it - you find out that there has been a rarity at a local site and the first question you will ask will most probably be "Who found it?". You need to know because we (maybe without realising it), attach importance to this fact. And when we do find a good bird ourselves, think about the smug satisfaction involved as you greet the other birders as they turn up to see it (and you feign indifference as they offer you their congratulations). When a bird report is published who doesn't turn straight to the systematic list to look for their initials against a rare bird, high count or early/late migrant.

If they gave out medals for birding prowess, we'd wear them in the field without a moments hesitation.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

I've seen the future of birding

I spent a bit of time watching the TV coverage of the Masters golf over the weekend. It got me thinking...

There was a gallery that followed the golfers around the course (invariably the largest crowds gravitated towards that serial grouch Tiger Woods). They shared with them every swing that was taken, jointly pontificated over every shot choice and analised the surface of the green before every putt. Vicarious golfing if ever there was. Now, what if birding became a spectator sport?

Imagine the gallery following a top lister, all being asked for hush as he (it will invariably be a he), approaches the coastal headland and turns to his caddy for a choice of binocualr or telescope. The caddy polishes the lenses and hands him a Swarovski 10x42 EL - the top lister obviously feels that he doesn't need the power of a big hitter, like a telescope. He surveys the growth ahead of him and crouches down alongside a hedgerow. The crowd keep quiet, watching his facial expression for a clue as to what might happen next. After a couple of suspense-filled minutes his eyes dart left and right, there's a murmur in the crowd, he's onto something! In one swift action the binoculars come up to his eyes, he springs up, the crowd rise with him at the same time as a smart Orphean Warbler sits on top of a nearby bush. The crowd erupts, the lister punches the air along to calls from the throng such as 'On the list!', 'You the man!' and 'Hot Optics!' As he walks to the next habitat, the gallery trailing in his wake, he surveys the water ahead of him, turns to his caddy and selects a telescope. This will need some serious power.

At the end of his round he will hand in his list for scrutiny - a panel of recorders will be sitting in a hut to verify his claims. As far fetched as this might be, I reckon that there might be a market for this kind of entertainment... you heard it here first.

Monday, 15 April 2013

What is a patch and does it matter?

Yesterday was a busy one, bird wise, across the local area. At Canons Farm there was a Green Sandpiper (second ever) and a Mute Swan (almost as rare). This understandably aroused a cerain excitement amongst the regular birders. Apart from illustrating the joys and rewards of patch watching, it also illustrates the absurdities of doing so: had these two species been seen at Beddington SF or Holmethorpe SP, both places no more than five miles distant, they would barely have registered a second glance. So the same bird, seen at three different places within a ten-mile radius, could have gone go from 'expected species' to 'patch mega' and back again depending on where it had alighted. And what defines a patch? Where (and more importantly why) does its boundary exist and who rules upon it? If you see a bird flying from your chosen patch (but not actually in the air space above it), does that count as a patch bird? And does it matter? Any boundary declared by mankind - be they countries, counties or nature reserves are totally haphazard, most probably having boundaries chosen due to coastline, river, road or railway.

One of my 'on-off' patches, is called Holmethorpe Sand Pits for convenience, but a great deal of the area isn't sand pits at all, with a large part of it meandering across farmland and up onto Nutfield Ridge. These borders were agreed upon by the local birders and some parts of the patch were only 'cobbled on' because they were places that were nearby and regularly looked at. For convenience, you could say. The fact that the M23 and a railway line act as part border to this patch shows the arbitary nature of such things - had these man-made objects been 100m further west or 800m further east then the patch would be smaller (or larger) because of it. Still, if we play such games as listing wildlife then I suppose we need a hook to hang it on.

I think that I've lost the patch-watchers obsessiveness, as demonstrated by not really having one place that I regularly go, but having several, and even these are not visited with any regularity. And now that summer is upon us this will be watered down further as my attention will be increasingly turned towards other forms of wildlife. Part of me laments this loss - as much as I am glad that I didn't want to rush across to Canons Farm to 'tick-off' the Green Sandpiper, I must admit to being envious of those that were getting an ornithological high from doing so.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Birding fight club

During a bout of Twitter ping-pong between David 'Devilbirder' Campbell and myself (over whether a Dunlin or Woodlark was a better Canons Farm bird) he ended the discussion by claiming that 'his' Dunlin would beat 'my' Woodlark in a fight - fair do's. This then got me thinking about what bird on the British list would, in fact, be the best species to have by your side when it all kicked off...

This is not as simple a decision as it sounds. Size immediately comes into play. You can imagine the mismatch if a Goldcrest took on a Canada Goose. Then manoeuvrability needs to be taken into consideration, although what's good in the air (a Swift, for example) might be a sitting duck (or in this case a sitting Swift) on the ground - by the way, Swifts have secret weapons, as they possess very sharp claws, although being on the end of stumpy legs degrades their weapon of choice. Weight will be important, to either flatten the opposition or to enable a strike to have plenty of momentum. We also need to take into consideration the instruments of pain that the species have at their disposal. The bill (raptor sharp, heron dagger, Hawfinch bulk), claws (raptor talons, swift needles) and wings (a swan can break reinforced concrete with a single flap!). Length of neck and leg should not be forgotten.

But before we get carried away, the venue of battle needs to be factored in. A Gannet sitting on the sea will see off a Crane (that will be drowning), but on land the long-legs and neck of the Crane will enable it to run rings around the floundering Gannet and nip in to land savage blows with its bill. Smaller raptors are all well and good in the air, dodging assaults and landing glancing blows with their talons, but would have to submit if a Raven decided to have a go on land.

Raptors will be early favourites to supply the species that will reign supreme, although the falcons will be too lightweight, larger hawks will lack reach and although eagles will make a mess of most birds they will be slow compared to similarly large species like herons and cranes. It is here that I think we will find our champion. The larger herons have wicked dagger-like bills, a long reach, lightning reflexes and a long gait to enable quick 'in-and-out' jabs. What about a crane? Or a stork come to think about it...


Friday, 12 April 2013

Good day, bad day

Late-April 1980
You arrive at school/college/work.
You look out of the window at a hazy sun, the odd shower and a southerly breeze.
You know that there is the potential for birds.
As soon as the days work is over, you rush home, pick up the optics and head for your local patch.
On arrival, a scan over the lake reveals a Little Gull, two Common Terns and, much to your delight a pair of Garganey.
You bump into another birder who has been there all day and he tells you about an Alpine Swift that was present for half-an-hour that morning.
After being on site for an hour, watching a steady passage of hirundines and Yellow Wagtails, you are stunned to see the Alpine Swift has returned, departing north after ten minutes.
You go home thrilled with the birding you have experienced.

Late-April 2013
You arrive at school/college/work.
You look out of the window at a hazy sun, the odd shower and a southerly breeze.
You know that there is the potential for birds because, apart from the clues in the weather, your pager, text messages and twitter feeds have been bombarding you with news of migrants being found in your area.
At 10.30 news comes through of an Alpine Swift on your local patch.
You panic, frantically thinking of a way that you can leave work.
You invent some reason for leaving and arrive on site some 40 minutes later.
The bird has gone but there is no time to spend looking on the lake as you need to get back to work and anyway, you are standing there in your suit minus binoculars.
Back at your desk, sweaty and flustered, the pager, texts and twitter feed constantly reveal new birds are being found, including an Alpine Swift at a reservoir only 15 miles away that appears to be sticking.
You spend the rest of the working day in a stew of disappointment, worry and anger.
As soon as the days work is over, you rush home, pick up the optics and head for the reservoir.
When you get there up to 50 birders are present, but the Alpine Swift hasn't been seen for five minutes.
After waiting for an hour news comes through that it has been refound back at your local patch.
You drive like a maniac and arrive at your patch to be told that the Alpine Swift has not been seen for almost an hour. You wait until dark, but it doesn't return.
Your mood is not lightened as you also missed a Little Gull and a pair of Garganey, all having departed early evening.
You go home despondent with the birding that you have experienced.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Guess who's coming to dinner?

A couple of evening's ago, my wife let me know that "one of your beetles is in the kitchen". This is a great improvement on her screaming and thrashing the insect dead with a shoe, newspaper or drying up cloth.

It was a weevil, but beyond that I couldn't be more specific. After a bit of internet dithering I believe it to be Otiorhynchus sulcatus (no doubt someone out there will correct me if I'm wrong). The picture above shows our kitchen visitor in all its glory, looking like a Doctor Who-themed giant insect-elephant. From the Planet Telfer, most probably. If correct, it takes the pan-species total onto 3,184. At this rate, I'll top 3,185 by the year's end...

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Do you feel lucky, punk?

Gambling with your birding is something that most of us do without even thinking about it. Our choice of destination is the main 'spin of the wheel' that we make, followed by how long we stay out in the field and where exactly we look. Walk the wrong way down a hedgerow and we can miss the cracking male Red-backed Shrike that would have been waiting for us on the other side. Stop and scrutinise that gull flock resting on the fields and a Red-rumped Swallow might be hawking up and down the meadow behind us. I could fill plenty of posts with tales of 'if only'.

This weekend's gamble is as much a test of my bottle. I have long wanted to find a decent viz mig site along the North Downs scarp. My search for such a place has so far resulted in failure. Maybe I need to look along the gaps in the hills? One obvious place is the Mole Gap at Dorking and, if this is to be somewhere that can deliver the goods, then I have found a number of vantage points from which to watch the skies. But, the realist in me knows that to prove (or disprove) the quality of a place for its birding requires a lot of time to be put into watching it. I can only give a site a cursory glance. But such is the draw of trying to discover a 'new' place, I think it's worth a punt.

This weekend looks much better for migration (although today hasn't been too bad if you trawl the net and Twitter). I'm going to gamble on missing good local birding elsewhere, roll the dice and take up position. I could be sitting down for the day and returning home with an empty notebook and a battered ego. But then again, it would only take an Osprey or a Marsh Harrier to make me feel vindicated.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Nature notes from White Hart Lane

My butterfly list for White Hart Lane, home to Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, leapt up to 2 species this afternoon, with a Large White fluttering above the pitch 45 minutes before the kick-off against Everton. This joins the Brimstone that I saw last April (before the Swansea City match). You can carry on looking for the natural history wherever you happen to be...

Saturday, 6 April 2013

More dead animals

After posting pictures of an ex-Kittiwake last Saturday, I'm afraid to say this post follows in similar macabre footsteps - this time the subject is an American Mink. Whilst out on an afternoon stroll along the River Mole at Mickleham, my daughters called me over to inspect a corpse that they had found. As much as this species is a bloody pest it is a beautiful creature, the fur a sumptuous chocolate brown, which is, of course, why the poor little so-and-so's are farmed. At least any nearby Bank Voles or nesting birds can rest a little more easily...

Thursday, 4 April 2013

I do care what the weather man says

I'm not a 'global-warming' sceptic, but I am starting to realise that the climate models that were created when 'global-warming' was all the rage were not entirely accurate. It used to be all so simple - increased temperatures meant melting ice caps, rising sea levels and a hotter climate for the UK (mild frost-free winters and long sunny summers). We all thought that this meant breeding Mediterranean birds, street cafes and a run on flip-flops in the shops. Now it seems that 'global-warming' actually manifests itself by producing weather from any of the four seasons that can appear at any time of year. Extreme weather has always been a part of our climate, but not so much of it at such regular intervals. We are currently 'enjoying' a very late spring (coldest March since 1963), which has followed on from the wettest summer on record which in turn followed the hottest March since dinosaurs ruled the Earth. And this followed the bizarre weather of 2011 when we had unbroken sunshine and temperatures to match between March and June that were followed by a spell that was very wet and very cool, more November than BST. This isn't normal. It reminds me of the visions of nuclear winter that were pedalled around by the doom-mongerer's back in the Cold War days (for those of you under 40 this was a time when Russia and the US postured at each other in a game of nuclear war-head Top Trumps - here in the UK we were supposed to hide behind a door on its side to survive a nuclear attack - no, really). If such bizarre weather continues the only certainty is increased insurance premiums, but we should also concern ourselves with the possible failure of our breeding birds, the delayed arrival of summer migrants, a poor flowering of plants, a crash in the insect population, a lack of crop pollinators, possible crop failure, an increase in food prices - I could go on, but I don't want to depress you all further. But the way the weather is behaving, this time next month might see a hose-pipe ban, Bewl Water reduced to a cracked mud basin and the south coast under a plague of locusts.

The picture of the Little Owl above has nothing to do with the subject of this post - I took it last Saturday at Holmethorpe and quite like it. I wonder what it makes of all this weather...

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

You are of your time

When I was compiling the content of my last post I became quite nostalgic.But nostalgic for what? Long hair and spots? Flared denim and broken-down cars on twitches? Crap optics and hard-to-get birding information? The more I thought about it other things started to take on a gild of gold - three-day weeks, power-cuts, flair footballers, terrace violence, punk rock... not all of these things are good things, I needn't point out, but THEY WERE OF MY TIME. And there is the truth. I entered the 1970s just turned eleven years old and left them as an (almost) independent adult. These were my fomative years, when life was meant (and did) take me by the scruff of the neck and show me the good, the bad and the ugly that it had to offer. Birding got caught up in all that and so became as much a defining influence as my first experience of everything else that came along. I cannot extract my birdwatching experiences from the music, sport, politics and socialising at that time because they were all part of the same thing. It was all intertwined. Back then I would listen to the 'old-time' birders (probably no older than 30 or 40!) waxing lyrical about the Hartlepool Dusky Thrush or the Durlston Brown Thrasher and whose cultural touchstones were 'swinging sixties' cliches. And those birders that grew up in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s all have their own 'defining' twitches, cultural references and social ways that are theirs, not mine. I think that's rather good. It's what makes us and shapes us into who we are.

North Downs and Beyond - home of the pointless post and random stream of consciousness

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

When rare birds really were rare

Back in 1976 I purchased 'Rare Birds in Britain and Ireland' by JTR and EM Sharrock, one from the T&AD Poyser stable. I was indescribably excited by this book, mainly because at the time anything pertaining to rare birds was generally not acknowledged by the ornithological mainstream. Rarities and twitching were still considered the pastime of the idle and unwashed, with the business end of such anti-social behaviour carried out in public telephone boxes and rough pubs. To have such a publication like this was in some ways an affirmation of what we did but also a tremendous read. I spent hours and hours poring over the records of all of the rarities recorded up until the end of 1975 - most of the species mentioned being just a wild fantasy to my teenage birder's feverish mind.

37 years on the book still makes fascinating reading. What is most striking is just how few records that there had been of species that today's birders would think twice about crossing the road for. I'll give you a few examples, and remember, at the point of publication these were the total numbers EVER recorded in GB and Ireland: Little Egret (under 200 records); Great White Egret (12); Black Kite (12); Ring-billed Gull (five); Laughing Gull (six); Franklin's Gull (two); Little Swift (two); Pallid Swift (not yet on the list); Red-rumped Swallow (32); Penduline Tit (1 - yes, just one!), Black-throated Thrush (five); Desert Wheatear (18); Pied Wheatear (four); Isabelline Wheatear (two); Cetti's Warbler (17 - yes, you've read that correctly); Red-flanked Bluetail (three); Booted Warbler (five); Sardinian Warbler (five!!); Dusky Warbler (14); Radde's Warbler (11 - I find this and the low Dusky Warbler total hard to believe); Citrine Wagtail (17); Olive-backed Pipit (six).

Most of these small totals are, of course, indicative of the smaller numbers of birders in the field, a lack of knowledge and, maybe, a pinch of genuine rarity that is not now the case (particularly the eastern vagrants). But looking at that list I can see how some of my great twitches in the late 1970s were for birds that today's birder wouldn't even get out of bed for. It is, at best, a reminder of how birding has changed and a history lesson to me of how things have changed even in my birding lifetime.

Recently it was remarked upon that my blog posts have been all about birds. The reason for this is largely down to the naff weather that is suppressing plant growth and knobbling any lepidoptera that thinks about beating a wing. However, the birding bug is obviously still inside me and has been wriggling about and reminding me how enjoyable it all still is...

Monday, 1 April 2013

A beginner's guide to Holmethorpe

Mercers Lake, the 'Daddy' waterbody of the area. I've seen Great Northern and Black-throated Diver, Red-necked, Black-necked and Slavonian Grebe, Scaup, Smew, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Scoter, Bewick's Swan, Iceland and Little Gull on here, not bad for inland Surrey

Holmethorpe Sand Pits are situated close to Redhill and Merstham, nestling between the natural features of the North Downs and Nutfield Ridge plus the man-made M23 and railway link between London and Brighton. Fullers Earth and sand have been quarried from the area since Roman times, although birdwatchers have only been paying attention since the first flooding of pits took place from about 1960. Recently extraction has stopped, although there are applications to carry on doing so across Mercer's Farm. What has been left is a series of deep pits and floods (Mercer's Lake, Spynes Mere, Mercer's West, Watercolours 1 and 2 and The Moors) of varying sizes. These waterbodies are largely difficult to watch - all water is fenced off and Mercer's West has viewing only from the eastern edge. Manic planting of trees around the edge of Mercer's Lake in the 1960s and 1970s has resulted in an impenetrable barrier of mature growth along 90% of the banking. Add to that the obsessive use of fencing, it is not birding friendly. Recent reclamation of the works has seen further habitat creation alongside residential development at Watercolours. The ridge at Nutfield gives height to the observer, where you stand on ground that was once landfill - an active site is still nearby and does attract thousands of gulls to the area. The small band of regular patch workers, led ably by Gordon Hay along with such stalwarts as Graham James, Ian Kehl and Neil Randon, has resulted in much of ornithological interest being recorded, despite the difficulties. I've been a 'regular irregular' since 1991 and have seen my fair share of goodies. There is potential here for any visiting birder. There is a website where you can catch up on the latest sightings here.
Adult Mediterranean Gull on Spynes Mere last Friday.