Friday, 31 May 2013

"The world isn't like The Wind in the Willows"

Guess who said:

"There's much more reality here (in New Zealand). Everyone's much more clued up to diseases. The world isn't like The Wind in the Willows."


"I get slightly bored with these rather high-profile public entertainers sort of bossing around on this stuff."

Yes, it's Cabinet Minister for the Environment Owen Paterson, speaking in New Zealand about the proposed badger cull in the UK and a very thinly veiled attack on Dr Brian May.

This is the same minister who stormed out of a debate on the cull in the House of Commons saying "I can't stand any more of this". Well, do you know what matey, I can't stand any more of you pal. If you cannot discuss this cull like an adult, if you cannot talk with reason, if you cannot behave like the public servant you are meant to be, then please resign. And take your self-serving mate Benyon with you.

Wildlife is not a commodity.

Listen to the impartial scientific experts and not those who are paid by those with a vested interest to cull badgers.

If somebody disagrees with your views don't storm off or dismiss them with your (not very clever or funny) put downs. Being a politician should suggest that you have intellect. Use it. If you don't possess it then get another job.

Please take a few moments to watch this short video - an impassioned naturalist 'telling it how it is'

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Is this why you blog?

A good friend of mine, after considering that my recent posts were of a 'reflective' nature, asked me if I was OK. This took me by surprise, so I asked my wife (who also finds the time to read my waffle) whether she thought that his observation was correct. She agreed with him, adding that my posts often betrayed a whiff of 'unfulfillment'. Blimey...

I took a look back through the past few months worth of my posts and I have to agree with them. There is a lot of wistful thinking, looking back, shoe-gazing and self-analysis. Is this something to concern myself about? Is it healthy? Am I guilty of doing it right now? (No, yes and very much so are my answers to those questions by the way).

This blog has never been about 'went there, saw that'. There is nothing wrong with those sort of blogs at all, especially when they are backed up by superb photography and boys-own adventures in the field. If I followed that format I would very soon have nothing to say! I've always used this vehicle as a way of expressing myself, using natural history as a hanger to, well, hang it all from.

To me, my interest in natural history is interwoven into the fabric of my life as much as family, friendship, music, sport, literature and just about any other subject I might take an unhealthy interest in. If I pick at one thread the rest will most probably unravel with it. I've said as much in previous posts.

I think that there is an element of reflection in even the driest of posts to be found in blogland, whether it be the expression of simple joy at seeing a rarity or a swipe at the poor weather - they are just different shades of the same thing. It is a natural human emotion to want to express oneself through communicating, whether that be via painting, sculpture, music, writing, cooking - the list is endless.You cannot communicate without putting some of yourself into it, there is bound to be some leakage of personality involved. I'm convinced that those of us that blog do so because we want to perform to an audience, using the medium of natural history to hide behind as much as share in our observations thereof. Most of us are shy entertainers, unsure of whether or not we will be thought of as flambouyant show-offs or even if anybody out there will be interested in the slightest.

So there we have it - another post without a mention of the wildlife that this blog is meant to be about. Tomorrow I will offer my thoughts on Syria, followed by a list of my favourite books, an appreciation of Denis Law and a recipe for Spaghetti Carbonara.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Cameras are the new guns

With the rise of ownership and ease of use of digital cameras, the number of birders wandering the field armed with the means of taking a photograph has never been higher. The quality of the results is, as to be expected, mixed - from the professional quality seen on some blogs to those blurred shapes that float in a sea of noise defying identification. This vast tide of image has had many benefits, one of them being a number of good species that have been nailed, that would have, in the past, got away...

Beddington Sewage Farm has been fortunate to have Roger Brown patrolling the lakes with, rather than a telescope, a telephoto lens (that is longer than most small children). He is also blessed with the sharpest pair of eyes that I have come across. Small dots in the distance to most mere mortals appear as frame fillers to him - and he most probably was able to pick these dots up a quarter of a mile further away than the rest of us. But I slightly digress. Roger has a habit of seeing an interesting distant bird (or birds), grabbing a series of images and then blowing them up to reveal their true identity. By this method small specks have proved to be Waxwings and Woodlarks, not to mention a skein of White-fronted Geese that were closer to France than Beddington.These birds would have been lost forever had it not been for the camera.

Graham James at Holmethorpe has a more modest camera set up, but in the couple of months of ownership has nailed a highly probable Red-footed Falcon by reference to previously taken images. He also added Turnstone to the Holmethorpe list when, on looking back at pictures he had taken of hirundines feeding over a lake, noticed the wader flying behind them in the frame!

There are increasingly more records of 'strange birds' in peoples back gardens that have retrospectively been identified as rare, from pictures taken (such as the recent Anglesey Indigo Bunting). This will, I'm sure, become a regualr event. This is good news for rarities committees up and down the length of the country - the photographs are proof that these birds were present, can then be confidently identified (or verified) and the record become a part of our ornithological history.

"What's hit is history, what's missed is mystery" was the old saying regarding shooting birds with guns. Now we replace guns with cameras - and that saying is still not too far off the mark.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Green Hound's-tongue

With the south-east having been awash with good birds - Roller, Red-rumped Swallows, Terek Sandpiper - I did the sensible thing and went looking for plants - I'm nothing if not utterly predictable in my perverse choice of where to go and what to do.

My location of choice was Juniper Bottom (where the Hawfinch flock was earlier in the year). The flowering season is, without doubt, behind where it should be. The Bugle (pictured above) was showing well, with plenty of spikes offering themselves for insects to feed upon. The trouble is, the insects are largely missing. Only a few bees were seen, and butterfly numbers, too, were depressed. I did see two Dingy Skippers and a single Grizzled Skipper, but it was hard work. Moth-wise up to a dozen Speckled Yellow were on the wing.

Along the road by the car park there is a major botanical rarity - Green Hound's-tongue. A few plants were starting to flower, the picture above showing the muted dusky-pink colour of the petals. It is not the most showy of plants, but I am very fond of it.

A wander up onto Mickleham Downs took me through some fine beech woodland where over 200 spikes of Bird's-nest Orchid were found.

Friday, 24 May 2013

So we beat on...

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

That is the final sentence from F Scott Fitzgerald's book 'The Great Gatsby'. In my humble opinion it is one of the finest 'last lines' in literature - economic in structure and oh so true.

Why do so many of us reminisce and frequently visit the land of nostalgia? This is not something that everybody that I know indulges in. Some people shun it at an act of neediness or a clear sign that the present is not fulfilling enough. I quite enjoy wallowing in the past, and find myself doing so as a celebration of happy times - notice I didn't use the word 'happier'. Today's good moments will, with the passage of time, become tomorrow's nostalgia. When I look back at my own cherished 'natural history' moments, very few are about rarity. They are largely about feeling at peace, at ease or at one with a place, with the plants, birds and/or insects becoming the characters that populate these special moments.All are celebrations of a time that I feel privileged to have experienced. I can look back through my notebooks and conjure up these memories with a joyous ease. A purring Turtle Dove, a winter Red Admiral or an unexpected Fly Orchid can all be stored away for a later date. We all have hundreds, if not thousands of these highlights hidden away, and not to revisit them is, in my mind, a waste.

I will leave the last words to another giant of literature, Spike Milligan, who wrote:

"Is it with the future uncertain and the present so traumatic that we find the past so comforting?"

Thursday, 23 May 2013

You couldn't make it up

So, Richard Benyon, the government minister responsible for wildlife protection at Defra (Department Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), puts the welfare of the introduced Pheasant, (and the wishes of the shooting lobby), ahead of the legally protected Common Buzzard.

You can read all about it here.

The article spells it all out - Mr Benyon is a monied landowner with interests in shooting and fishing. What possessed 'the powers that be' to employ this sort of person to look after our wildlife when that very same person has vested interests in suppressing (or controlling) said wildlife for personal gain is beyond me. A bit like asking bankers to police the banking system...

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Last night's moths

Least Black Arches - a total of five, this being the strongest marked. This species has taken off locally over the last three years - it used to be quite notable for the garden.

Pale Prominent - just the one

Waved Umber - a single trapped

Closed Door

I was saddened to learn that Ray Manzarek, co-founder and keyboard player of The Doors, had died. The Doors music was very much the soundtrack to my early Dungeness birding days. Many a night was spent in the company of their albums, beer and like-minded friends. His keyboard practically took the place of a lead guitar in the band, and where as Jim Morrison was always my focal point, Manzarek was the stabilising influence that kept them, along with John Densmore and Robbie Kreiger, together as a unit. He also sported a wicked pair of side-burns...

Monday, 20 May 2013

Picture this

Sometimes - and not very often when I'm involved - a picture can capture 'the moment'. This is, in my humble opinion, such an image.

I was walking along a footpath in deep shade along the banks of the River Mole near Mickleham. It was late morning and the sun was still low enough to be illuminating the woodland with an ethereal light. Above, the leaf canopy had unfurled to help diffuse this light further, which in turn lit an enormous patch of newly flowering Ramsons to perfection, capturing the pristine condition of the plants, all fresh greens and brilliant whites. If you take a deep breath you can almost smell the garlic scent from your chair...

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Time to take stock

There are plus and minus points about trying to identify everything that you come across. On the plus side is the fact that you end up looking at things that, ordinarily, you would totally ignore. It also makes you appreciate the stunning diversity that exists in even the humblest of habitats. For me, the main negative aspect is that, without years of experience, without access to mountains of literature and without the luxury of copious amounts of spare time, you cannot tame a great majority of what you will see. The correct identification of thousands of species - no, tens of thousands of species - will be beyond me.

Having said that, it doesn't stop me from having a go. Neither does it diminish my amazement at what is out there. The need to be pragmatic is paramount. Take beetles for example. I have a few guides (and good internet resources) that enable me to realistically name a fair number of species. For those groupings or families that need keying out or are beyond the scope of looking at a digital image to get an identification, I have to admit defeat - but having got the beetle down to a family level should be seen as a small victory.

I have come to the conclusion that, with a finite amount of time to spend in the field, I should concentrate on those groups that I am fairly proficient at - birds, lepidoptera and flora - and only spend a fraction of my time looking at other things (when they appear striking enough, under the assumption that they might be identifiable). This can sometimes backfire. I took the image (above, right) two weeks ago of a large, colourful beetle and assumed that it would be easy to identify. Trawling through the literature alerted me to there being two similar species. Fortunately my image showed enough for me to be certain that it was Carabus problematicus, due to the elytra exhibiting parallel raised lines. The confusion species (Carabus violaceus) has an elytra that exhibits a uniform stippling effect that lacks raised lines. So, when I came across another large blue beetle yesterday (pictured left), I was armed with the knowledge that this must be the 'other' species. A nice result from dabbling at the edges of beetledom...

I am the first to admit that this watering down of my birding time has resulted in a loss of proficiency. The same could be said of moths (I've forgotten quite a bit) and plants (still haven't got around to really tackling grasses, sedges and rushes). Being 'pan-species selective' is most probably the right thing to do so that I do not lose any more of my hard won knowledge in my favoured groups.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Clovers and Crowfoots

I started off the morning by visiting Blake's Pond on Epsom Common, a charming small waterbody that looks as if it has a touch of the past about it. I can imagine that geese, horses and Victorian raggamuffins used to poach its edges to enable all sorts of good plants to survive. Most of these agents of disturbance have gone now, replaced by dogs and Elizabethan raggamuffins who deposit empty cider bottles into the water instead. All is not lost however - there is still a fine selection of plants present, hence my visit. First target was Adder's-tongue, which evaded me even though I carefully checked all of the cleared areas around the edge. Next I examined the flowering Water Crowfoot, expecting Common (R. aquatilis) but seemingly finding Pond (R. peltatus). The floating leaves were not deeply lobed (see picture) and the petals on the flower were 11-12 mm long (they should be shorter than 10mm on Common apparently). So, have I got it wrong or are both species present? Any help will be gratefully received.

I then moved onto Reigate Heath. When I visited two weeks ago the cricket pitch was devoid of flower, but today stuff was showing - not much, but enough. Firstly was Upright Chickweed, quickly followed by Bird's-foot Clover, Burrowing (or if you prefer, Subterranean) Clover and, confusingly, Bird's-foot. This area of grass is home to a fine selection of small flowered goodies. Well worth a visit, but you will probably end up prostrate on the ground. Take a hand lens...

Bird's-foot Clover, glabrous with leaves like a palmated birds foot
Burrowing Clover - hairy leaves and quite plentiful

In other news: an aberrant Redwing has been seen in Margate Cemetery

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Literally Star Wars

News has broken that there was trouble at the UEA campus when attendees of a Star Wars convention crossed swords (or should that be light sabres) with similar enthusiasts who were attending a Doctor Who covention being held at the same place. You can read all about it by clicking here. I was tempted to use the word geek in the opening sentence but realised that, as somebody who squints at moths genitals through a hand lens, this would be a bit rich and also a case of 'pots and kettles'.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

A message from Blogger

It has come to Blogger's notice that the following blog

North Downs and beyond

has violated the bloggers code and exceeded the number of complaints that we consider within a reasonable range. This company believe in transparency, so hereby publish some of these complaints in the hope that other bloggers do not err as has the individual who maintains the named blog.


Nature of offences:
rudeness, intolerance, pomposity, subject deviation, lack of knowledge, delusion

Examples of complaints and complainer:
"I am a birder, a middle-aged man and find his constant sniping at my demographic most unfair. He ought to look in the mirror himself, he's got to be at least eighty! His suggestion that we are all Mummy's-boys who don't possess social skills and hide behind our telescopes to mask this is just rubbish"

"He never tells us what he sees, just slags off those that do. An imbeccile."

"Why carnt (sic) he jus enjoy wot he does instead of moaning all the time"

"The man is a waste of space"

Blogger has suspended North Downs and Beyond and sent the 'owner' on a social skills and acceptance course. He has been warned about his conduct and asked to find each and every one of those that he has offended and apologise in person.

We do ask for calm in this instance. If you do see him in the field (highly unlikely) we wish it to be known that we do not condone stoning, the use of ducking stools or good old fashioned violence. Our recommendation is to ignore him. He may just go away.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

10 things

What is currently 'getting my goat'

1. The Sainthood of Sir Alex Ferguson - less fuss would have been made if The Queen had murdered Barak Obama with her sceptre.
2. Adult birders giving themselves Twitter names like 'TopBirder74' or 'KingTickerBoy'. Grow up.
3. This cold, shitty weather.
4. The incestuous back-slapping that goes on between birders, congratulating each other on 'brilliant id skills' and bestowing the title of 'legend' on anybody that has been birding longer than 12 months. Come back in 40 years time and claim such things, by all means.
5. Me. What a miserable, bitter fool.
6. Simon Cowell.He cannot tell a Tree from a Meadow Pipit imho.
7. Text shorthand like 'imho' - ffs!!
8. Upward inflection at the end of a spoken sentence when it isn't a question.
9. The change in shape of Cadbury's chocolate bars - now all curved and smooth rather than sharp-angled chunks.
10. Lists like this. It's creative laziness.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Of moths and druids

This morning found me at Norbury Park, an area of woodland and chalk downland between Mickleham and Bookham. I can't say that I really enjoyed myself. It was cool, not much was happening and I was in a fog of listlessness and despondency - I don't know why.

Anyhow, the sign above always cheers me up. It is to be found well off the beaten track and mentions moths (which I like) and Druids (who I don't really have an opinion about). Close to this spot is Druids Grove, so I imagine that the Victorian gentleman quoted was wary of the 'goings on' there and wouldn't dare to search locally for moths so close to the witching hour. In these more enlightened times a bit of pagan worship taking place close to an MV or sugar rope would be seen as a 'Brucie Bonus'...

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Ten Commandments

You shall have no other Gods but me.
In other words, leave plants, bugs and such stuff alone, you won't be able to take it all in and as such you will become an even worse birder

You shall not make for yourself any idol, nor bow down to it or worship it.
Lee Evans, Bill Oddie, that bald bloke on the One Show - do not weaken to the lure of the celebrity however much it seems to be a good idea at the time. They will, one day, fall. Fame is a fickle thing

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
Don't say that you knew Peter Grant when you didn't

You shall remember and keep the Sabbath day holy.
So, put away your optics on this day and do things like normal people do

Respect your father and mother.
Don't keep nicking their car and money and remember that goodwill is a two-way thing - David...

You must not kill.
If they are older than you the chances are that you will, at sometime later, overhaul their lists when they die naturally, so bumping them off will just run the risk of future imprisonment. And you won't see much from a prison cell, will you?

You must not commit adultery.
Stick to your own patch, don't rush off to Staines Reservoir as soon as something good turns up

You must not steal.
Don't pretend that you found the goodie in the first place

You must not give false evidence against your neighbour.
As tempting as it is to spread rumour of a rival birder's propensity to string, does he really? Or does he just find more birds than you?

You must not be envious of your neighbour's goods. You shall not be envious of his house nor his wife, nor anything that belongs to your neighbour.
This could apply to his list, optics, books or the fact that he had the good sense to marry someone that doesn't give a damn about the number of days that he goes missing in the field or that he lives at Dungeness.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Mooching about

A day of mooching here and plodding there. A day of the weather not deciding which season it is. A day of rediscovering the joys of overturning logs to find things like this...

Carabus problematicus and not C. violaceus - owing to ridges on the elytra - I hope...
And this...

Hylobius abietis - a weevil and I like weevils!

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Sea watching and the games that 'men' play

Sea watching can be a dull affair.

One of the frustrations (and joys) of this sport is that a sudden change of wind direction can kick start birds to move. So, if there is the promise of an onshore wind, it is best to be in place before it actually happens - after all, you don't want to miss anything. Sometimes you would wait... and wait... and the hoped for change never happened. If you are really keen on seawatching however, you may well stare out across the waves regardless of the weather conditions just in case...

I used to seawatch an awful lot, 99% of this being at Dungeness. I'm pretty sure that between 1976 - 1991 I most probably saw the same individual birds move east in the spring and west in the autumn on an annual basis. Part of the joys of this particular branch of ornithology is the unpredictability of what will happen, the fact that the birds come to the observer (like an avian conveyor belt) and it is also the ultimate test of one's identification prowess (the birds don't stay long, they just bomb through giving you minimal time to clinch an id). It is also a licence to string.

But back to my first sentence - 'sea watching can be a dull affair' - how does the watcher pass the time if nothing is moving?

At Dungeness there would invariably be a gang of regular seawatchers, mostly grizzled veterans of the spume and spray. It wouldn't be long before somebody would start to churn out the word games. Some might be 'clever word play', which might have even been accepted by Radio 4 shows, based around the latin names of birds (The Missile Thrush - Turdus polaris; The Religious Auk - Alle allelujah; that kind of thing). Birding-themed songs (Do You Veery Want to Hurt Me? by Vulture Club; Brambling On My Mind by Terek Clapton - yes I know that they are old songs, but this was thirty years ago!); crude schoolboy humour (I was once part of a team of adults that came up with over thirty slang words for a penis); inventing limericks (this could get very messy and libellous indeed); coming up with predictions for what the next species of duck would fly past (invariably Common Scoter); recalling old birding adventures; planning new ones. Our choices were endless... I'm sure that being a primarily male grouping created this third-form behaviour (I typed in 'sixth-form behaviour' to begin with but decided it was far more juvenile than that). If all else failed then throwing stones at a target on the beach (invariably a tin can) could be contested, and was done so with much venom and serious intent.

Walking down to the seawatch hide was also enlivened by a game involving a pebble. The road that ran alongside the power station fence had been laid out in concrete slabs some 3m wide and 6m long, each clearly defined. The game was to kick the pebble from one slab to the next without deviation. You took it in turns with your opponent to 'shoot'. Whoever failed to make a clean score lost. Falling short lost you the game. Overshooting by a further slab lost you the game. As did the pebble coming off the slabs altogether. This did call for great skill - if you could get the pebble to just get onto the next slab, your opponent had a longer and trickier shot to make.

'Sea watching can be a dull affair' - no, I was wrong, not with all these side shows going on!

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Take a look at these...

My first recommendation today is for the second book in the British Wildlife Collection series, the subject being Meadows (click here for details). If it is half as good as the first (Mushrooms) it will be well worth purchasing. I'm not on commission by the way, but I am keen for independent publishers like British Wildlife to succeed, as it benefits those of us who like natural history books that are well produced, are written for the informed amateur and that add something worthwhile to the body of  literature.

Secondly, please take a peek at Parus's blog (click here). I do like to read about other's birding experiences, especially when they are laced with humour and self-deprecation. This site does exactly that.

It is now May (just in case you hadn't noticed). When I used to do nothing but bird (as opposed to look at other things that are in the wild), May was second only to October as my 'favourite' month. Now, what with other interests vying for attention, the months I hanker after the most are June and July. These used to be my least favourite months (being full of quiet fledgers and moulters, lack of birdsong and little movement). Having said that, waders were well on the move of course, but such things could be conveniently overlooked.

Funny how time changes everything.