Showing posts from July, 2013

Time flies, trees grow and we all get a little older

I spent quite a bit of time birding on Epsom Common in my youth (although the word 'birding' wasn't in use in the UK back then). I would get a bus to the Wells Estate (on the Ashtead side) and walk across the railway line and onto open scrub, populated by Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and, in summer, Grasshopper Warblers. My walk would continue through mature woodland along magnificent wide rides until meeting the boundary with open farmland. After a loop round the stew pond (there was just the one at the time) I would wander through an open woodland scene, then further scrub, to the Cricketer's Green. About five years ago I revisited this place after a gap of twenty years. I was stunned. I couldn't find my way around as it had all changed. Where once had been scrub there was now woodland. I stood looking about me like a lost soul. It had changed to the point that there was no familiarity at all. I tried to find the stew ponds (another had been created in the early 1

Moths before the (promised) rain

With the Met Office promising 'my' part of the south of England 'biblical rain' by lunchtime, I did the MV trap with speed so as to get in a small amount of time looking for Purple Emperor butterflies in Banstead Woods. The males are meant to have a morning spell in which they come down from the tree-tops to feed at lower levels. I was on site between 10.00 -11.15 but drew a blank. I had a pleasant time though, and walking back along the open southern flank of the woods revealed a fair number of butterflies on the wing, including several Chalkhill Blues and Marbled Whites. Back to the garden moths. Two highlights were the garden's fifth Waved Black (top photo) and eighth Rosy Minor (bottom photo).

End of term report

Pupil: Steve Gale Class: North Downs and beyond Subject: Birds Steven has tried hard to be taken seriously as a birder. Sometimes this has paid off, such as the discovery of a large Hawfinch flock in deepest Surrey. It was, however, noted that this find was during a non-birding interlude. His wife was able to find the best bird of the term in their back garden (a male Black Redstart) which, although subsequently being seen, he could not claim as his own. Members of staff at Beddington, Holmethorpe and Canons Farm report irregular attendance. Work :B+ Effort :C- Subject: Moths A cold spring meant that his trap counts from the garden were very low, but all pupils suffered similar results. Since June however Steven has doubled his efforts and can possibly be considered unfortunate in a continued poor return. He should be congratulated on a fine Royal Mantle just before the end of the school year. The pheromone investment that he made showed initiative, but so far this has no

If you had to come back as a bird

A well-known resident of Littlestone recently asked me "If you had to come back as a bird, what species would it be?" Now, I like questions like that! He said that he wanted to come back as a Bonxie  - to quote - "so I wouldn't have to take any shit from anyone" My choice was altogether more twee and feeble. I would like to come back as a Common Swift. Why? Well, they look great, all sweeping arcs and scythe-like wings, screaming in the summer air, looping-the-loop, dive-bombing, chasing across the roof-tops and then becoming specks in the sky as they rise up and up to sleep on the wing with all the cares of the world beneath them. They spend all of their time in the warmth (apart from those foolish early individuals that arrive in mid-April - I would make sure that I didn't arrive until mid-May). My choice of summer residency would be the south coast of England, so I could hammer along the chalk cliffs of Sussex and Kent, fly around the spire of Chich

Pine hawk-moth

For those of you who visit this blog for a quick, fast-food fix of natural history, here's a picture of a Pine Hawk-moth for you, one of the two-three that I record annually. This morning's was the second this year. This moth was once considered to be a regular in only Suffolk and Dorset, but by 1907, according to the publication of 'South', it had begun to expand into Hampshire, the Home Counties and Cambridgeshire.  The recent distribution maps show a further expansion over the intervening 100 years - into Norfolk, East Midlands, Humberside and a few extra 'dots' on the edge. For lepidopterists elsewhere in the UK, this would still be a stellar moth! When I first took an interest in moths, the hawks - and particularly Pine Hawk - were species that I hankered after more than all the others. My first Pine (from the garden MV in 1992) was a very special capture indeed.

A big anticlimax

The Phoenix - one of the few moths that bothered to turn up to the gathering last night With low cloud, oppressive mugginess and the promise of thunder, I switched the MV on at dusk and rubbed my hands together in an act of anticipation and excitement. There was no moth beyond the bounds of possibility in such conditions! Such expectation was further fuelled when I took a break from the 'Royal-baby-TV-lovefest' that was dominating all 268 channels that I can receive, and found 30+ moths dancing around the light and resting on a nearby wall, including a Beautiful Hook-tip and two Small Emeralds. I went to bed full of hope and even set the alarm to go off a bit earlier as I was bound to take longer to process the massive catch that would be there in the morning. When morning came I near as damn it ran to the MV. The first sign that all had not gone according to the script was a virtually empty wall by the trap - when numbers are good there can be 30-40 moths resting here

I now get reverential

Dungeness Bird Observatory - committee meeting in 1967 I wanted to write a bit more about the 'old boy' birders who were gathered at Dungeness on Saturday. In my last post I suggested that these people invented the birding template that we all still adhere to, and that is no exaggeration. I was talking to Mark Hollingworth (Dungeness debut 1964) about this yesterday. Birding in the 1950s was, by and large, a middle and upper-class leisure activity. Those that plied their trade in such things were 'ornithologists'. The birding scene was academic. Outside influences were rare and discouraged - it was all a bit dry and dusty. These may be sweeping statements but they are, according to contemporary witnesses, closer to the truth than not. Sometime in the late 1950s and early 1960s a new wave of birdwatchers came onto the scene, baby-boomers from the second world war era and the first generation of working class kids with, if not disposable income, leisure time to

Where old birders go to swap medical histories

Where can you get a surfeit of food, drink, Tom Petty and The B52's? If you happen to spend the weekend with a certain resident of Littlestone in Kent, such rewards will be yours... but you will also have to put up with Ashes cricket coverage, a few jokes and much chat, but someone has got to put up with it and I bravely accepted the invitation to do so. Thanks Mark! After admiring his beautifully tended and stocked garden I spoilt its ambience by putting out the MV trap. Despite Saturday night being breezy we recorded 35+ macro species, including Coast Dart and L-Album Wainscot (above). During Saturday afternoon we dropped into Dungeness Bird Observatory where there was a gathering of the 'old-timers' from the 1950s, 60s and 70s (plus some newbies who have only been going to the shingle for thirty years). And what did the assembled ornithological minds talk about? Moult in gulls? Pipit identification? The demise of the Turtle Dove?. No, the subjects ranged from hip

The rise of the footmen

When I started moth trapping, the likes of Orange, Hoary, Buff and Dingy Footmen were certainly not expected in my Surrey garden. Times have changed. Although none of them could be described as common, they are annual. The two species pictured below were trapped last night. Buff Footman - 'flat' winged resting posture with contrasting orange head and lacking orange costal edge to wing. Hoary Footman - wings wrapped up in resting posture.

Hot weather wanderers

Whenever a 'heatwave' is experienced I can almost guarantee that the garden MV will be graced with a few 'resident' species that don't normally turn up in the garden. Yesterday's Royal Mantle was a fine example of that, and so too were the sixth and seventh records of Beautiful Hook-tip (above), making it three in a week. With no let-up in sight I can hope for a few more surprises.

By Royal appointment

I was more than a little pleased to see this beautiful moth at rest on an egg box in the MV this morning - Royal Mantle. Before today I've only seen this species on the North Downs in the Ranmore area, so can only assume that the hot weather has sent this individual off on a wander. Also recorded was the second garden record of Pine Carpet, a True-lover's Knot and a Pine Hawk-moth, the last two species being just about annual. With the warm, muggy nights set to continue, it makes checking the trap in the mornings that bit more exciting.

Fondling little lepidoptera

I've been taking a look at the micro moths that have been coming to the MV. Regular visitors to this site may recall that I blow hot-and-cold with these smaller moths (but then again I'm sure that you've got more important things to remember than whether or not I fondle little lepidoptera). I have added another three species to the garden list, all shown below. I won't bore you with the other photographs that are housed in a folder called 'Mystery'. When I have time, most probably in deepest December, I may revisit them... Acleris forsskaleana Acleris logiana Ypononeuta evonymella

A right old round-up

Small Ranunculus - if you haven't had one yet, you will soon. Pheromones After last week's success with Six-belted Clearwings I thought that I'd knock off a few more species. Armed with a virtual arsenal of lures, I set of last Saturday (in the company of Nick and Russell Gardener) to visit a number of sites that harboured the requisite clearwing food plants. The net result was not a bloody sniff! Had I not already been successful last weekend I would have doubted the veracity of the lures, but the same 'Six-belted' pheromone that was successful last Sunday drew a blank this weekend. Must be down to my placement, or the funny season, or the fact that where I went the clearwings don't. Plants Really pleased to find 12 flowering White Mullein plants along Chipstead Bottom valley. A check of Fame's Rough a little further along (for the umpteenth time this summer), once again drew a blank on both Ground Pine and Cut-leaved Germander. Both did well last

BOU to 'stump' the cheating birder

"Mr Gatting, I must insist that you remove the Olive-backed Pipit from your list. You were clearly still eating a cheese and pickle sandwich in the dressing room at the time." In a move that has sent shockwaves through the birding community, the BOU has revealed that it intends to implement new technology to address the perennial problem of stringing in birding. After studying the 'third' umpire arrangement adopted by some cricketing authorities, a spokesman from Britain's premier birding gestapo said "It is time we smoked the charlatans out of birding. They are cheating scum and they need to be exposed as such." Although they will not be drawn on specifics, we at North Downs and beyond believe that the following plans are being considered: *All birders to wear specially adapted spectacles that are fitted with 'actual vision' camcorders. Any birder claiming a lifer will have to submit the footage of the event for a panel of experts to a

It's (not) all about the list - or maybe it is(n't)

Some people are surprised that my UK bird list is so modest. It currently stands at 376 which, considering I've been an active birder since 1974, is pretty mediocre. My attempts to chase a list (and actively twitch) were limited to the late 1970s and early 1980s, with brief spurts of enthusiasm since (but these spurts really were brief, believe me). I hit the 300 mark in 1981. I thought my march to 400 was just a matter of time. Not thirty-odd years worth of time. I've become reconciled to the fact that, if I continue gathering lifers at my current rate, I will never reach 400. I'm not worried by that at all. The last bird I truly twitched was a drake Canvasback at Dungeness. The year? 2000. So that means that I haven't gone for a bird for over thirteen years. I have had the odd tick however - a couple of Scottish lifers on botanical forays, a few armchair splits and a White-tailed Plover that happened to turn up at Dungeness while I was there. So, why did I abandon

A moth you can never tire of

Over the years I must have seen hundreds of Buff-tips, but it is still an absolute pleasure to see one. The opportunity to take a photograph of this 'snapped-off twig' mimic is too hard to resist as well. The warm weather has certainly seen an increase in moth numbers and diversity at the garden MV, but I still await that 'killer' moth, an individual that gets the adrenaline going. There seem to be a fair few Red-necked Footman appearing in odd places at the moment, so one wandering into the garden would be most welcome.  That's just jinxed that...

Breaking news: rare bird hoaxes!

In a sensational interview given to North Downs and Beyond , a lapsed birder from Surrey has admitted to a series of rare-bird hoaxes that have fooled the nation. The middle-aged man, who wishes to remain anonymous, has revealed a series of stunts that has seen released cage birds, remote controlled models and even a child in fancy dress fooling the UK twitching elite. "I was fed up with the whole birding scene" he admitted. "I hated birds and I loathed birders. They just annoyed me, so I thought that I'd have a bit of fun to cheer myself up. I looked through the classified pages of Cage and Aviary Birds last autumn and purchased a Dusky Thrush which I released in Margate last November. Nobody found the damn thing even though it was remarkably tame and confiding, and then it went missing. I thought that little jape was over and forgot all about it. However, this spring it was found, only a few miles away from the initial release site. There are plenty of birders

A welcome return

When I started back garden MV moth trapping in 1990, Eyed Hawk-moth was an annual, albeit single figured component of the year's tally. Then, from the mid-1990s numbers fell. From the turn of the millennium it disappeared altogether, so the individual above, (trapped last Thursday), was a most welcome surprise. Of the non-migratory hawk-moths, Privet is still the rarest here, with only two individuals recorded.

Smash and grab clearwing

The very poor image to the left is nothing more than a celebration of the fact that my clearwing pheromones do actually work. After several failed attempts for various species I was beginning to wonder if I had a duff lot. You could blame my choice of habitat, or, more likely, the lateness of the season. This weekend has been one of family commitments. On Friday, the weather forecast looked good for lepidoptera, but I knew that yesterday would be out of the question for any field work as a university visit to Southampton with my younger daughter was booked in.  As for today, a late morning start was on the cards to visit relatives at Shooter's Hill in south-east London. I sat in the garden this morning looking up at the perfect weather for clearwings (sunny, warm, light breeze) and then at the freezer where the pheromone lures wait. I checked the time - realised that I had an hour and a half spare - picked out the API lure (the pheromone with Six-belted Clearwing in mind) - and

The post in which Bananarama are singing to me

An English summer's evening. The sky has taken on the pastel hues of blue, green and gold. The air is still and warm. I sit down, take a deep breath and smell the lazily drifting scent from the profusion of flower. I listen to the slow melodious meander of a Blackbird, the distant scream of a party of swifts and the discordant 1980s pop of the all-girl band Bananarama. It's not from a radio, or a nostalgia-driven householder with the windows open. It's actually them, the band playing live. Just for me? No, not quite... I live maybe one and a half miles from Epsom race course. For the past four years there have been a series of summer concerts held in front of the grandstand during July. The first of them (Bananarama) is today, followed next week by ex-Spandau Ballet crooner Tony Hadley and then the week after by weedy rock band Mike and the Mechanics. You can see that these gigs do not entice Springsteen, The Stones or The Arctic Monkeys to take on the Epsom massive, bu

Do photographs help us or hinder us?

Do we spend a disproportionate amount of time taking pictures of wildlife rather than observing and appreciating what is before us in all its glorious reality? I think that quite a few of us are guilty of such actions. A camera can be a lazy man's tool. We snap away at a plant, moth or butterfly which will then be appreciated and consumed at a later time. Something that I constantly find myself doing is, when confronted with a 'prize', panic until I have the pictures in the camera, by which time the moth, butterfly or beetle has most probably flown or scuttled away. Plants are not so problematical, but if the first reaction upon seeing them is to reach for the camera, then our mind is not really attached to the personal moment of initial contact. We have lost something. Can I be accused of using wildlife as a commodity to consume, catalogue and forget, to then move on to the next thing in line. Admittedly, the picture can be used as proof of our having seen what we are

Guilty Pleasures

Birding without too much stuff I dislike being weighed down by a telescope and tripod, a rucksack full of camera equipment and a bag full of books. To me, the chance to wander in the field with just a pair of bins is freedom. All the other stuff is an inconvenience. Of course, there are times when a scope is needed to clinch an identification or to appreciate more fully what's before you. I've been caught out more than once without the extra magnification, but - I'm in my element when it's t-shirt, shorts, binoculars and a compact camera tucked in a pocket. Birding for pleasure and leisure, not an assault course. Musical chairs . To admit to certain musical tastes can be as embarrasing as admitting to being a bad driver, crap in bed or even a poor birder! So it is with much trepidation that I must confess a fondness for ELO, Supertramp and Wings (the latter who Alan Partridge considered to be the band that The Beatles could have become had they not broken up too early).