Showing posts from September, 2013

How to bluff at bird photography

So, you own a camera. It might be a small compact camera, or maybe you've got a SLR with a standard lens on it. You know that you can get OK results by taking pictures of things that keep still and that allow you to get close to them - such as plants, fungi and moths at rest - but as for birds... well, the bloody things won't keep still and, when you do get close enough, the results are, quite frankly, disappointing. There are many blogs out there that are full of stunning images of birds. I could name a few but I'm not going to as they make me feel impotent. But, there is a way out for the naturalist/birder whose photographic equipment is modest or who doesn't have the patience to keep still for ten hours to get a picture of a Kingfisher sitting on a stick. Sheer number. A single Black-headed Gull at this range would be a very poor shot indeed, but when it is in the company of hundreds of others, it takes on an altogether more arresting image. Like one of those

Dictionary corner

My last post was a bit unfair - after all, who knows what solipsism means anyway? I didn't. It began when the 'Bard of Littlestone' suggested (by text) that most blogs are solipsistic. Whatever that word meant, I liked it. So, after quick reference to my Oxford Dictionary of English app, I was able to find out that solipsism is: the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist the quality of being self-centred or selfish Blimey... Now, is the Bard correct in his observation? Let is look at the facts. Most blogs are written in the first person. They are normally based on what that person has done. Or thinks. Very few posts are written to inform the reader of something that is in some way not a part of the poster. However, what I would say (to steal from George Orwell) is this - All bloggers are solipsistic, but some bloggers are more solipsistic than others. So, at a time when there are more Yellow-browed Warblers in the UK than ever before


Is this what 99% of blogs and bloggers are about? Discuss.

Isn't it ironic...

... so said Alanis Morrisette. And she could have been singing about my last post. I had been banging on about self promotion in the world of social media. I have received one comment for that post and it was - you've guessed it - comment spam, promoting a pen. Couldn't make it up...

Mr Angry yet again

There seems to be an awful lot of self promotion going on in the world of birding at the moment. My twitter feed is full of people boasting about their recent finds, pointing me in the direction of their latest blog posts and imploring me to buy their latest book. I suppose I should be applauding them for using social media to alert a potential audience (or customer base) to the existence of their products or the greatness of their birding prowess, especially if this is how they make a living. But I find it all a bit tiresome. I suppose that the reason why I don't buy into it is because birding to me is a means of escape from that part of the world which is ruled by celebrity and force-fed by a bloated media. To have to wade through exactly that same sort of stuff to find out what's been seen is something that displeases me. But am I guilty of hypocrisy here? After all, didn't I bathe in the small glory of finding the Surrey Hawfinch flock back in March? Am I not keen to

Brown is the colour

The garden MV has not been a hot bed of activity for the past few days. The catches have been OK in number but diversity has been sadly lacking. But a theme has been obvious, that of the colour brown. Each egg box has had the same old, same old... Large Yellow Underwing, Lesser Yellow Underwing, Square-spot Rustic, Flounced Rustic, Pale Mottled Willow - none of them moths to titillate the optic nerves. Even this mornings highlight, the garden's fifth Buttoned Snout, is brown - and it flew away before I could take a picture. But, as if to prove that all beige is not bland, the number of Lunar Underwings (above) are increasing. I don't know what has happened to all of the local 'sallow' moths, but this autumn has been poor for them so far.

Local birds for local birder

It's a terrific autumn for Rowan. The image above, taken this afternoon on Walton Heath, is typical of most of the Rowan trees I came across - and I came across several hundred. So profuse was the berry crop that from a distance it looked as if the wood was bleeding. I don't know whether or not this is just a north Surrey phenomenon or if this bounty is being enjoyed across the country. Do not be fooled into thinking that the scene above is birdless. The outlying grassland of Epsom Downs is by and large of a sterile nature, with only a small amount of rich chalk downland. These poor areas have a series of 'weedy' strips (as can be seen above) that run for several hundred metres and I have got into the habit of walking along them. Most days during spring and autumn will see several chats, pipits or warblers being flushed from the meagre cover. Today I scored with a Whinchat, Stonechat and three Meadow Pipits. I still fantasise about flushing a Corncrake or a Dick

Alcohol and birding

My birding was once linked to a vibrant drinking culture. Cue wavy lines and fading image.... A weekend (or a longer stay) at Dungeness saw me looking forward to the pub sessions as much as the time spent birding. The closest public house to the bird observatory was (and still is) The Britannia. This pub would never win any awards in a 'Picturesque Inn' competition. It is a single storey building that has, in recent years, been opened up into a cavern that prays to the God of fish and chip suppers rather than the olde worlde charm of convivial beer supping. When I was a regular (1976 - 1991) the pub could still boast separate public and saloon bars. Although we didn't recognise it at the time, the place did have a certain amount of charm, which was cruelly ripped out when the walls were knocked down to open it up, producing the feeling of sitting in a school canteen. My time spent in this establishment took many guises: mid-summer might see me wander over as the light was f

Clubs, societies and a mountain of paper

I have been a member of, or subscribed to: RSPB, BTO, London Natural History Society, Surrey Bird Club, Kent Ornithological Society, Sussex Ornithological Society, Friend of Dungeness Bird Observatory, Beddington Farm Bird Group, British Birds, Birding World, Plantlife, Botanical Society of the British Isles, Wild Flower Society, Surrey Botanical Society, Atropos, British Wildlife Over the years, this little lot has seen me become the owner of a mountain of literature in the form of bird reports, bulletins, newsletters and the like. In fact so much so that, had I kept it all, I would most probably have needed to build an extension to my house. That admission, that I haven't kept it all, begs the question - what have I kept and what have I ditched? My membership of the BTO lapsed soon after I gave up my 'A' class ringing permit in 1983. Although I have purchased such magnificent publications such as the BTO Migration Atlas (and have ordered the new atlas), all my

Rant #9

I've titled this post 'Rant #9' but it could, in all honesty, be the hundreth rant that I've put you poor readers through.This isn't going to be a post about the Great Snipe-murdering cat of Spurn * either. This lunchtime I wandered into WH Smith and happened across a whole shelf of books on display, all attributable to the same BBC programme - Top Gear.. Most of them were written by Jeremy Clarkson (variations of a theme, mainly slagging off anything that isn't Jeremy Clarkson), with the odd tome from Richard 'The Hamster' Hammond (he isn't a real hamster) and James May. There was also a Christmas annual (it is, after all, September). The cover depicted these three men, all leering out at me with mock expressions upon their fizzogs. The more I looked the more I wanted to destroy it. But why? Jeremy Clarkson It isn't the fact that he tries to squeeze into 32-inch waist jeans when he is clearly in need of a 38. It isn't so much his mop


A couple of posts ago I mentioned that I was reading Feral by George Monbiot. Last week I finished it and can not recommend it highly enough. In simple terms, the author puts forward his case for the 'rewilding' of large tracts of Britain. Most of upland Britain is, in his words, 'sheep wrecked' - over grazed. This results in a barren landscape where the naturally occurring plants are reduced to a mere handful of species. The survivors are the few that are unpalatable to sheep, with only the very steepest slopes safe ground for vegetation to take any hold. Needless to say, such a habitat breakdown has a knock-on effect across all wildlife, affecting species numbers and composition. I have witnessed the destruction caused by sheep and deer at Ben Lawers in Scotland. By the visitor centre there is a burn that comes down from the hillside, meandering through a shallow depression. This has been fenced off to allow the vegetation to regenerate. You are allowed to wand

Drizzle and Dylan

A grey, drizzly morning spent at Canons Farm. It was not without interest, as a smart immature male Common Redstart brightened up the gloom and a single Common Snipe circled before alighting in one of the larger fields (hiding amongst the unharvested flax). After that bit of ornithological adrenaline, I stood with David 'Devilbirder' Campbell in an increasingly heavy drizzle, both trying desperately to summon something of note from the low cloud. Apart from the odd Meadow Pipit and Swallow, a couple of Mallards were the only thing to disturb us. After four hours of that, I was off to the comfort of live football on the TV and several mugs of coffee. Please welcome my latest 'worthy blog' - Dylan Wrathall's Of Esox & observations . Do not be fooled into thinking that his blog is entirely about fishing (although his posts on the subject are well worth your time). Here is a birder with plenty of thoughts about the natural world, and how we engage in it. His photo

The Young Ones

Regular visitors to this blog will be familiar with my constant griping (that's griping not gripping) about the demographic of the UK birding population (ie middle-aged to old and predominantly caucasian male). Recently I have become aware of a subtle shift. Whisper it, but I think that we might be about to witness a sudden 'fall' of youthful birders. Locally we have a small - very small - number of young birders, and through them I have become aware of other youngsters (who they have met on twitches or by birding further afield). This nucleus seem to be growing. Universities have always been one place that you could be fairly sure to find young birders (particularly those based close to birding hot-spots), but this current crop are largely pre-uni. What has 'kick-started' this? Maybe some of the more savvy oldies have had a hand... Social media is, like it or not, here to stay - or at least evolve. If you want to know how any of this stuff works, ask a young

Birds, for a change, and in France (9 years ago)

Now that we have autumn upon us, I thought I'd share with you a tremendous day's birding that I had just over the English Channel, at Cap Gris Nez, on October 19th 2004 in the company of Sean McMinn. I have lifted the narrative straight from my notebook. "Weather: Wind SE f2-3, light overcast, dry and cool. We arrived and parked just as the first shards of daylight appeared in the eastern sky. Even though it was far too dark to bird, the birds themselves were already on the move. From the blackness above came the calls of Chaffinches and Bramblings, at first just isolated calls, then small flocks and as the daylight finally broke an unending procession of contact calls. The day had promise (we had already flushed a Long-eared Owl as we approached the headland, seen in the car headlights). Single Ring Ouzel and Woodcock alighted nearby as we were finally allowed to see the birds streaming overhead and assess their numbers. Chaffinches were the dominant species, but Bram

My top 50 tracks

A few months ago I treated you to my Top 50 albums , so I thought it only fair to now share my Top 50 tracks - although I did make a rule that meant that no artist (or band) could have more than one entry. That's not to say that an artist hasn't cropped up more than once... A favourite track should do many things - elicit emotion, inspire, remind you of a place (or person), excite, make life better. I have put them in an order (number one first) and if I carried out this daft process again next week would have them in a different order (and maybe a few new tunes would appear). Here goes (and with apologies to Andrew Cunningham). Who Knows Where The Time Goes - Fairport Convention Itchycoo Park - The Small Faces Cinnamon Girl - Neil Young Public Image Ltd - PiL Your My Best Friend - Queen Hyacinth House - The Doors Heroes - David Bowie Prologue - Kate Bush Perfect Day - Lou Reed Name of the Game - Abba Free Man In Paris - Joni Mitchell Wooden Ships - Crosby, Still

That was the year that was, so far

A dip in the temperature, with grey skies and rain, certainly turned my internal 'seasonal dial' from summer to autumn. It also had me indulging in the unforgivable act of looking back through the year - sheer madness for September 9th! But what I discovered was quite interesting... It will be (unless something mightily dramatic happens in the next four months) my quietest year's birding ever. There are some species that I haven't seen that would make most of you report me to the ornithological police for 'not trying'. I've left Surrey rarely, and when I have it's been mostly for social reasons. And the time spent birding in my home county has been infrequent, with the highlights being few: (i) Massive Hawfinch flock at Mickleham (twitched by several hundred birders) (ii) Male Black Redstart in the back garden (stayed for 11 days) (iii) Dead Kittiwake at Holmethorpe Hardly the stuff of ornithological legend (although the Hawfinches might just be

Little to report except for a few worthy blogs

With Wryneck at Wanstead and Common Rosefinch* at Wormwood Scrubs, plus a sprinkling of flycatchers, Common Redstarts and Tree Pipits, the London area has a fair number of goodies to get even the most jaded birder out of the armchair and into the field. Yesterday I spent at least four hours combing the fields and hedgerows at Canons Farm. Not one warbler was seen or heard, let alone any of the species mentioned above. In fact, apart from the ever increasing hordes of Carrion Crows, Jackdaws and Wood Pigeons, there was little on offer. Did I get down in the mouth about that? No, not really. Apart from a couple of brief showers the sun shone, and a good number of butterflies were on the wing, including one fresh Brown Argus at Fame's Rough. Just before leaving, a low flock of 10 Swallows arrowed across the open fields, purposely heading westwards. For them, a long journey to South Africa beckoned. For me, a short journey back home to a cup of tea and a sandwich was on the cards.

Two garden ticks

The MV welcomed the second new macro moth species of 2013 onto the garden list - a White-point (above). I hadn't really been expecting one to come along, but really should have done. The most up-to-date distribution maps shows a plethora of dots all around me - if you live south of a line from The Wash to the Bristol Channel then you're in with a shout. The second garden 'first' was also a pan-species tick - an Oak Bush-cricket. Admittedly they are common, and I have most probably seen this species many times before, but this is the first time that I've bothered to put a name to it.


Fiddler's elbows and whore's drawers are not as 'up-and-down' as I am when it comes to the adoption of Twitter. I've got to face the fact that it is the vehicle of choice for most birders to get their information out there. It is also a great tool for mobilising the masses to act upon important environmental issues. All I need is a 'waffle filter'. So, if you tweet and want to receive more innane waffle why not follow me - Steve Gale @surreynature - and I will reciprocate. Technology moves at such a swift pace that I'm sure that in a couple of years time we will all be scattering our information in a different way. Maybe we will embrace an ironic retro message dissemination service such as carrier pigeon...

Why Canons Farm?

I was trying to explain to a Devon-based birder the reason behind Canons Farm (close to Banstead, Surrey) becoming a regularly worked site. I struggled, to be honest, to bestow upon it any USP that might explain why the place has taken off as it has. What makes it worth the while for the small, but dedicated, band of birders to continue birding there? It got me wondering whether or not you could be just as successful by searching any old bit of farmland/woodland anywhere in the country on a regular basis. Is the success at Canons Farm just down to hard hours spent in the field? Mmmm, I'm not so sure... Canons Farm has the highest success rate for finding Ring Ouzels in Surrey over the past three year period. It is also, away from the breeding populations, the best place in Surrey for Common Redstart (and possibly Black Redstart). Nearby sites such as Beddington and Holmethorpe are given regular coverage yet fail to achieve such success with these species. Does the topography of the

A few literary recommendations

I wandered into a second-hand book shop at Lyme Regis (near to the Cobb) and came across a gem of a book - The Oxford Book of Flowerless Plants by Nicholson and Brightman - first published in 1966. It concentrates on ferns, mosses, lichens and fungi and, although it could never be used as a field guide, the plates are simply charming. Here are three examples. The artist has grouped these lichens and mosses into 'habitat' groupings which is a good aid to helping such a novice as myself get close to making an identification. The species illustrated are the common and most likely to be found, so further reference from the 'big boys field guides' should help confirmation. I used the word 'charming' to describe the artwork - it is used as a compliment as these illustrations give off a real warmth and obvious love of the subject matter. Barbara Nicholson is the talented artist. Whilst on holiday I read The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling . It is, for all in