Monday, 30 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 'Magic Eye' pictures that were all the rage a few years ago, the gulls take on a random graphic pattern, all pearly greys and whites. And you know that somewhere - probably Seaton in Devon - somebody will be looking through the photograph trying to discover if you have missed something rare within the larid throng. NDB bluffers rating: 3 out of 5

Habitat overload. This Little Owl was keeping still so I thought that I would 'digiscope' it - I dislike that word by the way - but it was too far away. However, the tree, boughs twisting and framing the bird, added drama to an otherwise 'pants' shot. A bit of cropping, lopping off the top and bottom of the image to add panoramic effect. Turns this into a David Lean inspired work of art. NDB bluffers rating: 4 out of 5

Get very close indeed. This parakeet was virtually sitting on my shoulder, so I couldn't fail to score with this one. I was using a 300mm zoom lens that wasn't image stabilised. I have used this lens to no effect before and since. I'm considering converting it to a thermos flask. NDB bluffers rating: 3 out of 5

Three easy ways to turn mediocre into just about passable. Just stay away from those birders with the big white f-off lenses - you will either bankrupt yourself trying to emulate them or burst into tears when comparing your tackle to theirs. What would Freud have made of that?

Sunday, 29 September 2013

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


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, a Brown Shrike on top of every bush in Scotland and Two-barred Crossbills a virtual back garden bird, this blog isn't about birds at all, but dwelling on an observation knee-deep in the art of navel gazing.

Maybe this is the least solipsistic post I have ever written (except for the use of the words I, me and myself).

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

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...

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

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 announce via the internet my latest moth and plant 'successes'? If I wasn't trying to be a bit of a show-off then would I have the need to blog? And if I had written a book about such things wouldn't I advertise it by tweeting and blogging?

Maybe there lies the problem. Birding in particular has an active fan-base which has embraced social media and uses it to good effect. Why be a shrinking violet in the modern birding world when those who gain attention are the ones who shout "Me, me, me" the loudest? Modesty and humility seem to have gone missing and are being replaced by self-promotion and arrogance. One of the best birders I know, who has found an enviable list of rarities, is one of the most modest men that I have met. He is also a red hot lepidopterist to boot. He's old school - he has obtained peer recognition via his ornithological deeds over many years without the need to bang on about his birding prowess*. There are people not half as good as him (I won't name them, that would be petty), who go to great lengths to advertise their birding successes and force feed us a false glory. It doesn't wash with me. Modern celebrity (in any form), is based on the 'all fur coat and no knickers' model - it may be shiny on the outside but it is largely hollow within. Maybe I'm just showing my age and good manners: "You first, please and thankyou" rather than "out of the way my public need to attend to me".

Please forgive me, I just start typing and all of this bile comes gushing out! But of course, if I ever get around to writing that book, or finding a first for Britain, I might just change my stance...

* You can find this birder hanging around the RSPB reserve at Dungeness, or checking moth traps in the Sissinghurst area.

Monday, 23 September 2013

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.

Friday, 20 September 2013

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's Pipit.

I birded entirely on foot today, leaving home and taking in Epsom Downs, Walton Downs and Walton Heath. I was pleased with the net result of Common Buzzard (10), Peregrine (1), Stock Dove (100), Common Redstart (1), Whinchat (1), Stonechat (1), Wheatear (3), Blackcap (4), Chiffchaff (20), Willow Warbler (1) and Marsh Tit (3). Today my carbon footprint is one that I can live with.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

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 fading to have just a sneaky pint; mid-winter could involve waiting outside until the landlord opened up for the evening, staying until he chucked us out. Poor birding might encourage us to drink during the window of opportunity that was lunchtime opening (this was before the relaxation of the pub trading laws). Being in an out-of-the-way place, closing time was relaxed. On one occasion, the landlord, in need of his sleep but keen to carry on taking money from a large group of beered-up birders, handed us the keys and told us to lock up and switch off the lights when we left. It was two in the morning at the time. The pub served as a meeting place for birders staying in the area and on most spring and autumn evenings you could almost guarantee the presence of like-minded souls to chat about birding. The chances were, however, that birding wouldn't be on the conversational agenda for long!

The Britannia wasn't always the pub of choice. We had spells frequenting The Pilot (mainly for darts during the summer of 1979), The Ship (during 1981-1983, with incredibly long pool tournaments and a brilliantly stocked juke box) and The Woolpack (way out on the marsh and thus needing one of us to stay sober or run the risk of a driving ban). Such sessions needn't (and often didn't) stop when the pubs shut. Many was the time when we would return to Keith Redshaw's (next door to the observatory) to carry on drinking, while listening to his wonderful collection of albums or to demolish a bottle of single malt in the observatory common room.

There are incidents born of such alcoholic intake that have, over the years, become legend - but it is wise to draw a veil across them to save the reputation of numerous individuals. It is no wonder that our ability to find rarities during this time was so poor.

One of my most memorable weekends involved arriving at DBO on a Friday evening, bumping into a certain birder who now resides at Littlestone, and drinking until dawn on the Saturday morning. We then went straight out birding, (punctuated for 'lunch' in the Britannia) before taking part in one of the famous 'moat barbeques' that was one-part pork chop and 10-parts alcohol. I think sleep finally beckoned at 4 AM on the Sunday morning (before birding commenced once again three hours later). I couldn't do it now - in fact I would weep with tiredness by midnight on the Friday if it were to happen this autumn. It wasn't big, it wasn't clever but it was incredible fun.

Back at home I had my regular watering holes and chums to visit them with, most notably Dave Eland. He seemed to know every pub in the south of England (and quite a few beyond). It was a fact that wherever we stopped for a pint (and he would ensure that we did when out birding) he would bump into somebody that he knew. It could be a tiny pub at the end of a country lane that we had just happened to come across - he would walk in and be greated with "Hello Dave! Fancy meeting you here!" We started to frequent The New Inn pub in Sutton. One or two of our birding mates started to come along and before you could say "I'll have a pint" the Thursday night birders evening had formed. Between 1980 - 1995 we met up almost every week, with a cast of characters that included Stuart Holdsworth, Nick Gardener, Steve Broyd, Bob Hibbert, Andy Merrett and Alan Greensmith. We had a rolling cast of supporting birders that popped in from time to time. On one occasion on American birder turned up unannounced as he had heard about this Thursday gathering back in The States. The locals took this invasion in good hunmour, with as many as a dozen birders taking over the tables by spreading out maps whilst planning trips, showing slides of birds from their latest foreign holiday, checking out newly published books, chewing the fat and sharing thoughts. Our venues changed over the years, moving to The Red Lion in Cheam, The Railway (also Cheam) and finally The Plough in Sutton. It all broke up when the nucleus started to move away from the area.

Drinking and birding. For me, they used to go hand-in-hand. But not any more. A lunchtime drink would see me fast asleep in the afternoon. An evening session would wreck the following day in the field. It's a young man's pastime - at least it is to this old fella...

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

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 other bumph, including many copies of the BTO News, have been dumped. The Surrey Bird Club has seen me join and leave on too many times to keep a count of. I live in Surrey, love the countryside within it but cannot take seriously it being an ornithological unit worthy of such effort. My loss, I know.

I used to bird a lot in Kent and Sussex but when such activity lessened I did not feel compelled to carry on patronising the county bird societies. I have dumped my annual reports from both. Friends of Dungeness holds a special place in my heart. I was a founder member when it was launched (in 1979 if memory serves me correct) and I have an almost unbroken run of annual reports from 1957, although I am missing 1967 and 1968. (If you have spare copies let me know! Top dollar prices negotiable!) I have kept these and dumped the newsletters. I am still a member.

British Birds and Birding World were must have reads. Were. I gave up British Birds when I could no longer be arsed to pretend that I was interested in most of the articles that appeared in its pages. I used to turn straight to the 'Recent reports' column that was, by the time of reading, at least a couple of months out of date. Papers on the breeding behaviour of Dunnocks was always then a second-best. My divorce from Birding World happened when I was sick and tired with reading papers on the identification of small geese, redpolls and gulls. Once or twice a year I could put up with such stuff, but when it became a monthy staple diet I had had enough. ALL of my BBs were binned (apart from issues in which I had contributed notes) and I gave ALL of my Birding Worlds away for free. I know that the owner of these has since dumped them as well.

All of my botanical memberships have lapsed apart from The Wild Flower Society and I don't really know why I carry on with that. ALL of my collected literature has been parted with.

So, what's left?

I still belong to the RSPB and think it important to do so. I normally throw the magazine away without looking at it. The LNHS still has my membership, but again I do not hang onto the bulletins or copies of The London Naturalist. I do, however, keep the London Bird Reports and I have an unbroken run of them going back to 1974. My subscriptions to Atropos and British Wildlife are still active. I look forward to both publications with the sort of excitement that I used to greet BB and Birding World with. I have been with Atropos since issue one and have kept them all. I read British Wildlife from cover to cover but then release them. If you know a good home that they could go to, let me know.

Have I ever regretted dumping any of this lot? No, never. My only emotional attachment is to a single item - the 1957 DBO report, the first one published. I once dropped it in the bath, but it survived. I used to imagine, back when I was a young keen birder, that I would own a glass-fronted bookcase in my middle-to-late age, stuffed with all of my collected bird reports and BBs. I would be sitting in front of a fire on winter evenings and spend hours reading through them.

The past rarely predicts the future correctly.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

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 of hair, carefully coiffured to try and pass it off for that of a laid-back rock God. It isn't even his lazy way of reporting, that normally compares a car to something that he finds funny - "If the Capri was an animal, it would be an asthmatic snail'. Or the fact that this terribly uncool middle-aged boor has made a fortune out of such witicism. It's because he thinks he's the dog's bollocks, the bee's-knee's, the coolest kid in town. Based on what? All those hangers-ons that populate the Top Gear studio, laughing at his politically incorrect bile that spews from his mealy mouth? If Richard Littlejohn ever gives up then the Daily Mail have got a ready made replacement.

Richard Hammond
You just know that when he was at school this bloke was bullied. And he is now taking it out on all of us by the use of sarcasm, being Clarkson's 'mate' by ganging up on James May and presenting such groundbreaking television programmes such as 'Wipeout'. He sneers, he huffs, he stares at me from that book cover, and I know what he is thinking - he is thinking "I'm up here looking down at you, you loser". He thinks it's OK to piss on the poor, the foreign, the slightly dim, because he is The Hamster. And he's Clarkson's mate. I bet the pub empties when they walk into the saloon bar in their faded jeans and mock scuffed leather jackets. Without a doubt they will have their very own tankards kept behind the bar, call the landlord by his first name and slag him off behind his back.

James May
I quite like James May. Surprised? Well, he seems to know that the whole thing is absurd. He knows he's a geek, and doesn't try to hide it. He knows his shirts are girly, knows that he should really get a hair cut and - most importantly - plays along with the other two with barely concealed contempt.Good on you James!

* Several posts ago (here), I revealed to you all about a disgruntled birder who was behind a series of rare bird hoaxes.At the time I wrote this about his Great Black-headed Gull hoax: He claims to have drugged the gull in the hope that it hung around for at least a day. "Next time I will up the dose". Well, he learnt his lesson, but most probably over did it on the Great Snipe, that was apparently wandering around in a fog of confusion, even walking over birders feet. Now you know why...

Sunday, 15 September 2013


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 wander through this area and the species diversity and lushness is so much grander than the impoverished grazed area outside of the fencing.

Monbiot argues that the eradication of the top predators (the keystone species) is what ultimately brings down the environmental deck of cards. The loss of the wolf, for example has lead to a surge in deer numbers, which now overgraze the woods and, with no predators, wander far away from their natural woodland habitats, unchecked. Mammals such as wolves, boars and beavers carried out essential functions within the natural world which allowed diversity and healthy habitats to flourish. They kept the population levels of their prey down, they opened up undergrowth, they kept river water clean and running properly.

His depiction of what we have lost (mainly in northern Europe but also across the world) is mind-blowing, particularly his account of the teeming sea life that was once found around our coasts. I had no idea that the death-knell had started to be sounded so long ago - it is not just a recent phenomenon. The demise of the megafauna may have been helped along by climate, but man had more than a helping hand in the process.

This is a thought provoking book. Reserves are, he claims, maintained in a fashion that try to keep alive a man-made 'ideal'. Most of our reserves are, in fact, guarding non-natural habitats. We strive to maintain (or get back to) population levels that were present at the beginning of the 20th century. The error in our ways is that these levels were already greatly suppressed. The author is not just spouting out his vision of an ideal world - he tackles the financial costs, the cultural effects and the realistic hopes of what might be achieved. Some of our European neighbours are already giving rewilding a go, and it is working. The biggest problem for such projects to get off of the ground here is getting the public to be at ease with creatures such as the wolf and lynx making a return.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

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 photographic collection from his 'fishing days gone by' must be huge - reminiscences from the past 30-35 years will be lavishly illustrated - and add a personal touch that I find most warming.

Friday, 13 September 2013

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 youngster. They have been born into it and just accept it, just as much as people of my generation accepted cassette recorders and portable televisions as being a normal part of the world. My grandparents were either unaware or distrustful of such things. There has been an increase in media coverage of wildlife, that may, in a large part, be due to the media decision makers being children themselves during the 60s, 70s and 80s, maybe the last wave of youngsters who had some exposure to wildlife from an early age. Because programme making and feature commissioning has embraced 'the environment' and the wildlife in it as a safe bet - you need only look at the membership of the RSPB to see a vast potential audience - there has been an increase in such material being produced. Whereas a trailer on the TV or radio may have once been the way of advertising such programmes, the media will now also use Facebook, Twitter, the web, and also know ways of targeting the potential audience via some very clever means indeed.

Let's take Springwatch as an example. When it is broadcast, live on the BBC, you could just sit an watch it - or you can go on the web and watch live feeds from the webcams that they have set up 24 hours a day - or you can join in by sending them messages by email or twitter - or send them your latest pictures that might just be shown live on the TV minutes after you have done so. Johnny Morris this aint! This programme has a tremendous following with youngsters. The current crop of young birders were 6 - 12 years old when such audience participation was widely adopted. Maybe this is why we are seeing a blossoming of youthful binocular carriers. They feel included in the subject matter. It isn't nerdy. It has become politicised, with environmental issues and campaigns being talked about and advertised across new media with a speed that was but a dream only a few years ago. It's current and relevant.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

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 Bramblings were also passing in impressive numbers. 95% of birds were coasting south, but the odd flock peeled off the avian conveyor belt and alighted in the few bushes available. Other species were caught up in the movement, but in smaller numbers: Fieldfare, Grey Wagtail, Dunnock, Siskin, Tree Sparrow, House Sparrow, Skylark, Reed Bunting and Starling. Most welcome were those 'special' additions to the list - Lapland Bunting (1, which landed nearby and adhered itself to a Yellowhammer flock for the rest of the morning), Serin (4, all singles within mixed finch flocks), Crossbill (4) and Woodlark (4).

At 10.00hrs the birds were still streaming through, but we decided to check woodland 'south' of the headland. What was obvious was a distinct lack of birds in the woods but also that the overhead passage was still apparent half-a-mile inland. Three Firecrests and a Short-toed Treecreeper finally gave themselves up. We then headed out from the wood, through scrub and over open farmland towards the beach, half-a-mile from the headland. The finch passage had not abated, but increased. We sat at the cliff edge and enjoyed the spectacle, and at one point 750 Chaffinches and 250 Starlings were in the air together, above, level and below us. Each scan with the binoculars revealed birds moving both out to sea and inland from our position, as well as overhead - all at varying heights. The vast majority of the birds were Chaffinches, whose loose flocks varied in number but were generally 25 - 100 in size. Many flocks passed at eye level, or lower than our vantage point where the sex composition of the flocks could be ascertained. They were generally mixed. Starling numbers had by now increased, whilst the Bramblings had tailed away.

The fields inland were not ignored. A Merlin entertained us for a while as it toyed with three Carrion Crows. Each flock of Reed Bunting, Yellowhammer and Skylark was diligently scanned.

Final day totals were: Woodcock (1), Grey Partridge (12), Merlin (1), Long-eared Owl (1), Mediterranean Gull (2), Skylark (250), Woodlark (4), Meadow Pipit (25), Grey Wagtail (8), Fieldfare (4), Ring Ouzel (1), Redwing (20), Dunnock (20), Mistle Thrush (1), Stonechat (1), Black Redstart (1), Cetti's Warbler (2), Blackcap (1), Chiffchaff (3), Firecrest (3), Short-toed Treecreeper (1), Starling (10,000), House Sparrow (150), Tree Sparrow (125), Chaffinch (60,000), Brambling (1,400), Siskin (135), Serin (4), Crossbill (4), Bullfinch (5), Lapland Bunting (1), Corn Bunting (1), Yellowhammer (105), Reed Bunting (50)."

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

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, Stills and Nash
The Sea - Sandy Denny
Someone Saved My Life Tonight - Elton John
Dead Beat Club - B52s
Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd
She Said, She Said - The Beatles
Strange Magic - ELO
The Last Resort - The Eagles
Dead Souls - Joy Division
Landslide - Fleetwood Mac
Invisible Ink - Amie Mann
Teardrop - Massive Attack
Family Entertainment - The Undertones
Procession - New Order
Give a Little Bit - Supertramp
The Wild Ones - Suede
Salinas - Laura Marling
She's Gone - Hall & Oates
Hoppipolla - Sigur Ros
Woman In Chains - Tears for Fears
Under The Bridge - Ret Hot Chilli Peppers
Feel Flows - Beach Boys
One Day Like This - Elbow
Lucky - Radiohead
Room At The Top - Tom Petty
Losing My Edge - LCD Soundsystem
Come Together - Primal Scream
The State I'm In - Belle and Sebastian
Wake Up - Arcade Fire
Clever Trevor - Ian Dury
Golf Girl - Caravan
Dignity - Deacon Blue
Domino - Cocteau Twins
Release The Stars - Rufus Wainwright
Decatur - Sufjan Stevens
Chemical World - Blur
Rhythm of the Heat - Peter Gabriel
Caravan Girl - Goldfrapp
New Rose - The Damned

There you go, lots of 'guilty pleasures' on show, but I've carried some of these tunes with me for over forty-five years. Each one of them mean something to me, and I would rather empty my birding life list than lose any of these musical wonders.

Monday, 9 September 2013

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 exactly that).

Moth wise it was very quiet until the weather warmed up in June, but so far there have been only two surprises in the garden MV - Royal Mantle and White-point.

As for plants I've really not done too much, but what I have done has been largely predictable but enjoyable. And that last word - enjoyable - is how I sum up my response to the year's meagre natural history haul. I have found a peace in what I do that has been, over the years, masked by a combination of immaturity, frustration and impatience.

It's only taken me fifty-four and three-quarter years to arrive here.

So, if I was to look back on the highlights of 2013 (so far), what would they be?

Eldest daughter Rebecca getting a first from University College London

A boat trip along the Thames in glorious weather, and a Greenwich lunch, with the whole family

A cracking week in Dorset with the family (and an excursion into Devon to meet Bradley 'Haig' Wiggins)

A boozy evening with MAH at Littlestone being entertained by Tom Petty and The B52s

The Mickleham Hawfinches

Watching Game of Thrones

New albums from Laura Marling, Amy Mann, John Grant and Duckworth Lewis

Hoegaarden beer and Dark'n Stormy's (Ginger Beer and Rum)

Final Lions Test and Lords Ashes Test

The Tottenham Hotspur summer transfer haul

Sunday, 8 September 2013

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.

I've also added more blogs to my worthy list, all three from Gavin Haig's neck of the woods - Steve Waite, Karen Wooley and Tim White, who seem to spend all of their time trying to grip off Gavin, and let's face it, seeing Mr Haig spends most of his time on a racing bike that is becoming somewhat easier. Having recently visited the area, I can read these posts with added interest. I think between these three, and an autumnally motivated Gavin, there is much of interest to be reported in the coming months. A big Yankee twitch could well be on the cards.

*What was wrong with Scarlet Rosefinch?

Thursday, 5 September 2013

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.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013


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...

Monday, 2 September 2013

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 area play a part in this?

Fly over raptors and waders are an increasing feature of the birding year at Canons Farm, but I am not convinced that such results would not be replicated elsewhere with a bit of time put in. My own garden (some two miles away) has seen two Honey Buzzards, Red Kite, Short-eared Owl, Wigeon, Whimbrel (twice), Curlew, Ringed Plover (twice) and Common Sandpiper recorded with long-term but not time intensive coverage. I'm sure that such results would be possible anywhere in the UK.

What is intriguing is the winter population of such species as Yellowhammers and Skylarks on the farm which can be hard to come by elsewhere. Agian, would we find similar flocks if we scoured all of Surrey's farmland, or is there a reason why they find Canons Farm to their liking?

One of the delights of patch birding is building up a picture of what uses the area to breed, feed, winter and rest. The surprises, when they come along, are the icing on the cake. It would be good if there were enough birders in Surrey to take up the challenge to identify 'other' Canons Farms which would reward those prepared to put in the ornithological spadework.

For a site without standing water (if you ignore a small, muddy, woodland pond) there is ample reward for those that put the time in.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

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 intents and purposes, a biography of Mary Anning, who made several important discoveries at Lyme Regis during her career as a fossil hunter. Her story is quite remarkable as being a lower-class woman at the turn of the 19th century generally meant one of servitude. Not only did she hold her own, she made a name for herself world wide and met (or corresponded) with all of the great scientific minds of the time. The author is American so you can forgive a few Americanisms that creep into the dialogue.

I'm currently reading a most captivating book - Feral by George Monbiot - in which the author puts forward the case for the rewilding of certain parts of the United Kingdom. He forcefully suggests that our uplands (particularly those of Wales) that have been dominated by sheep grazing, are bereft of any natural worthiness at all, and should be allowed to naturally revert to what nature intended it to be. By this he most certainly doesn't mean human management, but a re-establishment of our 'missing' large mammals - species such as wolf, boar, beaver, elk and lynx - that have been rendered extinct by our own hand. This is a beautifully written book, using his own communing with nature to better explain his burning passions. I'm only half-way through it, but his reasoning comes across as sound, and he seems to have practical answers to all of those who may rally against such ideas. The rest of Europe seems to be up for this sort of 'wilderness' management (or to be more accurate, non-management), with the dear old UK limping behind. Might have something to do with the land being owned by very few, all with vested interests.