Showing posts from October, 2013

Where is Staines Reservoir?

Is Staines Reservoir in the county of Surrey? NO!!! It is you know, if you live in Staines your postal address is Surrey But it's north of the River Thames, Surrey is south of the river, any fule kno that* Ah, but in 1965 there was a shake-up of the administrative make-up of the county. Surrey lost the London Boroughs of Croydon, Kingston, Merton, Sutton and Richmond, and in the same process gained Spelthorne. Staines Reservoir is in Spelthorne. Hold on a minute, I lived in Sutton between 1971 - 1997 and my postal address was Surrey Er... And my beef isn't with an administrative carving up of a county, but with it keeping an unchanging biological recording unit. You mean the vice-county? Yes, or Watsonian county if you like. These were set up in 1852 to create uniform units of land for the purposes of scientific data gathering. Many were based on the ancient county boundaries. Surrey was small enough to be one vice-county (VC17), but larger counties, such as n

Hawfinch no show

Juniper Bottom, looking up the valley. Larches in foreground were good for Hawfinch in March Juniper Bottom, looking back towards car park. The bank of yews supplied the March Hawfinches with food. Last Sunday, after paying a visit to the Starfish Fungi, I took myself to Juniper Bottom, mainly to check for Hawfinches. Wintering roosts can start to build by now, but I am more than aware that the flock that was present here in March might well have been a one-off, or not start to form until later in the winter. Time will tell. No birds were seen, or heard.

Lou Reed

This might be a natural history blog, but I do wander off subject occasionally. Lou Reed passed away yesterday, in the same year as Kevin Ayres and Ray Manzarek - the golden generation of the 60s and 70s are slowly leaving us. I have long held Transformer as one of the greatest albums. If only for that, Mr Reed has my eternal thanks. I would also recommend his 1989 album New York as worthy of investigation. He could, apparently, be a right old curmudgeon. Artistic temperament? Prima donna? Maybe a bit of both. Regardless, he was one cool dude... Apparently, he said this: "One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz."

A starfish miles from the sea

If you go down to the woods near Oxshott today, you're in for a big surprise... No teddy bear's picnic, I'm afraid, but something even more bizarre - Starfish Fungus (Aseroe rubra). After having seen Red Cage during the week I'm positively overdosing on exotic fungi. A big thanks to Seth Gibson for the precise grid reference that led me to a fine cluster of these beauties in several states of development. Fully 'out', with a slick of foul smelling gunk on top An egg, awaiting to give birth to an alien like the one above This one's gone over, looking like a tideline corpse - more marine than mycological

When does a Common Swift become a Pallid?

I have to ask the question, and not because I disbelieve that there are Pallid Swifts in our skies. It seems that for the past few years, any lone swift seen above our fair country in the late autumn has as much chance of being a Pallid as a Common. Are there Pallid Swifts in our skies much earlier in the autumn that are just not being picked up, mostly because there are plenty of Commons about? Are birders not conditioned to look for them earlier in the autumn? Does a lone, late autumn swift get grilled all the more  and so any Pallids present are not getting missed? And what about all of those late swifts from yesteryear? How many of those, that were passed off as Common, were in fact Pallid? A few years ago, on November 28th, I was walking along a street in Sutton on a mild, heavily overcast day. I happened to look up just as a swift came into view, very low. It passed directly over me and I saw it very well. I was more than aware that there was a very good chance that it could be a

Red Cage (Clathrus ruber)

Just before I left the office this evening I checked my emails to find one from Banstead's very own botanical guru, John Peacock. He was alerting me to the appearance of Clathrus ruber , a sessile stinkhorn that rarely appears in the UK. It has an English name - Red Cage. I have longed after seeing this species, and had looked in vain for it before, when John discovered it growing under a yew tree in Banstead two years ago. Last year was a no show, so his message had me detouring from home. The light was fading and I only had my camera phone with which to record this striking fungus. I could see two fruiting bodies from some way off, one much larger than the other. There are several coral-red species, all with an exotic and startling appearance that, I believe, come from Australasia. Their appearances may be increasing, particularly on municipal wood mulch. The irony of rushing off to twitch a fungus is not lost on me. I expect cries of 'hypocrite' to come from sever

Ash to ashes

To read about more grief for our Ash trees, click here What with ash die-back, they now have the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle to contend with.

Yet to see

There will be species that, no matter how many years you have been looking, still evade you. These are mine: Birds For all of the hours spent seawatching I have not connected with either Cory's or Great Shearwater. The more pragmatic amongst you might point out that SE Kent is not the best place to see either of these species, and I'd have to agree with you. My seawatching time in Cornwall has been limited - a concerted late summer blitz to that fair county should supply me with them if I so desired. Corncrake for the 'southern' birder is unlikely, unless you are the holder of a 'golden ticket' and manage to flush one of these skulkers on passage. I've not been to the breeding stronghold of the Western Isles, although the introduction programme might just up the chances of a chance encounter. The same might be said of Capercaillie - I'm not going to bump into one of these on Leith Hill (Surrey) and if I did I would expect to have my optics confiscat


This afternoon, Blogger announced that it was suspending the site North Downs and beyond until further notice. This has come about after several complaints were received by the company as to the content of the blog and the attitude of its 'owner'. A spokesperson for Blogger said: "We have been monitoring this site for some time now. We felt compelled to step in as there has been a sudden rise in the number of complaints regarding the tone and direction that the blog is taking." Blogger has released some of these complaints and they make uncomfortable reading: " North Downs has become home to a radical ornithological hate preacher who should be deported at once" "Who on earth does he think he is? Well I'll tell you who he is, a old bitter fool who is out of step with the modern birding world. He can bugger off back to draw brass telescopes and low lists if he wants, but he can leave the rest of us alone!" "He can stick his Wallcre

Don't fence me out!

This morning I wandered over to Surrey Wildlife Trust's newest reserve (so new it isn't yet open) at Priest Hill, Ewell. I've known this area for many years. I used to play school football on the playing fields, have wandered over the abandoned eastern half with binoculars and/or dog and spent more than a few hours doing botanical survey work for the Surrey Botanical Society. Basically it is a flat area, maybe one mile long and half a mile wide, largely comprising basic grassland with a small amount of scrub. It does not possess a rich fauna and flora although I doubt that much work has been done over the years - however, I'm sure a trawl through the literature would result in one or two nice surprises. You can read about the SWT's plans for the site here. Now, as you can gather from my last post, I have a downer on the over use of fencing. Like this: I took this picture this morning, looking NW across the reserve. The wide ride that you can see used to be

Actual birding. For a change

Yes, today I was out in the field, with not only my binoculars, but also my telescope. Proper birding. I didn't necessarily go to proper birding places though, deciding to cover some of the local patches - it beats driving ninety miles to scratch my ornithological itch. First stop was Canons Farm. One large finch flock (on the otherwise correctly named Skylark Field), comprised 200 Linnets, 60 Chaffinches and a lone male Brambling. I stood and scoped them in between their frequent bouts of taking to the air, but couldn't string anything rare. Holmethorpe Sand Pits was next. Where do I start? I really like the place - large waterbodies, farmland, hedgerows - but it's so bloody difficult to bird! All the water is fenced off and 90% of the fencing has mature vegetation between it and the water, making observation nigh on impossible. The pit known as Mercers West can be viewed only from a small gate, and a bramble bush the other side of this gate has now grown to about the

More grumpiness

I'm all birded out. That's a very strange state of affairs for somebody that has hardly been birding at all this autumn, but that's exactly how I feel. I mainly blame Twitter. And therefore I have to, in reality, totally blame myself for checking my Twitter feed on such a regular basis. It's a bit like being a junkie I suppose - a little is never enough - and 'just one more peek' is ignored time and time again. Because I have several strands of 'rare bird news', the same information gets fed to my phone over and over again. Each update is repeated ad infinitum. Several birders will then have a conversation that I am privvy to. About the same rarities. Several times. Then a few more. I have already identified (and moaned) about the trend of 'congratulating' fellow birders on seeing a rarity, even if all that they have done is drive a few miles and then walk up to a crowd of birders who then point the bloody thing out to them. I'm glad to see

AES annual bash at Kempton Park

I have been to three Amateur Entomologists' Society annual exhibitions now and each time I come away marvelling at the distinct groups who attend. Firstly, for those of you who have never been, this exhibition and trade fair is held at Kempton Park racecourse on a Saturday in early October. It is not so much an exhibition as a trade fair, with stalls being taken by publishers, booksellers, wildlife groups, wildlife societies, field equipment suppliers, artists, breeding and collecting equipment suppliers, et al. It is an opportunity to browse the latest publications, seek out that old book that you never got round to buying, evaluate field equipment or just chat to likeminded souls. It is very crowded and at times there is little space to wander down the isles or get to some of the more popular stalls. This year my purchases were modest - another 3-pin MV bulb (I always seem to get one more just so I've got enough to last into the foreseeable future) and the latest Surrey

NDB in 'twitching' shock!

Reports have been coming out of Surrey that North Downs and beyond proprietor, Steve Gale, was seen this morning at Coldharbour trying to twitch the Two-barred Crossbill. Stunned birders were either not sure who he was, or had a vague recollection of a younger version "being around a few years ago". Paul Sell, who was present for some of Gale's visit, said "he had binoculars AND a telescope. He looked like a birder, but I could see that he was a little confused and wasn't sure what to do". The Professor from Beddington added "I always thought that he was a shifty individual whenever I saw him at the sewage farm, but this morning took the biscuit - he was looking double shifty" NT warden for Leith Hill, Sam Bayley, confirmed, "Yes, it was definitely him. I met him at Dungeness last summer and couldn't forget someone who looked so uncannily like George Clooney. However, this morning was sad as it was obvious that he has let himself go.

It was 37 years ago today...

The 1976 Beddington Bluethroat - the stuff of legend October 10th 1976 will always be a special day for me. It was a Sunday, and I spent the day at Beddington Sewage Farm. During this time I was a keen bird ringer, under the tutelage of Ken Parsley and Mike Netherwood. If I remember correctly it was a mild, overcast and dry day. We had set up a number of single panel mist nets in an area of fat-hen, that was attracting finches to feed upon. We had got into our normal routine - a couple of us would go and check the nets every ten minutes or so whilst the third would sit guarding our rucksacks and ringing equipment a short distance away. By early afternoon we had enjoyed moderate success, mainly trapping Greenfinches. I was left back at base, Mike and Ken having gone off on a net round. After a few minutes they returned, Mike holding a single bird bag and with a big grin on his face. "Bet you can't tell me what species of bird I've got in here?" "Bluethr

October and the birder

The October birding scene of 2013 seems a strange beast compared to those of my youth. I get the impression that the destination of choice is now very much that of Shetland, where 'armies', or 'teams', or even 'posses' of birders work the valleys, withys and headlands with a military precision, disecting every bird to give it a race, sex and religion. If the birder does not head north, a few still seem to gather in the old spiritual cathedral of Scilly, with less expectation than of old. Still more sit by their pagers, the weekend's programme not considered until all the news is in on a Friday night. The patchworker will plod on, as the patchworker always will, trying hard not to be distracted by the successes of others. October used to mean one thing to the active birder 'of no fixed patch', and that was The Isles of Scilly. I wasn't in at the beginning, when the likes of Bob Scott and Peter Grant adopted St. Agnes and found species that were, u

Mothing inland

Green-brindled Crescent. This one lacked the 'green' sheen. The beauty of running an inland MV trap, at times of migrant activity, is that you are just as likely to trap a few good moths as a worker would at a coastal site. The MV trap by the sea might get higher numbers and more species, but us 'inlanders' need not be totally gripped. The current wave of good moths that have been recorded along the south coast has found its way into Surrey and the London area, with Vestals, Four-spotted Footmen, Scarce Bordered Straws and Palpita vitrealis all being recorded. It's the birding equivalent of getting back garden Wrynecks and Yellow-browed Warblers! So far this week I have managed a Vestal, a Dark-sword Grass and a noctuella - my expectations for tonight are thus heightened. Sometimes 'inland' can top trump the coast. Back in June 1996 I was staggered to find SIX Bordered Straws in the garden trap, a migrant species that I had not recorded before unt

HR Giger eat your heart out

It's not just in the realms of sci-fi and horror films that disturbing creatures exist. I came across this Devil's Coach Horse at Ranmore Common this morning. If it were the size of an elephant I would have run a mile (come to think of it, if it had been the size of a cat I would have also run).


My third back garden Vestal appeared in the MV last night (following singles in August 2003 and August 2012). With plenty of Four-spotted Footmen, Convolvulus Hawk-moths and Crimson Speckleds being seen, I will be switching the trap on this evening with expectations slightly raised...

Poetry corner

When I was 'doing' my O-levels (as they were called back in 1975), part of my English Literature exam covered the English poets. One scribe in particular gained my admiration, and that was the birding clergyman, Gerard Manley Hopkins. So, to celebrate National Poetry Day, let's remind ourselves of his celebration of the Kestrel, as described in probably his best known work, The Windhover . I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing, As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing! Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion Times to

A funny thing happened on Dungeness beach

I lieu of anything like me going out into the field and seeing something (when did that last happen) I will share with you one of the most amusing incidents that I ever witnessed while birding. It was during a late summer, at Dungeness, and I was sitting in the seawatch hide that overlooks the 'patch'. Those that know Dungeness well will be aware that the hide is placed at the top of a steep shingle slope that rises from the sea. This is also a popular place with fishermen. Because the birders are sat high up on the shingle bank, and the fishermen are positioned low down at the water's edge, both groups can spend the whole day on the beach without being aware of the other... It was a slow sea-watch and those of us gathered were starting to get a bit bored. Then, a young lad came into view, as he walked up the slope from the beach below. He stood at the top of the ridge, facing the hide, no more than ten feet away. With almost theatrical care, he looked left - looked rig