Thursday, 27 February 2014

Moss bros

The low, scudding cloud, keen wind and drenching rain disappeared at about the same time as Graeme Lyons, Seth Gibson and I arrived at the top of Ditchling Beacon this morning. We were then joined by Tony Davis who made up a quartet of pan-listers - our aim?  - to be schooled in the ways of moss, by our tutor for the day, Graeme.

It all worked rather well. Graeme showed us the typical species of bryophyte to be found on chalk grassland, explaining the features to look out for and the confusion species to be aware of. After half-an-hour of this came mini-tests, then a full-on exam as we tried to show each other what we had been shown. I must admit that, at last, some of this moss lark had stuck in my mind! For a most enlightening account of the mosses of Ditchling Beacon's north face, please see here for an earlier post of Graeme's.

After the 'moss-fest' we then started on a new pastime for me - sieving vegetation for invertebrates (and anything else that happened to be present). This entailed taking handfuls of the ubiquitous moss Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus and shaking it over a sieve, with the inverts falling into a tray placed underneath. This was more than successful, with a fine cast of species to pick through - click here to see Graeme's account of our results.

Bryophytes up close are beautiful. Rather than prattle on, please take a look at a representitive selection of today's haul. If any of these have been mis-identified, it is down to me and not my excellent tutor. My thanks to Graeme for suggesting today's outing, and to Seth and Tony for being such great field companions.

Hylocomium splendens

Neckera crispa

Ctenidium molluscum

Thidium assimile
Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus

Dicranum bonjeanii

Ditrichum gracile

Scapania aspera

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Am I becoming a pan-species tourist?

This is how my 'pan-species' list has been compiled:

Firstly, through many years of birdwatching, I had gathered a British list. Secondly, an interest in butterflies (and then moths) mushroomed into another list. Thirdly, a decision to look at plants became an obsession that took me all over Britain, gathering - yes, yet another list. I put all of these together to produce my first 'pan-list' (although I didn't think of it as such back then, just another list to join all the other lists). Curiosity then got the better of me and I tried to recollect all of the other life forms that I had seen. This comprised mostly large, easy to identify species - mammals, a handful of fungi, dragonflies, that sort of thing.

Then things took off. Mark Telfer's collation of such listers got me all excited and I tried my hand at other things, such as fungi. Up until this point most of my records were self-found and self-determined.

Then things became more difficult. If I thought acrocephalus warblers and pugs were challenging, they weren't a patch on fungi, beetles, flies, mosses and lichens. These were orders that included many, many species that could only be identified with certainty by examination of critical features, some which necessitated microscopic observation, spore printing or the need to be immersed in chemicals. Not for the faint-hearted or the time poor. It soon became clear to me that, to be sure that I was identifying species correctly, I needed to be in the company of experts at least at the beginning of my time with these difficult groups.

The first pan-listers get together in Sussex (2012) was an eye-opener. Here I met people who were so well up on their natural history knowledge that it made me realise my own short comings. I was a good birder, competent with macro moths and able to put a name to most flowering plants (but not grasses and sedges!) Here were people who knew their micros (even leaf-mines) and could put a name to almost every leaf or blade of grass without the need to see a flower. Oh, and almost everything that moved. I was impressed.

For me, to tackle something new - like moss - takes time. Latin names do not stick in my brain very easily. After a while all moss starts to look the same. So I have started to get out into the field with people who do know, hoping that some of their knowledge will trickle down into my memory bank. I'm not aiming to be able to put a name to everything that I see, more a case of being able to place it in a family. I can then have a go at trying to be more specific. Last Sunday's LNHS outing was good. Patient fellow naturalists explained what they were looking for and how to find it. I came away with a list of new mosses and liverworts - none self-determined. Tomorrow I am spending time with Graeme Lyons and Seth Gibson at Ditchling Beacon for another bash at mosses in the company of the enlightened. I will come away with another list of new mosses - again not self-determined.

There is a temptation to seek out field trips that are run by, and populated by, experts in the obscure and difficult - mosses, fungi, lichens - that would lead to many hundreds of pan-lister ticks coming my way. This slightly unsettles me. My reasons for doing this is not just to amass lifers. It is to become more proficient at putting the rightful name to a species, which, apart from being satisfying, also creates a meaningful record for a database. I cannot see any other way of getting 'an in' into such difficult groups as mosses than by going about things in this way.

Birds, moths, butterflies and plants are all more forgiving to the beginner. There are difficult groups in each but also many easy-to-do species which, after a short while, build up your experience, leading to taking on further challenges. This is not so easy with moss. So, for the time being I need to become a pan-listing tourist and visit the bryological theme-park, where kindly souls 'show-and-tell'.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Of moss and men

I spent a most enjoyable day on Epsom Common, taking part in the LNHS bryophytes field meeting that was lead most successfully by Peter Howarth. As a virtual beginner in this area, it was most instructive to be shown a succession of common species and being talked through the identification of them in an unhurried and patient way. My scribbling into a notebook of the latin names was aided by clear annunciation, as my transcribing was done phonetically and not one name caused me a problem when I deciphered my notes this evening. I won't list them all here, suffice to say that I was most probably shown 45+ species. Now comes the hard part - going through my mosses and liverworts field guide, to try and ensure that some of what I've been shown today will stick.

I was doubly fortunate as I finally met up with all-round good bloke and fellow pan-lister Seth Gibson (that's him taking a picture of a tree trunk full of bryophytes). His sharpness in the field was regularly demonstrated, as he showed me species after species that I would otherwise have walked past - highlights such as the fungus Bracken Map and the silk tubes formed by the micro-moth Infurctitinea argentimaculella, which feeds on Lepraria lichens.  I am constantly reminded of my own shortcomings when I meet up with such people...

After almost six hours of moss bashing I had become punch-drunk. However, today has helped to demistify the world of the bryologist, just enough to give me some hope that I can modestly tackle these fascinating life forms.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Can I count it? Er, sometimes...

Sussex Emerald - fortunately seen away from pots and fridges

Recently, within the pan-species listing community, there has been some discussion as to the rules and regulations behind what is acceptable as a lifer. For example, is it enough to identify (and count) a leaf-mine (without seeing the life-form that actually created it?). Should you be allowed to 'have' a moth that someone shows you in a pot in a fridge? Can you count a bird that is only seen whilst being ringed? And does it all matter?

If you are part of a professional enterprise, if you are taking part in an competition or are a member of an organised society, then you are agreeing to abide by the rules and regulations of that body. When you play such 'sport' there are agreed rules to adhere to, to ensure that the playing field is a level one and that any result and resulting league table has credibility and meaning.

With pan-listing (at the moment), there does exist a list of rules but comes with an understanding that all those who are taking part in it are given leeway to amend these to their own way of thinking. Therefore, the pan-listing rules are there to act as a guidance and are not set in stone.

There are voices within this community that have no truck, for example, with potted moths. Where do I stand? A bit confused if truth be told. I have seen plenty of moths in pots (particularly at Dungeness) that I have not seen anywhere else. I don't intend to give these up soon - they include such beauties as Death's-head and Spurge Hawk-moths. But now we come onto semantics...

Scenario 1: you are out with a friend running your MV trap in a wood. You have a number of pots at the ready. It soon gets busy, so you are both keeping an eye on what's coming into the trap. As you are chasing down an interesting micro, your friend comes up to you with a pot (your pot!) and shows you a moth that he caught that was flying around the trap (your trap!) - it's a Triangle. You've never seen one before. Do you count it?

Scenario 2: same wood, same friend, except they've set up their own trap two hundred yards away. You keep an eye on your own traps. He wanders down to you after a while to show you a Triangle that he's potted up. Do you count it?

Scenario 3: after your trapping session you return home, where your partner (long gone to bed) has left you a note on the table. It reads:  'Interesting moth flew into kitchen. I've put it in one of your pots and it's in the fridge'. You check it - it's a Clifden Nonpareil! Your house, your pot - do you count it?

Scenario 4: a neighbour (who knows of your interest in moths) tells you that he found a big colourful moth and has put it in a box for you to look at. You go and have a look - it's a Clifden Nonpareil! You know what I'm going to say - do you count it?

Call me a naturalist lacking in moral fibre if you like, but I would count the moth in any of the examples above. But even here there are increments of unacceptability. I have been shown some stunning, live, rare and potted moths that I haven't 'ticked' and this is because they were not at their place of capture (ie a lovely Marsh Carpet, fresh from the fens but shown to me on Ashtead Common!) So am I talking about a minimum distance for a potted moth to be transported that will allow its acceptance onto my list? My mate's MV trap 200 yards away was fine, but what about 2,000 yards? Or two miles? Doesn't this just show up the absurdity of it all?

There are entomologists out there who only count moths that they have trapped themselves. They can even be leaning over a friends MV and see a 'lifer' settled on an egg box and they still won't count it! This is going too far the other way in my opinion.

What really matters in the long run is that any recording of a species is a valuable record, as long as that record is entered into a database and is correctly identified. Whether it came from a pot, a fridge, a bed-post or Auntie Flo's left leg is of no consequence.

Friday, 21 February 2014

White-spot Groundling

My plea for help in identifying a mystery micro-moth was accepted by Bill Dykes who named it as the Gelechid Neofriseria peliella, also known as White-spot Groundling. It is an extremely local species in the UK, the NBN Gateway suggesting that it is only to be found in the Dungeness and Rye Harbour area. It's food plant is Sheep's-sorrel. Dave Walker, warden of Dungeness Bird Observatory, tells me that it is extremely abundant there.

This all came about when I stumbled upon a folder from 2012 full of images from my stay at Dungeness in July of that year. These moths had puzzled me but remained unresolved - that is, until Mr Dykes lent me his expertise...

Thursday, 20 February 2014

What's this moth?

Last July, at Dungeness, I came across a number of micro-moths that were active in the catching-box of a heligoland trap. This was during daylight hours and the moths were flying up against the clear perspex cover of the catching box. Had they all just emerged and were trapped? There were maybe 15-20 of them, all very jumpy and all of the same species. I managed to get the photographs above. I have so far been unable to identify them. The nearest I can come to is a species of Swammerdamia,  Paraswammerdamia or a Batrachedra praeangusta  (the latter my favourite, but any pictures I've seen of this species do not exhibit such a large and prominent white spot on the forewing). Any ideas anyone?

Monday, 17 February 2014

Back garden safari

Lepthyphantes tenuis - unless you know otherwise

With a spare hour this afternoon I went out into the garden, beat a bit of Ivy and Euonymus with a stick, collected the beasties that fell onto a handily placed sheet on the ground and added three species to my pan-list* - Empoasca vitis ( a leafhopper), Clubonia corticalis (a spider) and Lepthyphantes tenuis (a spider). All appear to be common and have so far eluded my detection only because I've rarely looked at these groups before. I've often thought that if I borrowed Jonty Denton for a day he could most probably find me a couple of hundred new species in my back garden. Spurred on by this, I disturbed some leaf litter on the ground and found at least three different species of springtail, but could only feel confident in naming one of them, the hairy Orchesella villosa*

It's all out there, hidden from view, awaiting to be found and catalogued. I'm obviously not trying hard enough.

* If you detect any schoolboy errors on my part, please let me know.

Clubonia corticalis - I hope!

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The post in which I admit to quite like birding

I have been asked on more than one occasion why I bother with birding, as I obviously don't enjoy it. I can understand why some people may come to this conclusion - after all, I do moan a lot about 'birdy' things, be they twitching, the 'modern' ways or the pseudo-science of identification (there, I've just had a little dig, I just can't help it).

Well, I have news for you if you think that I am anti-birding and birder - I'm not! I love it and them!

Yes, I do find a lot of what goes on today as absurd, but then a lot of this is a generational thing. Identification is an evolving field in which you can either immerse yourself wholeheartedly, you can totally ignore or, like me, pick and choose what you try and take in. I can pick a Caspian Gull out of a gull flock, I'm not too bad on redpolls, but just don't try and get me engaged in a meaningful conversation about Thayer's Gulls. They are as familiar to me as fifth-century Mongolian pottery.

Not many people know that I was an 'A'-permit holder for bird ringing. I spent eight years studying birds in the hand, mostly passerines, but I also helped out with canon-netting waders and ringing gull and tern chicks at colonies. I was in charge of Dungeness Bird Observatory during the summer of 1979 while the warden, Nick Riddiford, was on a seabird sabbatical to the Salvage Islands. Therefore I've never lost the ability to find my way around the topography of a bird. I'm not phased by an alula or a humeral, I just find that some birders try and create an air of mystery around such things. I think this is one facet of birding that I find particularly annoying - that of a small number of participants trying to make birding into something that it isn't, building up walls of difficulty that don't exist and which can put those, who lack a bit of experience, off.

I am also more than aware that what I write on this blog can also be pompous. After all, it assumes that what I've got to share is something that somebody else might (a) read and (b) find worthwhile. However, in my defence I am aware of this and am also aware of my own absurdity. I can do self-deprecation with the best of them. I am part-buffoon and part-fraud. At least I know it.

My admiration goes out to those who work at their birding, be they patch-workers, twitchers or world listers. Most of them have level of field skills that I could never attain. But where I do feel nauseous is the backslapping and congratulations that are indulged in when somebody gets in a car and drives a few miles to see somebody else's bird. You might as well congratulate me for driving to visit an ageing aunt - it's no different apart from the fact that the bird I end up seeing is very old, slightly batty and less likely to look as good...

Saturday, 15 February 2014

In a classroom in Hythe...

St. Evans Infant School, Hythe
PC R. Dear is talking to a classroom full of six-year olds about road safety

Now, who can tell me what is happening in this photograph?

There are people standing watching a lorry sir

Well, almost, look again. They're not actually watching it, are they. They are all looking across the road in the same direction, paying no attention to it at all. And look at those two people standing on the right-hand side of the road. In fact, they are standing in the road. They are paying no attention to the lorry at all. Now, who can tell me what the lorry is doing?

It is swerving away from those two people.

That right! Well spotted. Because they are standing in a silly place they have forced the lorry driver to move out into the road to avoid hurting them. But can you see what is in the road walking towards the lorry?

A man and a dog.

Yes, a man and a dog. And why is the man and a dog having to walk in the road?

Because there's a gang of strange men with long things blocking the pavement.

Yes, there is. Is this a sensible thing to do?


No, it isn't. And we also saw women with children having to walk in the road as well. Not only is this dangerous for the women and their children, it is a selfish act on the part of the gang of men.

Why are the men there sir?

Believe it or not, they are trying to see a bird.

Is that why they are making things dangerous for people?

Yes they are.

But do they not know that they are doing dangerous things?

They are barely aware of anything else around them, I'm afraid to say.

Are these people twitchers?

Yes, that's a good observation to make. What's your name?


Well Paul, how did you hear about twitchers.

My Dad likes birds.

Is he a twitcher?

No, he keeps birds in cages. He isn't very happy though.

Why not?

Because all these winds keep blowing the cages down and his birds keep flying away.

Oh, I'm sorry to here that. What sort of birds does he keep?

Lot's of different herons...

(Photograph by Paul Trodd,

Friday, 14 February 2014

What is your pan-species list?

A few years ago I sat down and tried to work out how many species I had recorded in the UK - what I had seen comprised mostly of birds, plants, dragonflies, butterflies and moths. A trawl through my notebooks (plus a dredging of my memory) pieced together additional species, from such obvious groups as mammals, fish (from when I briefly went fishing) and large, showy and easy to identify insects (such as Stag-beetles). My total meant little other than I had a working list plus had kindled a curiosity to add to it - after all, when you start to look through any book on a group of species that you know little about, it is easy to fall under their spell.

It was some time later that I came across Mark Telfer and his collation of such lists from a handful of naturalists. I referred to my own list and was surprised to see that I had a competitive total. I sent him my list and saw it proudly enter the chart (it wasn't known as pan-listing then) at number seven. A dizzy height that I was soon to fall from with some rapidity.

This caught my imagination and I was soon out looking for things that I would have ignored in the past - fungi, beetles, mosses, wasps, flies - which greatly enhanced my experience, enjoyment and knowledge. It also made me realise that birdwatching is most probably the easiest group to master, as some of these 'new' orders either didn't possess a field guide or they could only be identified by the use of a degree in algebra, Latin and a microscope. But hey, if I stumbled across an area that I found too challenging (which were many) I just looked away. There was more than enough to do elsewhere.

Pan-listing, as it became known, now has a 'league table' of 50 naturalists - but it isn't really about 'how many' or 'where you sit in the table'. It is about a shared enthusiasm for the diverse natural world that we have in the UK; it is about enjoying field trips together, swapping sites and alerting your peers to events, courses and newly available resource. There is a thriving Facebook group and the exciting development of a soon to be launched website.

If you have ever thought about putting together your own pan-species list I would urge you to do it. You will find yourself entering into areas of study that you will never have contemplated. You will open yourself up to stunning species that you never knew existed. And maybe, most importantly, by recording these often neglected groups, you will add to our knowledge of their distribution.

By the way, do not think for a minute that the pan-listers are a bunch of know-it-alls who will magnify any lack of knowledge that you possess. They are almost to a person helpful, friendly and inclusive. And I am always an example of one who exhibits a woeful lack of ability in many areas of the UK fauna and flora - and they are kind to me!

Please click here for further information of what it is all about.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Will birding ever be 'cool'?

Birding - that is, birdwatching as an obsession - has always been slightly tainted. Birders are a fairly recent phenomena and with such a short history most probably have still to find steady ground on which to bed-down and mature into a coherent statement.

The first 'birders' (as currently understood), were most probably that swathe of young men (for they were mostly men) that appeared in the late 1950s and early 1960s, largely working-class and very different from the accepted face of ornithologists at the time. These lads were as close to a sub-culture (and as such 'cool') as birders have come. They were independent thinkers who blazed trails into field identification and birding beyond the confines of the UK and Europe. They attracted a small band of like-minded souls and, having been fortunate to meet many of them, I quickly realised that they also embraced other elements beyond birding which were an important part of who they were: the music, the recreational stimulants and the clothing and jewellery that came back with them from their exotic trips. But this was a time of conservatism in society - it was not until the end of the 1970s that to 'look different' was accepted as not meaning 'to be asking for a good kicking'. They were treated with suspicion and wariness.

About the time that I started to travel widely in the UK birding (mid 1970s) there had been an increase in the number of 'birders', swollen by young oiks like myself. We all thought that we were the dogs bollox, picturing ourselves to be free spirits and mercenary birders, but in truth we were a small band of misfits that largely didn't really fit in with most of our peers. To be a birdwatcher was still seen as the world of the vicar, the geek and the slightly strange. If you were a birder you were slightly odd. We were also referred to as 'twitchers' by all and sundry, whether we were or not. It was used as a term of derision.

Not a lot has changed since then, although the birding demographic has become steadily older. If we, as birders, were to employ an image consultant, they would despair with what they would find. Gaggles of middle-aged men wandering around dressed in dull clothing. Many with not an awful lot to say. Well, not much of relevance anyway.. (OK, I fall into that category on a regular basis). And when the media get hold of a story, it is normally negative or sensationalist.

In other areas of recreation, this rise of the 'grey generation' has lead to a big increase in interest from other sections of the public, building a base on which to ensure a thriving scene. Take cycling. Even before the likes of Bradley Wiggins started to win Tours, a boom in bike sales had come about, and in the so-called dying world of print publication there are many magazines with production qualities to die for. Go and pick up a copy of Pro-cycling or Rouler, and look at the stunning photography, the considered design, the lifestyle promises for those that fall under their spell. Then check out their websites. What has birding got that is remotely similar? Not a lot, I'd say. Certainly not up to this standard. I stood and watched the 'Tour of Britain' as the cyclists made their way through Epsom last autumn. The streets were packed, with all age groups and both sexes in equal numbers. You wouldn't get that demographic at any birding gathering.

Does it matter? Well, yes and no. We need a population that understands our wildlife and appreciates it, not only for the spiritual good that it does us but also for its ability to act as a barometer as to the well-being of our planet. In the future a critical mass of those who are 'pro-wildlife' will be needed to protect it and the habitats that are needed to support it. This cannot be done unless there is engagement with it. A million plus RSPB members hints at the true number of people who do value this. But to get to the 'adults of tomorrow' it needs a message of 'relevance' to be got across - a message of 'coolness' if you will. That's how it works in 2014. Birding is one way of getting the attention of those who are currently looking the other way. We won't get their attention by dressing up as Ray Mears and banging on about the minutiae of gull and redpoll identification. There is room for that of course, but there seems to be a suggestion that this is the stuff of a birding Nirvana. For every one birder that is turned on by this sort of stuff I will show you half-a-dozen who are switched off. Are we, as birder's, myopic? Are we walking along a narrow path that is ultimately leading to a self-indulgent end?

There may be signs of a younger element of birders appearing, but from my limited exposure to them they are largely university students who are studying environmental subjects (big sweeping statement I know, but largely true).

But until a group of birders can stand on the edge of a housing estate and, (a) not feel embarrassed, and  (b) not get funny looks, I'd say we've still got a way to go. Our public perception is still one of being odd.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

My 'mystery' folder

Being an incompetent pan-lister means that, on a more regular basis than I care to admit, I take photographs of living forms that I cannot identify in the field. These are mostly fungi, or beetles, or mosses, or flies, or lichens, or... you get the picture.

On my return home, I load these images onto the computer and place them in a desktop folder called 'Mystery'. And here they live until I get around to looking at them, by then armed with reference material. Once identified, (and if the photo is good enough), it will then be filed. But the mystery images in the 'mystery' folder are always being topped up - and it is never empty.

At the end of 2013 I decided to empty the 'mystery' folder. There were mosses and flies from 2010 that had taunted me for too long. I realise that even a cracking photo might not be enough for a positive identification anyhow. You cannot take a spore print from pixels. I surrendered. I deleted them. A great sense of calm came over me.

I currently have one image in this folder - a fungi that is most probably too far gone to identify anyway. But as spring stirs, so will thousands of species, including many that will have their picture taken, destined to fill, once more, the 'mystery' folder...

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Birding and musical genres

I was watching a BBC4 programme about the music of the 1970s and the discussion entered into a dissection of the differing musical genres from that decade. This got me thinking about which species of birds would be placed into these same categories, by dint of plumage or jizz - see what you think...

The Johnny Rottens and Sid Vicious' of the birding world are those species that punch above their weight and get on the nerves of the other species around them. My choice is the Water Rail, which will terrorise all else in a reed bed, is an obnoxious small bird that will attack larger species for the sheer hell of it and squeal away with the vocal sharpness of most punk singers. Plus, Water Rails possess attitude.

New Romantics
The genre full of 'dandy' highwaymen and coiffured barnets. Think Spandau Ballet prancing the stage in tights, Adam Ant deciding whether or not he was a pirate, and Simon LeBon miming from the deck of a yacht - but it could have been summer-plumaged grebes, displaying Ruffs and that show-off crest-lifter the Hoopoe. Come to think of it, was Boy George actually a Bee-eater?

My choices for bearded, ale supping look-a-likes (and that's just the women -  boom-boom) have to be species that are of Albion, redolent of fields, haystacks and John Barleycorn. Skylarks and Yellowhammers are obvious contenders, as are Grey Partridges (but not the 'johnny foreigner' Pheasant). Barn Owls would have had a shout at joining in with Fairport Convention, as too would the inhabitants of a rookery, backdrop to many a tale of wronged peasants and murderous landed gentry.

And when I say Jazz, I mean freeform... Long-tailed Tits nests, Redwing's sub-song, a screaming flock of swifts, displaying Lapwing - all loose but proficient, seemingly random but really precise. Nice...

Heavy Metal / Rock
From the preening lightweights of Jon Bon Jovi (a Jay) to the darker man-mountains of John Bonham (a Raven), this genre is populated by testosterone, hair and muscle. It is here that we will find most of the corvids (Marillion will be represented by a Magpie), skuas (especially Bonxies) and larger gulls. When casting Robert Plant, this part was given to an Arctic Skua; Black Sabbath were immature Herring Gulls and Jimmy Page flew above all in the guise of a Golden Eagle.

The froth that pleases the ear for a second but then induces bile after more than more than two plays - and in ornithological comparison, who doesn't get bored of watching an Avocet after a couple of minutes (no, hang on, think about it!), or a Black-winged Stilt for that matter. On first viewing they are pleasing to the eye, but in the longevity stakes not nearly memorable enough - a bit like most pop music to the ear.

Progressive Rock
Imagine Emerson, Lake and Palmer hanging upside down, suspended high above the auditorium; imagine Rick Wakeman dressed as an underwater Henry VIII playing a giant harpsichord; imagine a Roger Dean album cover.... now picture the cathedral-like setting of a poplar plantation with shafts of sunlight picking out fluting Golden Orioles.

"Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn", as sung, not only by Kraftwerk, but also by Savi's and Grasshopper Warblers.  Synthisized music belongs to the reedbed, all zips, bleeps and whirrs. A medley of calling crakes, Fan-tailed Warblers, booming Bitterns and pinging Bearded Tits - there, that's Kraftwerk's next album sorted!

You can probably tell from the twaddle above that I've not seen much recently. I've been out, but nothing to report in all honesty. As I'm unlikely to go up north for the Myrtle Warbler, you can expect more juvenile ramblings unless I get a 'rare' in the garden. But I wouldn't tell you about that if it happens - have you seen those 'birding types'?

Monday, 10 February 2014


One of the more preposterously named plants, but a welcome splash of exotica and colour this morning at Bourne Hall, Ewell. The flowers will space themselves out from this tight cluster over the coming weeks. A naturalised species that naturally occurs as close as south-east Europe.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Murdering the English Language

Now, I'm no professor of linguistics, and I understand that a language evolves, but is it just me that gets annoyed by the blatant raping of our Mother tongue?

Today's example came from BBC presenter Clare Balding, who suggested that the best way of staying in touch with all of the sporting events in 'The Winters' was by using the red button... THE WINTERS! By this she meant to say the Winter Olympics...

During the 2012 Summer Olympics (not the Summers) the media invented two new verbs - 'to medal' and 'to podium'. I was shaking my head then and still do so now. This is not so much language evolving as language being kicked in the head.

Even us birders are at it. My first item of evidence is the use of 'rares' to denote a species of rare bird. At least text speak has yet to enter general printed communication or the spoken word, ffs...


(I couldn't help but use Google (note - not googled) to look up 'soz', and the Urban Dictionary tells me the following:

Nonsensical internet slang term for "sorry", used by illiterate morons who for some reason substitute a “z” for “rry”, the latter of which would take an entire quarter of a second to type out.
"OMG, soz about that."

"Shut the f*ck up."

 I quite like that...)

Thursday, 6 February 2014

More from south Devon

DAY TWO was spent in the Slapton Ley area, the highlight being that of paying my respects to the screaming rarity, Strapwort. But I want to take you straight on to DAY THREE, which will remain as a special day in my life. There were no major plant highlights -the day was special because of the alignment of several factors - the weather, the scenery and my own feeling of an utter mental and physical well-being. I floated through the day, walked the best part of twenty miles on the glorious coastal path and felt at times as if I had stepped into a parallel universe.

I left Torcross in the early morning, heading south (and westwards). My first pleasant surprise was to be looking down at this:

Beesands. What a great place to have as a birding patch, a freshwater body that hugged the sea and was but a stones throw from a headland! Beyond it was the small village (with a pub!) and then further beyond that the ghost town of Hallsands, largely abandoned after a storm breached its sea defences in 1917 (the breeching brought on by dredging out in the bay).

The coastal path then wriggled its way down to Start Point, the lighthouse and outer buildings looking irrelevant on such a benign day as this. As I wandered down to the very point itself, the air was so calm that I could easily hear a conversation going on between two fishermen on a boat which must have been a good half a mile offshore.

The coast then turned westwards, with a fairly straight path all the way to my destination, Prawle Point. The day went from the sublime to the magical.

Mile after mile of spectacular scenery continued. Wide open sandy bays were deserted - I'm used to seeing such places packed with tourists. Seals were hauled up on the rocks, rather than people. And then there were the Cirl Buntings. Between Start and Prawle I recorded a minimum of nine birds, and in one hedgerow alone at Prawle there were three singing males plus an onlooking female.

I retraced my steps back to Torcross with what can only be described as a beatific grin on my face. This day had been truly memorable. Such days cannot be arranged, paid for or reserved. They come and find you. But you need to be out there in the first place...

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

An antidote to this miserable weather

We are currently going through an unsavoury period of weather - even those of us in the cosseted south-east are experiencing winds and rainfall more akin to an outlying Scottish isle.

As an antidote to all of this, and a promise of things to come, I thought I'd share with you a few days spent botanising in South Devon back in late June 2009. The weather was simply perfect - calmness, warmth and sunny skies - and the wildlife played ball so that my many plant targets were largely met. But what was most stunning, and memorable, about my few days was the scenery.

First stop was Berry Head (left). The cliff tops and faces were a veritable hanging gardens of vegetation, including some national rarities. Small Hare's-ear had eluded me in the past, but on this particular morning I found up to 20 small plants with ease. My self-congratulations were tempered when I found out that the Berry Head population of this tiny flowerer is estimated to be between five and six thousand! In the same general area my eyes feasted upon Honewort, White Rockrose and Lesser Meadow-rue. However, my search for Small Restharrow was drawing a blank. That is, until I met a most helpful warden, who not only told me where to go and seek it out, but took me to the very spot. Beyond the cliff edge was a riot of seabird activity, with the cliffs being home to Guillemots, Fulmars, Shags and Kittiwakes. It made for a most agreeable morning.

In the afternoon I visited Frorward Point (top picture). I'd not heard of the place before and was staggered by the beauty of the coastline here. My walk of several miles was not unduly bothered by plant highlights (I didn't see my target, Toadflax-leaved St.John's-wort), but the scenery more than compensated. Why do we travel to the corners of the earth in search of beauty when we have it all here? I could have been on a deserted Mediterranean isle, so blue was the sea, so clement the weather and without another soul in sight.

I thought that I'd seen the best that South Devon could possibly offer - but I was wrong...

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A soundtrack to your birding?

My birding history is totally wrapped up in other cultural reference points. It is impossible for me to consider my early Dungeness birding years without an accompanying soundtrack that summons up the good birding and the class social scene - The Doors, Neil Young and Kevin Ayres may have been briefly usurped by Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees, but even today, thirty odd years later a couple of bars of Hyacinth House or Cinnamon Girl hurl me back to those carefree days in an instant.

And it isn't just the good music that can do it. Iffy stuff works as well! When I hear Rasputin by Boney M I'm in a car on an overnight drive to Cornwall on a twitch; Buggles Video Killed the Radio Star sees me on the quay at St. Agnes waiting for a boat back to St. Mary's; Tightrope by ELO finds me at Pagham Harbour enjoying some of the most exciting birding that I ever experienced. The music is as much a part of the experience as the birds were. And sometimes the music overtook it - I chose to attend a Banshee's gig rather than twitch a Scarlet Tanager on Scilly (or was it a Northern Waterthrush? 1982 anyhow...)

When I wander the downs in search of plants I gain classical music as my backdrop - it's all Elgar's Enigma Variations and the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Yes, I'm guilty of stereotyping here.

It's music rather than other forms of media that do it for me - just as a sudden smell can transport you back to childhood before you've even registered it, music can do the same. And if you haven't got this gift (because I look upon it as a blessing to be given such emotions), then you are sadly missing out. Will the Next Generation Birder's look back on the Portland Brunnich's Guillemot with their very own soundtrack to elevate the event into a piece of personal history, something to be cherished in the years to come?

Not good enough yet

Bonfire Moss - thanks Andrew!

I seem to get to this same point at least twice a year - get all 'pan-species' keen but then get knocked-back and re-group my natural history interests. The culprit, again, is moss.

There is a rather fine field guide - Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland - published by the British Bryological Society. I've got a copy and quite often flick through it. I've even taken it out into the field with me, together with an eye-glass and plastic bags to gather mossy samples in. The book alerts you to one of the problems that any budding bryologist will face, that of enormous diversity and plenty of similar looking species. My efforts to identify what I find to species level has been, quite frankly, poor.

In some ways this doesn't seem to bother me with mosses. I quite often wander through damp woodland and marvel at the sheer profusion of them and can appreciate the differing shades of green and the varying forms. But as for 100% identification? No.

This pan-listing lark is really just that - a lark. Getting involved in its murky world has made me look at orders that ordinarily I wouldn't have got involved with, and that can only be a good thing. For example, for every 40 or 50 similar small black beetles there is a big, colourful whopper - and most of these I can put a name to.

My 'core' interests - birds, plants and moths - are time consuming enough without the loss of several days to trying to become a poor bryologist. And if I'm being honest my proficiency with my core interests is ebbing away whilst doing so. I've come to a decision...

Without jacking in the pan-species concept, I need to spend 90% of my natural history time birding, botanising and mothing, and get back to the levels of competence that I once had. If, in passing, an insect or fungus catches my attention, then I will attempt to record it and identify it. But to keep the pan-species flame flickering, I do intend to seek help in tackling the 'difficult' groups. I am planning on attending a bryophyte field trip on Epsom Common later in the month. Plus I have been in contact with the West Weald Fungus Recording Group and will join them on a field trip or two prior to hopefully becoming a member. Both of these will allow me to be shown - by experts - the best ways in which to gain proficiency in the respective orders. It is moss and fungi that taunt me more than other life forms. They promise a bountiful harvest (not literally in my case as I don't gather either) but identifying them with certainty is some way off.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Phytomyza hellebori

Never heard of it? No, neither had I. It's a fly that leaves tell-tale mines on Stinking Hellebore leaves. I only know this because pan-listing professional (yes, another one) Graeme Lyons blogged about it last week. I went looking and found these - they seem to match up with photos on the web. I have no idea how common this species is, but the first group of plants I looked at all had these mines. I have recently seen plenty of signs from another Phtyomyza fly, this time on Holly. Thanks Graeme!