Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Move

Last month, my friend Jack suggested that we go and see a Rolling Stones tribute band called 'Rollin' Stoned'. I went along not expecting too much and had a brilliant evening. So when he suggested that we go and see 'The Move' this evening, I readily agreed. After all, what's not to like about seeing people dressing up in kaftans, wigs and shades pretending to be Roy Wood? But on arrival at the venue I was genuinely surprised (and excited) to find out that this was no tribute act - it was the genuine article - still boasting two founder members - Bev Bevan and Trevor Burton. They were joined by a trio of additional Brummies - Phil Tree, Tony Kelsey and Abby Brant.

The audience was largely comprised of blokes over 50, (overweight, bald, bad dress sense), with the odd wife or girlfriend in tow, who were looking around them wondering if they had stumbled into a convention of blokes whose sole connection was being on the sex offenders register. In fact in reminded me of being on a twitch.

The band were fantastic. They not only pumped out their hits (Blackberry Way, California Man, I Can Hear The Grass Grow, Flowers In The Rain, Fire Brigade) but also some great covers. I listened and was transported back to those heady days of the mid-to-late sixties. And yes, I can remember the 1960s, and can do so because I took nothing stronger than rusks and Spangles. I entered that particular decade in nappies and left it playing with Action Men. "If you can remember the 60s you weren't there" is a much quoted quote. Well I can and I was most certainly there, if only because instead of sex and dope as reference points mine were Thunderbirds and Huckleberry Hound.

These old geezers up on the stage (apart from Abby, the young female keyboard player) have played musically and socially with some of the greats - Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Iggy Pop - and yet, after 40 plus years of plying their trade were still up for it, putting on a terrific performance full of skill and sheer joie de vivre. The venue? Hammersmith Apollo? The O2? No, it was the 'Boom Boom Club' in much maligned Sutton, Surrey. A great evenings entertainment.

I'm currently living the rock and roll lifestyle and am sitting at the computer with a large whisky and dry - and it's way past my bedtime. My ears are ringing. And I won't be able to hear a Goldcrest or a Treecreeper for several weeks to come... but I can definitely hear the grass grow.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

A new rant King in town...

And I thought that I could 'go off on one'...

If you haven't already read his posts about BBC's Springwatch, please visit Paul Trodd's Plovers blog (click here) to be thoroughly entertained and schooled in the ways of 'rant'. I couldn't do better myself! I hope he carries on with his analysis of the presenters presentation skills, the dumbing-down of natural history and the sheer joy that only middle-aged men in grumpy moods can give to others who are just like them. Just ignore the Blyth's Reed Warbler grip-off!

Wednesday, 28 May 2014


Fly Orchid at Yockletts Bank in Kent - one of the better ones


The number of Bee-eaters that Martin Casemore has missed at Dungeness this spring? How many managers Tottenham Hotspur have employed in the past 10 years? Or is it the number of plant species that I have taken photographs of in the UK?

Yes, proving that I've got more time on my hands than is healthy, I counted up the number of plant species that I've photographed across the UK. Most (but not all) are half-decent, some have come out rather well and a few of them are just record shots (have you tried taking a photograph in pouring rain and force 6 winds on top of a Scottish mountain?)

With thousands of images just resting on a hard-disk, waiting to be opened and looked at irregularly, I thought it would be worthwhile letting them out into the big wide world. So, if you (or somebody you know) wants to use any of them for personal means, to illustrate a talk or presentation, or just use as wallpaper for your computer monitor, then just ask. No fees, nothing. As for a list of what I've taken, I'm not going to type that out, but the images range from screaming rarities to 'habitat' shots. I'm mostly missing grasses, sedges and crucifers and there are plenty of common pavement weeds that I've yet to capture. 700 by years end? That would be a pointless aim and just the sort of thing that I like to chase.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Wot, no rant?

It's been some time since I've posted what could be described as an 'angry' post. There would always be something that had 'got my goat', annoyed me or something would happen that I would then consider to be preposterous. Try as hard as I can, there's nothing at the moment that is bothering me. And this is after two weeks being spent in the company of that most weird branch of humanity, the birder... I know, I am one of them too.

Is this a sign of contentment? Mellowing with age? Running out of ideas? Maybe. But there is one area that has helped me to find a sense of calm and that is reorganising my Twitter account.

Some time ago I was following 200-300 people, mainly birders from southern England. I did this to get a good feed of breaking bird news. Maybe 50% of the tweets I received were relevant to that aim, with another 20% being re-tweets of what I had already read and the remaining 30% a combination of drivel, inane humour and bollocks. A lot of this would be down to conversations between two people that should have been 'direct messaged', texted or, God forbid, spoken. Stuff like:

"Saw Dave today, really upset and missing the Monty's"

"He wouldn't have known what it was anyway"

"Lol. Just had a bacon sandwich."

"I haven't eaten anything today but a Mars Bar!"

"Lard arse!"

Etc, etc, etc

So, rather than unfollow 80% of those who I followed (I didn't want to upset some people - they can be sensitive you know), I closed my account and started all over again. Anonymously. I now follow but 30 accounts and have mostly eradicated the dross.


Thursday, 22 May 2014

Miscellany from the shingle

Rare moths
With a few scarce migrants being trapped just to the north-east of the peninsula, the MV traps sited at Dungeness might have been expected to also come up with the goods. They largely didn't, except for Barry Banson's which produced a single Striped Hawk-moth and this Dusky Hook-tip - his third - greedy beggar!

Stinking Hawk's-beard
This hairy pendulous bud might look fairly unimportant, but it belongs to one of the rarest plants in the UK - Stinking Hawk's-beard. At its only wild locality I was lucky enough to be invited along to see it by the owners of the land on which this plant has made home. Their anonymity is preserved to ensure that they do not have a constant flow of botanical twitchers to their door. I spent a lovely half hour in their company being told a bit about the steps that are taken to ensure that the species has a sympathetic habitat in which to survive.

Ring rusty
I called the gull above as an Iceland before being corrected by 'Mr. Gull' himself, Dave Walker, as just a Herring. This typified the past few days in which I've felt that my birding has been distinctly 'off the mark'. I've just not done enough of it, or been studious enough about the subject matter over the last few years. I need to (no, want to) up my game to at least get back to the fairly competent level that I once possessed.

Storm coming
Because of the marvellous open vista and big skies at Dungeness, you can see the weather coming from literally miles away. I avoided getting a right soaking this afternoon after this nasty rain storm tried to sneak up  on me, but I saw it coming. Hence I'm typing this post rather than being out birding. But now it has passed, and my optics are urging me to take them back outside. After all, I need the practice...

Monday, 19 May 2014

Quality not quantity

Today illustrated a couple of things - how chance plays a large part in what you see, and also how a late spring day can provide but a handful of migrants whose rarity composition can be disproportionately high.

I was sea-watching by 05.30hrs, due to the knowledge that several Pomarine Skuas had been seen west of Dungeness yesterday. It was really no surprise when a single flew east at 05.35hrs - a good start. I recorded a further 11 birds (1, 3, 3 and 4), the last flock including a dark-phase bird. Most were close and oozed class and menace, the only way that this species can. As back up there were 4 Arctic Skuas. By 08.30hrs all had slowed, so I left my fellow sea-watchers and headed to the observatory for a spot of breakfast. Now 'luck' or 'chance' played its hand...

I was ready to check out the pits at Scotney when Dave Walker showed me a micro moth which he wanted to see if my identification matched his own. This was a hand lens and book job, so I settled down to use up all of my amateur knowledge. It was then that a shout went up that a largish raptor was moving down the coast. The moth was forgotten as several telescopes were trained on what turned out to be a ring-tail Montagu's Harrier. It was hassled by a corvid or two and then decided to turn around, gain height and head back north.

It could have been but twenty minutes later, with all of us still basking in the happiness of the harrier sighting, that a European Bee-eater decided to fly through the same field of view from the south, alighting on a bush and giving brief and distant views. It was quickly lost to view and all that was seen (or more accurately heard) of the bird was it's distinctive calling 15 minutes later.

Without that moth I would have been on my way to Scotney, dipping on two very good birds indeed.

It is worth recording the newly arrived migrant totals for today: 1 Garden Warbler, 1 Willow Warbler, 1 Montagu's Harrier, 1 European Bee-eater and 1 Little Egret! Typical of the late spring.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Sand Catchfly bonanza

After an evening of football, Neil Young, beer, music, olives, garlic, chilli and pasta (thanks Mark!) this morning needed to be on the tranquil side. A botanical foray was called for and I was joined by Nick and Russell Gardner on a whistle-stop tour of the floral wonders of the peninsula.

The observatory area yielded plenty of Yellow Vetch, Subterranean Clover and Nottingham Catchfly, whilst further out on the shingle there was plenty of Bur Chervil and Small-flowered Buttercup. A small amount of Sea Pea was in flower close to the new lighthouse.

Littlestone was checked for several specialities, although it is stil early for some of them, hence only a few leaves of Sea Holly and no Sea Rocket (although we shunned the best area for this as it was knee-deep in grockles on the beach). Best of all was a fine show of at least 300 plants of Sand Catchfly (above), the raking of the site to encourage seed germination by Owen and his team paying dividends.

Hare's-tail Grass was putting on a fine show in the dunes. This area will be at its best botanically in a months time, but do it early or on a day not as warm and sunny as today - it really was crawling with holidaymakers.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

In the 'now'

My Dungeness stay has settled down into a most agreeable form of 'plodding' (sorry Martin!). After a couple of days of tearing around seeing all that was on offer, I'm now content to amble about and accept what comes my way. No pressure, no expectations, just contentment. It's a good place to be.

This time of year, the 'fag-end' of Spring, is a strange time. Most of the migrants have been through, although there are still enough to come to warrant being at the ready. Late falls are not unknown. And at this time of year there can be an arrival of just three migrants, with two of them being rarities. This morning is a case in point, with the only 'migrant' activity being 4 Lapwings out to sea and a Bee-eater! I only saw the Lapwings with Dave Walker the only person to connect with the Bee-eater. But in my place of calm, that's all good...

Yesterday found me in northern France with a bunch of Dungeness-based birding pals. It is sobering to see so much brilliant habitat and so many birds, especially species that are but rarities over here. So near, but at the same time so far.

I'll stop now, I have plants to look at, inverts to confuse me and - you never know - a good bird might just pop up and surprise.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Look who came back to say "Hello"

If you want to see some proper images, rather than this digiscoped dross, please visit Ploddingbirder, who is most probably, as we speak, uploading some on to his blog.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Spot Flys before the storm

If you live just north or west of Dungeness then you have my commiserations, as I watched several inches of rain fall on you this afternoon (above) from the comparative safety of the peninsula. That's not to say that we didn't get wet, because we did. The photograph above shows off the red-coloured Sheep's Sorrel a treat.

I spent a fair amount of time scanning eastwards from the 'Harry Cawkell Memorial Bench', something that relaxes me greatly. A steady trickle of hirundines moved through this morning, along with a Hobby, and there was a modest arrival of Spotted Flycatchers (10+). With plenty of rarities turning up around the country, we haven't given up hope of getting our reward down here.

This is a tester for anyone brave enough (or foolish enough) to have a go. What is it? The winner will receive a year's free subscription to North Downs and beyond. Second place will get two year's free... the old ones are he best ones..

In other news: I have spent too much time crushing the leaves of Fennel and getting hits from the aniseed vapour - marvellous!

Monday, 12 May 2014

Stilt does a runner

A day of glaring sunlight, buffeting WSW wind and a most uncooperative Black-winged Stilt that didn't have the decency to hang around and say hello. All was not lost however as the RSPB reserve always has something to offer, whether that be Marsh Harriers, Bearded Tits, Little Egrets, Hobby, Peregrine, Greenshank and LRP. Not bad for a day that the locals were calling "tedious".

Back at the bird observatory the highlights were botanical, with a couple of good patches of Small-flowered Buttercup (above), Bur Chervil and the start of one of my favourite plants - Nottingham Catchfly.

Couldn't help but getting all 'Simon King' and digiscoping this Great Crested Grebe chick getting a free ride on Ma (or Pa's) back. All together now - Ahhhhhhh!

In other news: my eyesight is definitely on the slide. The need for reading glasses in low light is now official. And for small print. And looking at insects. My hearing ain't what it used to be either. Let's just add it to the 'bloody annoying' list that includes excessive nasal hair and sagging bum. Life begins at 55...

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Dungeness and beyond

My wife: "Isn't it about time you went down to Dungeness?"

Me: "Oh, alright, shall I go for a day or two?"

My wife: "How about a week?"

Me: "That'll be good - if you don't mind me being away for that long"

My wife: "On second thoughts,how about a fortnight..."

So here I am, freshly arrived at a very windy Dungeness Bird Observatory, full of childish excitement at the prospect of a week's (or fortnight's) birding. And DBO has now got WiFi, so I can blog as well!!

Saturday, 10 May 2014


Is there any flower that is more representative and evocative of the month of May than Hawthorn? I don't think so - its frothing, foamy flowers positively light up the month. That's enough 'psued's corner' from me...

Friday, 9 May 2014

Dense-flowered Fumitory for a dense-brained botanist?

A late afternoon wander over to the 'new' Surrey Wildlife Trust reserve at Priest Hill, Ewell. I haven't been too kind about this reserve in the past, suggesting that it is the UK's first such site dedicated to the preservation and propagation of fencing. However, my two visits this week have yielded some good local birds and, today, a plant tick! Well, I think it is what I think it is.... Dense-flowered Fumitory. The flowers were only 6-7mm long and black-tipped, the leaves were narrow and channeled. To my admittedly un-scholared eye, they look good to me.

The plants were all found on an area of scraped chalk, where some old tennis courts and changing rooms used to stand. This land used to be part of an enormous municipal school playing field complex, used by various schools of North Surrey and South London. Some time in the 1960s most of it was abandoned, and since then has been the domain of dog-walkers, dirt-bike enthusiasts, teenage smokers and, now and again, a dumping ground for fly tippers.

This is one of the areas of scraped chalk. it will be interesting to see what else colonises this 'new' habitat. While I was taking this picture I was being serenaded to by a Lesser Whitethroat.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

We are of our time

Dungeness Bird Observatory

The subject for this post is one that has bothered me for some time. When I say 'bothered' I don't mean that it is a subject that has disturbed me, rather one that has used up far more time in thought than is probably healthy. I even find a description of what it is all about difficult to settle on and describe. Simply put it is my relationship with Dungeness.

I have a deep-seated affection for Dungeness. I have visited far more picturesque places, but it is a site that I adopted early on as a regular haunt. It was where I cut my birding teeth, where I met inspirational people and experienced moments of ornithological elation. I also forged friendships that still exist 30-40 years later. And, as a keen-as-mustard and impressionable teenage birder, there was nowhere that I would rather have been on Earth.

As a youngster finding my way, to have encouragement from older and vastly more experienced and knowledgable individuals was a massive confidence booster. It fuelled me with a sense of belonging, of being valued and of being worthy. As an average school student who lacked a certain amount of confidence in the outside world, such attention was eagerly accepted by me. Dungeness gave me many things - the birding experience, camaraderie, a place of refuge from 'normal life', a chance to express myself and somewhere that I belonged. It was special. It was mine.

Mine. A possessive idea, that a place becomes so much a part of 'you' that you yourself become a part of 'it'. I used to bristle with pride when other birders knowingly referred to me as one of the 'Dungeness' boys.... it's that thing about belonging I suppose.

But after a while - after quite a few years - I drifted away from Dungeness. I grew up. Became independent. Birding took a back seat. But Dungeness was still a part of me, was still a special place, still had a hold. I still wanted to - no, needed to - be identified with it. After all, we were a part of each other, weren't we? Even if I might not regularly visit, there was that bond that held us together, at least in my mind. I might not be there, but in some ways I still was in my mind, maybe even spiritually.

For a while, things got a little dark... If I heard about a good bird, a great fall or a superb sea watch, it hurt. Even though I hadn't made the effort to go there myself, it was as if Dungeness was punishing me for not being there, mocking me for my infidelity. On the rare occasions when I did visit, nothing happened bird wise. But what was worse - much worse - was that there were all of these new birders who were calling Dungeness their special patch! Hold on, it was mine! These people didn't even recognise me as being a part of the scene, therefore I was not a part of the place. It was as if I had been airbrushed out of history, removed from the historical record. I can look back now a see how ludicrous my thinking was, but at the time it sent me into a tailspin.

"We are of our time". A friend said this to me one day, nothing to do with birding. It got me thinking (not always a good thing). I could see what he was getting at. He was alluding to our place in life and the timing of that life. "I saw a three-minute film clip of newsworthy moments," he carried on, "and realised that I remembered them all, from the assassination of JFK to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was like watching a resume of my time on Earth. I looked over at my son who was also watching it, and was aware that he wouldn't have identified with a single item. It wasn't of his time at all".

We are of our time.... Dungeness.... I started to make sense of this 'belonging' thing.

A couple of years ago, when I was staying at Dungeness Bird Observatory, I met an elderly man who's name I cannot now recall. In conversation with him, it transpired that he had acted as an assistant warden there one summer in the late 1950s. He positively glowed about that time and it was obvious that Dungeness was a special place to him. He felt as if he belonged. And he did - it was just that 'our' special times didn't overlap. We could both wander the shingle, blissfully unaware of each other, (or of each others thoughts about the place), and neither was less worthy or less belonging than the other. We were of our time. And there are others wandering Dungeness with such thoughts as these, all with their reference points seated in the 1960s, the 1990s or in 2014. All belonging, all worthy, all of their time.

For too long my perception of 'belonging' was tied up with the need of acceptance from the (whoever were the then) current Dungeness birding community - be they the residents, the big Kent hitters or those employed to warden and manage the wildlife of the peninsula. Sure, it's still good to get the thumbs-up from some of them some of the time. But my Dungeness - my special Dungeness - exists between 1976 - 1979. It is when my love affair with the place was forged. And today's Dungeness is a very different place, one which I most probably appreciate even more than I did back then. That time is never coming back, but it doesn't need to. It was of its time. It served its purpose. It lives in my mind and will always be cherished.

If you've read this far, thank you for persevering. This blog is cheaper than paying for therapy...

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Scottish independence will wreck your list

In a move that will provoke much discussion and soul-searching among birders, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) have announced that, if the referendum to leave the UK is successful later in the year, then all Scottish birds will be removed from the BOU list.

In a rousing speech given in Fort William, SNP leader Alex Salmond said, "English twitchers have for too long been crossing the border into Scotland and plundering the birding finds of Scottish birdwatchers!" He was quick to point out that the best birding in Britain was "Scottish" and that "species like the Ptarmigan, Crested Tit and Capercaillie have no place on an English list".

In scenes bordering on high farce today, a small group of UK500+ listers were sailing to Fair Isle in a dinghy in an attempt to annexe it and keep that island "British" - whether or not Scottish independence is gained. "I've spent thousands of pounds - English pounds - going to Fair Isle down the years. I cannot see all of that cost and effort go up in a tartan puff of smoke! The Citril Finch twitch alone cost me £800 and a divorce! I cannot let in happen," said one well-known twitching face.

A few English and Welsh birders, happy with the thought that at least the rarities that they have seen on the Isles of Scilly were safe, had to quickly come to terms with a renewed effort on the part of Mebyon Kernow, a Cornish Independence party, to divorce that county from England. Jonathon Penhalligon, MK spokesman on rural affairs said "We've had enough of these birding emmets coming down to Kernow, burning up the valleys and clogging up the lanes of St. Mary's, St. Agnes and Tresco with tripods and scopes. They can bugger off and find their own birding hotspots in Devon..."

And not to be outdone, members of Sons of Glendower are using this period of political instability to increase pressure on the Welsh parliament to leave the UK and so remove all those goodies seen on Bardsey, Ramsey and Anglesey out of bounds to the 'filthy mitts of English twitchers". "They can go whistle for Black Lark and Catbird as far as I'm concerned" one hooded cottage-burner said.

The main political parties were quick to respond. All suggested that a "Britain without Scottish Crossbills would be a Britain without a truly endemic species", although Vince Cable was reported to doubt the validity of that bird as a 'proper' species. David Cameron pointed out that since the coalition came to power "we have seen a five-fold increase in incoming species such as Great White Egrets and Glossy Ibis". Labour's Ed Miliband responded with damning figures that showed "that under a Tory government Turtle Doves had decreased by 95%". Nigel Farage of UKIP was quoted as saying that "there would be nest sites made available for English House Sparrows but none for foreign birds like French Partridges, Spanish Sparrows and Syrian Woodpeckers".

However, some organisations, such as the Bird Observatories at Spurn, Flamborough and Filey are positively welcoming Scottish independence and the removal of Scottish birds from the 'British' list. "We've been stockpiling 'Northern' rarities for a few years now" said Seth Wainwright, a top Yorkshire birder. "Pechora Pipit, PG Tips, Yellow-breasted Bunting, they're all on our lists. We reckon on a lucrative influx of southern birders to God's Country in an attempt to stand a chance of gripping the Scottish rarities back. Mind you, Yorkshire might be pushing for independence by 2020, so thee can all fook off down to Norfolk when tha' 'appens..."

Green-winged Orchid

Following a tip-off from a local botanist, I went to seek out a rare plant in Surrey - Green-winged Orchid. I found a very healthy plant on a well-botanised piece of calcareous grassland, where this species has not, as far as I am aware, been recorded before. This begs the question as to whether or not the orchid is only here because of deliberate planting. Regardless of its provenance, it was a cracker!

I also spent some time at the 'new' Surrey Wildlife Trust reserve at Priest Hill, where I was amply rewarded with single Peregrine, Hobby, 2 Common Buzzard, 5 Common Swift, 3 Skylark, 2 Northern Wheatear, 10+ Whitethroat, 2 Blackcap, 1 Willow Warbler and 1 Chiffchaff. Only a ten minute stroll from my front door, this reserve might be worth a few visits this year.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Local mooching

An eight-hour stint in the Canons Farm - Banstead Woods - Chipstead Bottom area. The NE wind was chilly, the light constantly dull and the drizzle kept off until late afternoon. This did nothing for bird song or migrants, so it was just as well that my main aim today was to look for plants.

There was an awful lot in flower, with some species, (Bluebell, Ground-ivy, Crosswort and Germander Speedwell) carpeting the ground in some places. I was pleased to come across a single Solomon's Seal and the Fames Rough Fly Orchids were already in flower.

It wasn't a day for inverts, but I did come across the uncommon (but expanding) Bryony Ladybird.

Bryony Ladybird - if a duffer like me can stumble across this species twice locally then they must be increasing

Ground Ivy - carpeting the ground in many places

Dryad's Saddle - if only all fungi was this big and obvious